VIEW THIS PAGE On a dusty track on the Indonesian island of Rinca, a local guide tells a group of tourists about the life cycle of the Komodo dragon, the island’s famous lizard, which can kill a water buffalo with a single bacteria-laced bite.
Halfway through his explanation, the guide stops abruptly, staring at the ground just past his ring of listeners. He raises his forked staff and signals to the visitors to move toward him. Behind the group, motionless and camouflaged against sprawling tree roots, an adult dragon lies within striking range of several of the tourists, including me.
When they’re not dismembering a buffalo, lumbering along a path or lying in the sun digesting, Komodo dragons, which can grow to more than 3m long and weigh 90kg, can be next to invisible in the dusty wooded scrub of Rinca and neighboring Komodo Island.
The camouflage allows them to catch prey as fast as a deer, with one sudden lunge and a poisonous bite. Once the lethal cocktail of infectious saliva enters the victim’s blood, it is only a matter of time before the victim dies. The dragon is prepared to wait days for its dinner.
I had been to Komodo Island the day before with a group from the Silolona, a chartered yacht based on a traditional Phinisi trading vessel built by American Patti Seery. We had landed in the late afternoon so Seery could do the paperwork for sailing in the park area, which includes Komodo, Rinca and a few other smaller islands together with their surrounding marine environment.
Finding the world’s largest lizard isn’t hard. They simply hang out, occasionally under the stilted houses of Komodo village, the largest settlement in the park. The dragons are attracted by the smell of cooking and perhaps the chance to grab an unattended goat or chicken, park guides said.
Even lumbering lazily around the houses, Komodo dragons are an imposing sight. They have long, hooked claws and sharp teeth and can run at up to 18km per hour.
In 2007, the death of nine-year-old Mansur (many Indonesians only go by one name) sparked controversy over the management of the park. The boy had gone into a field near the village of Komodo to answer the call of nature when he was attacked by a dragon that bit his stomach and crushed his skull on a rock, according to park rangers. Villagers drove the reptile away, but the boy died.
Some locals blamed the park conservation rules that include a ban on keeping dogs, which used to deter dragons from entering the village. A natural fence of kedondo trees has been planted to prevent lizards from entering the village, according to Marcus Matthews-Sawyer, senior adviser for tourism, marketing and communications at PT. Putri Naga Komodo — a joint venture between the national park and Virginia-based conservation organization, The Nature Conservancy — which manages tourism in the reserve.
The relationship between conservationists and villagers is likely to be further strained as the human population grows, taxing the island’s resources. Komodo village has more than doubled in size in the past 13 years, partly because local residents have access to the park’s rich fishing grounds.
Still, Mansur was only the second recorded death from a dragon attack since the park opened in 1980, said Matthews-Sawyer.
A plain white cross commemorates Komodo’s most famous victim, 74-year-old Rudolf von Reding. The story goes that the Swiss baron sat down to rest in 1974, urging fellow tourists to continue without him. When they returned, the only traces left were his spectacles and camera, or, in more dramatic versions of the tale, a shoe and a blood-spattered rock.