Dragons don’t exist just on Game of Thrones

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When you mention Komodo, the first thing people think of is probably the massive reptilian beasts that rule the island. The very name “Komodo dragons” strikes a sense of wonder and fascination. Mythical dragons of folklore have captivated people for centuries. Their eponymous relatives still roam the earth - and one can say that they are no less impressive. Though they don’t fly or breathe fire, they are the largest lizards on Earth; measuring up to 3 meters and weighing over 90 kilograms. Their massive tails and thick scaly skin replicate something out of a fantasy story.

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But where did the Komodo dragons come from?

No, they didn’t manifest themselves from a Tolkien novel.

The Komodo dragons are currently only found within Komodo National Park, on the islands of Komodo, Rinca, and Gili Montang, as well as small parts of Flores. It is estimated that there is a total population of only 3,000, making them rare and exotic creatures.

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However, their populations and habitat have not always been so sparse. Recently, scientists have unearthed fossils with bones identical to the Komodo dragons over 3 million years old in Australia. This means that their evolution may not have occurred from isolation and island gigantism as previously assumed.

The remaining Komodo dragons may be the last remnants of a race that once spread all through Indonesia and Australia. They would have walked amongst the now extinct pygmy elephants and marsupial lions. Their disappearance most likely led to a gap in their food source, diminishing the Komodo dragons’ population.

It was not until 1910 that man first documented these elusive creatures. When the Dutch Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbroek first heard of these large ‘land crocodiles’, he decided to go and investigate. He was able to produce a photograph and skin of the animal, which he then sent to Pieter Ouwens, the director of the Java Zoological Museum and Botanical Gardens.

Ouwens’ subsequent paper on the Komodo dragons created widespread excitement amongst the public. This led to later expeditions to the island of Komodo to retrieve more specimens, some of which were to be displayed in zoos across Europe. Thanks to this interest, scientists were able to further study their behavior and physiology.

What are they like?

Diet

The Komodo dragons are classified as monitor lizards, and like all reptiles, are cold-blooded. However, due to their large size and burrowing behavior, Komodo dragons are able to retain heat during the night. This means they do not have to spend as much time basking in the sun compared to most other lizards. They spend afternoons hunting and rest under shade during the hottest parts of the day.

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As the Mother of Dragons, Komodo National Park provides the dry, open grassland, savanna, and tropical forest they need to survive. Komodo dragons often utilize their burrows, which measure up to 3 meters wide, to ambush prey. They have a diverse food source, ranging from smaller prey such as birds and monkeys, to larger prey such as wild boar and water buffalos.

The Komodo dragon in the act of hunting is a remarkable sight. By lying completely still and waiting for the right moment to strike, they will charge at their victims at speeds up to 12 miles per hour. Utilizing their powerful tails, they can knock down large prey and finish the job with sharp teeth that secrete venom. It is no wonder that they are the apex predators of their ecosystem.

Despite their fearsome hunting habits, they have incredibly slow metabolisms. This allows them to survive on just one meal every month. They have been recorded to consume 80% of their body weight in a single sitting. Additionally, Komodo dragons may rely on their acute sense of smell to detect carcasses in lieu of hunting live prey.

Mating
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During mating season, from May to August, mature males will battle it out for the right to reproduce. The fights themselves are a remarkable sight to see. Dominant males will charge at each other, grapple, and use their hind legs to pin the opponent down - much like a wrestling match.

The fighting doesn’t stop for the victorious Komodo dragon. They will then have to forcefully subdue the female Komodo dragon as she resists with her claws and tail. Not exactly the greatest love story in the world.

After all this conflict and the female is finally impregnated, she will then lay clutches of around 20 eggs within a burrow. That burrow will then be surrounded with decoy burrows in order to camouflage the true location of her nest.

After 7-8 months of incubation, the plight of the young Komodo dragon begins. Once they hatch, they are vulnerable to predators and even their own mothers. Komodo dragons have been shown to exhibit cannibalistic behaviors, especially towards newborn dragons. To survive, they must escape to trees where they will feed on insects and other smaller creatures. They will do this until around the age of 8 when they will be strong enough to feed on land. They can then live up to the age of 30 if they are able to compete in this harsh environment.

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Interactions with Humans

Komodo dragons are generally wary of people and do not seek them out. Though uncommon, there have been several incidents in which Komodo dragons have been aggressive towards humans.

In 2008, a group of divers got washed away by the current and ended up landing on Rinca Island. As if that wasn’t already bad enough, Komodo dragons began to attack shortly after they washed ashore. Using their diving weight belts, they were able to fend them off as they awaited rescue. Luckily, the divers were eventually found and taken to a medical center.

Most recently, a 50-year old Singaporean tourist was bitten in 2017. He had wandered off on his own away from the designated Komodo dragon viewing area and encountered a group that was eating. Perhaps emboldened by their lack of fire breathing, he decided to get closer for a selfie. Unfortunately, the brave tourist failed to account for their fearsome bite and received an unwanted stamp on the leg. After the bite he unfortunately, opted out of receiving proper treatment, which led to his leg eventually being amputated.

These incidents are rare but they do happen - visit with a proper guide, be cautious and you’ll be fine!

How can I see them?

Don’t let these stories scare you! Visiting the dragons is a must-do when visiting Komodo National Park. All incidents of Komodo dragon attacks have happened without the supervision of an official park guide and outside of designated viewing areas. We never compromise on safety both on land and in the water, so you can breathe easy when you go on excursions with us.

At our OrcaNation Komodo location, you can combine a morning trip to Rinca Island with a dive, departing at 8:00 AM and returning to your accommodation by 2:00 PM! The trip to Rinca only takes 30-40 minutes on our speedboat. You can even add in an extra dive for a full day of adventure and be back by 5:00 PM.

The Komodo dragons in the viewing area are relatively docile as they are kept well-fed by park rangers. There will be as many as 20-30 dragons along the path, as your guide takes you around and gives you some insight on their behavior and ecology. He will also carry a stick in case one of them gets a little too close. Afterward, you’ll be taken on a short trek to a viewing point where you can enjoy some pretty magical views of Rinca and the surrounding islands of Komodo National Park.

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Their future

Though tampering with their natural predation cycles may not be entirely optimal, the ranger’s actions provide a safe sanctuary and allow the public to gain awareness for these magnificent animals. The Komodo dragons are currently classified as Vulnerable due to habitat destruction and human activity. Komodo National Park was erected in 1973 to protect the flora and fauna in the area, though it has not always been effective.

Recently, in March of 2019, a group of poachers was caught trying to smuggle Komodo dragons out of Komodo island to sell on the black market. This has led to the Indonesian administration’s possible plans to close off Komodo Island in 2020. Worry not! This should not affect your plans to visit the park. You will still be able to see the Komodo dragons on Rinca island and all dive sites will still be open.

Blog author: Henry Chan
Contact us to find out more about diving in Komodo and we’ll help you plan your next trip to Komodo National park.