Locking horns with Komodo dragons

Locking horns with Komodo dragons

Komodo National Park, located in the centre of the Indonesian archipelago, is home to the world's largest lizards. Nilanjana Gupta travels to the UNESCO world heritage site to explore the hidden world of these venomous creatures


Nilanjana Gupta

Published: Thu 17 Nov 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Sat 26 Nov 2016, 4:54 PM

Who says dragons belong in a bygone era? Just try walking into a forest inhabited by the world's largest living lizard, the Komodo dragon - aka Indonesia's best-conserved large animal - and you'll be proven wrong.
I travelled thousands of miles to Komodo National Park, located just a few hours southwest of the fishing town of Labuan Bajo, in the Nusa Tenggara region of east Indonesia. The town is used as a springboard for boat trips to the park, which is spread across the three major islands of Komodo, Rinca and Padar, as well as several other minor islands, covering a total area of 219,322 hectares.
Hemmed in by sturdy trees, it's refreshing to see that the park - home to about 3,000 endangered giant lizards - does its modest best to conserve a beautifully wild and untouched tropical jungle.
"The animals are born and exist within a natural ecosystem here - not one of them has been brought in from outside," said Martin, my tour guide, as we set sail towards Rinca island, which is an hour by boat from Labuan Bajo. "Even when a lizard is dying, we don't provide any medical help. We let them die in the lap of nature, and allow their carcasses to become a natural meal for other wildlife."
The highly aggressive lizards that grow to an average length of 2-3 metres are able to launch attacks at lightning speed, their saliva containing bacteria so toxic, it could kill a human within three hours in the absence of medical intervention. "Their jaws can crunch buffalo bones, hide and hooves," said Martin. "The only remains from the ghastly assault are stains of blood on the ground."
That's presumably what happened to 74-year-old Swiss tourist Baron Rudolf von Reding Biberegg, who went hiking on the steep mountains in 1974 and is believed to be the first European victim of the dragons. His body was never found. The voracious lizards are blamed for many such human deaths and disappearances.

A walk in the wild
We anchored our boat at Rinca island as the haunting call of gibbons drifted through the canopy. I asked about jungle trekking activities, to which Martin responded, "There is just one moderately cleared track for visitors to get to a viewpoint overlooking the bay." As the trail climbed through uneven terrains, we spotted a giant Komodo dragon taking an afternoon nap under a shady tree. Martin warned me to maintain a distance of at least three metres from the lizard. He brandished a long stick with two pointed edges, as I clicked photographs of the sleeping predator.
"In case the lizard wakes up and leaps forward, the edges of the stick will be pointed at his sensitive nose, giving us enough time to run away. If the predator is hungrier than we think, he might even break the stick. In such a situation, the only way to save oneself is by climbing a nearby tree," my guide explained, quite nonchalantly.
A few hundred steps ahead, we saw several lizards together. Martin threw a piece of meat into the air, and we watched as the animals rushed towards it from all directions, stripping off the last scrap of flesh with sharp claws and pointed teeth.
Other notable terrestrial fauna on the island are the orange-footed scrub fowl, an endemic rat and the Timor deer. We also saw troops of beautiful, agile monkeys leaping through the trees.
While the nearby island of Komodo is more famous, Rinca offers better trekking opportunities. As we set sail for Komodo, the crew unpacked food and drinks for all. Over an excellent three-course meal on the boat, with authentic melt-in-the-mouth Indonesian Nasi Goreng, Martin tells me, "There's not much of a difference in the  giant lizards found on Rinca and Komodo. However, the lizards in Komodo are much bigger compared to the ones in Rinca."

What lies beneath
If you enjoy snorkelling and diving, you'll be glad to know that the park is home to more than 1,000 species of fish, some 260 species of reef-building coral and 70 species of sponges.
We sailed to the Pink Beach (named after its pale pink sand) with our snorkelling equipment, to explore the diverse aquatic life that is almost as much of a tourist attraction here as the giant lizards. Jumping from our boat, we wove through coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds and semi-enclosed bays.
I threw out pieces of bread and was spellbound as dozens of beautiful fish swam towards me. With a GoPro camera, Martin took photographs of me underwater trying to touch the aquatic animals, including a giant sea turtle. I was told that dugong, sharks, manta rays, and at least 14 species of whales and dolphins add to this rich marine ecosystem.
That was my first snorkelling experience and it has held a strange fascination ever since. The Komodo National Park has dragons, world-class diving and Savannah-like landscapes. Not only is it budget-friendly, it also holds great appeal for backpackers on the hunt for the next undiscovered destination. What's not to love?
As the sun began to set, we packed our belongings and headed back to the port at Labuan Bajo. Drifting closer to the shores, the sound of evening prayers kept getting louder, as I watched the rays of the broken sun in the water, beaming away in the distant horizon.

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