“That’s it!” Fredeking exclaimed. “Lead me to ’em!”
Nearly three years passed before Fredeking and two colleagues could secure permits to take samples of Komodo dragon saliva. Both the Indonesian and the U.S. governments had to be petitioned, because the dragon is an endangered species, and most of the 6,000 animals that remain are found within KomodoNational Park, which covers several islands and is now a World Heritage Site. Finally, on November 30, 1995, came the momentous day. Fredeking and Jon Arnett, curator of reptiles at the Cincinnati Zoo, flew to Bali, where they met up with Dr. Putra Sastruwan, a biology professor and Komodo dragon specialist at the University of Udayiana in Bali. They took two days to recover from jet lag, then flew to the Indonesian island of Flores in a small Fokker plane that made Fredeking more nervous than the prospect of facing Komodo dragons.
The next day they crossed over to Komodo by ferry—another unnerving experience for Fredeking, since the ferry had sunk on several occasions. From a distance, the island appeared shrouded in fog, with protruding volcanic cliffs. Close-up, Fredeking saw that its coastline was lined with rocky headlands and sandy bays. Much of its interior was dry, rolling savanna, with bamboo forests halfway up the larger peaks. The island supported a variety of large mammals, all imported by man: deer, water buffalo, boar, macaque monkey and wild horse. No one knew how the Komodo dragons had come to the island. Paleontologists believed their genus evolved in Asia 25 million to 50 million years ago as reptiles, then migrated to Australia when those two land masses collided. Because Indonesia lay closer to Australia at that time, the dragons may have swum to the islands and proliferated, growing larger over time, because the islands contained no predators for them.
Hot and sweaty, the biologists spent their first night on the island in a village that was nothing more than a cluster of bamboo huts. Over a local dinner of rice and fish, they heard stories of the dragons’ ferocity. Eight villagers, mostly children, had been attacked and killed by Komodos in the 15 years since the national park was established and records began to be kept. One old man had paused beside a trail to take a nap: his supine form looked vulnerable and inviting, and he, too, fell victim to a dragon’s steel-trap jaws. Other stories, unverifiable, had circulated ever since W. Douglas Burden came over in 1926 on behalf of the AmericanMuseum of Natural History and made a first formal study of the beasts, capturing 27 of them and naming them Komodo dragons. Burden also brought the first Komodo dragon back to New York City. He told the story of his adventure to Meriam C. Cooper, among many others, and fired the Hollywood producer’s imagination. Cooper changed the dragon to an ape, added Fay Wray, and in 1933 gave the world King Kong.
It was the next morning that Fredeking saw a Komodo dragon rip open the belly of a terrified goat. He had briefly considered bringing tranquilizer guns to bag his prey, but scotched the idea when he learned that a sedated dragon is likely to be eaten by his peers. Komodos are so cannibalistic that they will eat each other, including their own young. Newly hatched dragons know, by biological imperative, to scamper immediately up tall trees and spend their first two years as arboreal creatures, safe from the snapping jaws of their parents below.