©iStock/ANDREYGUDKOV
©iStock/ANDREYGUDKOV
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Close encounters with dragons in Komodo National Park

4 minutes to read

We have been born too late to encounter dinosaurs, and fortunately so. Otherwise, we would, in all likelihood, have never been born at all, with our ancestors all eaten up. But, another kind of giant reptile can still be observed up and close, although only on two tiny islands in Indonesia: Komodo and Rinca. These colossal lizards are much less dangerous, and while they could probably kill you in a minute, you would have to try really hard to make them do so. The opposite is much more likely since humans proved to be the most violent animal species on the planet, although the two islands have been declared a national park and are well protected. Both of them, particularly Komodo, have by now evolved into a world-famous tourist destination. Still, the remote location keeps the flow of visitors from turning into a full-scale invasion. Currently, Komodo dragons are listed as vulnerable, but not endangered species.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Life of a dragon

Komodo dragons are believed to be one of the last relics of the ancient megafauna, most of which have been hunted to extinction by early humans. Lack of natural predators and, again, humans on the islands of Komodo and Rinca has allowed them to survive until present days. Their kin on the neighbouring Flores and other large landmasses, including Australia, were not so lucky. The giant lizards are avid hunters, mostly attacking their prey from an ambush, lashing with their powerful tail to injure and immobilize the target, then going in for a bite. Wounds caused by a dragon's bite tend to fester over time and not heal properly. This may be caused by the rot bacteria and corpse toxins present in the reptile's saliva - the dragons include a lot of carrion in their diet, and are not known to brush their teeth regularly. Another, newer and rather more interesting theory, claims that glands in the dragon's lower jaw secrete a mild venom - this would make them one of the very few venomous lizards in the world. Dragons mate annually, presumably forming monogamous pairs. Females appear to be capable of parthenogenesis, and all hatchlings produced this way will be male - the evolutionary value of such adaptation is self-evident.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

What to do in Komodo and Rinca

Aside from watching the dragons, Komodo National Park offers a number of other interesting activities. The sea is calm and full of marine life, as it is typical for East Indonesia, making this a prime destination for diving.  The islands shelter other rare fauna: megapodes (flightless birds), Timor deer, wild buffaloes, and more. Nature itself, untouched jungles and undulating savanna plains, warrant a pleasant walk. One sight that is no longer available is dragon baiting – there used to be a possibility for tourists to buy a goat from the local villagers, which would then be fed to the reptiles. The dragon would break the animal’s legs with a strike of its tail, kill it, and swallow it whole, just like snakes do. This practice has been outlawed, ostensibly, for cruelty to the goats. Rumors claim one can now buy souvenirs on Rinca, next to the boat pier – if you can think of anything to do with a wooden model of a Komodo dragon, you can buy one. At night, local fishermen circle the standard camping spots selling fresh catch – light a campfire and have a fish barbeque.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Practicalities

To get to Komodo, you will first have to arrive in Labuanbajo town on Flores Island. There are regular flights to Labuanbajo from Bali, as well as bus-and-ferry connections. Once there, charter a boat from the port. This is a very economical option if you have a group of people to share the cost, otherwise sign up on an organized trip offered by just about every business in Labuanbajo. A cheaper alternative would be to take a local boat departing early in the morning from the fish market and arriving 4-5 hours in the only settlement on Komodo, a tiny Bugis village. Finally, liveaboard cruises from Bali or Lombok are very common and easy to book, albeit expensive. Either way, you will have to pay the entrance fee, rather steep for foreign travelers: 275.000 IDR, ~20$. A compulsory guide will charge another 80.000 IDR per group. Camping is not permitted on Komodo and Rinca – if you arrive in a local boat, arrange a homestay in the village. Otherwise, your captain will ferry you to one of the neighboring islands. Encountering the dragons is not really a matter of chance – a few of them can usually be seen basking in the sun or scavenging in garbage piles right next to the national park headquarters. They seem lazy and slow, but do not be deceived – if you get too close and trigger the fight-or-flight reflex, these modern-days dinosaurs can move almost as fast as a Hollywood velociraptor. A few tourists have been attacked and badly wounded.

Komodo National Park, East Nusa Tenggara
Komodo National Park, East Nusa Tenggara
Komodo National Park Office, Jl. Soekarno Hatta, Labuan Ajo, Pulau Komodo, Komodo, Kabupaten Manggarai Barat, Nusa Tenggara Tim. 86554, Indonesia

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The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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