It didn’t seem prudent to bring two small children along. We had just docked at a remote island in southeastern Indonesia, and the five-hour hike would traverse a rocky, exposed ridge in the baking heat of the dry season. My companions—a blond Frenchman named Fred, his wife and their two kids—were dressed for a game of shuffleboard. My concern heightened when I saw he had a single water bottle for the four of them. Also, there were dragons.
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“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked Fred, glancing at his sockless feet and leather loafers. We had just met at the tourist dock on Flores the day before.
“You are the one who proposed it,” he said, marching onward.
True. I’d come to Indonesia on my own for a month, and I wasn’t about to miss this opportunity. Komodo Island and its nine-foot-long monitor lizard, the Komodo dragon, were once about as far off the beaten track as you could get. But Komodo National Park has become Indonesia’s hottest tourist spot this side of Bali. Our starting point in Labuan Bajo, on the island of Flores, was packed with hip cafés, hostels and diving shops. Cruise companies offer a two-day expedition to parkland on Komodo and Rinca islands. Komodo, about five times the size of Manhattan, got a makeover in the late 1990s, when the Indonesian government asked the Nature Conservancy and the World Bank to help it protect the island’s biodiversity, develop hiking trails and build a visitor center.
Even with these amenities, the destination’s popularity is surprising. Whale-watching may appeal to our spiritual side, while a glimpse of an orangutan or other primate cousin tugs at an evolutionary heartstring. The Komodo dragon, I believe, taps into our basic fears: a living incarnation of the fictional monsters that haunt our imaginations.
Our guide that August morning, Ishak, lifted his forked stick—a defense against snapping jaws—and we marched into the bush. Even the vegetation is reptilian: Crocodile trees with spiky bark sprout from volcanic soils, while Lontar palms tower over the upland savanna. After only a ten-minute walk we came to a gallery of tamarind trees shading a pit of mud and greenish scum. A female Komodo dragon was sprawled next to a tree, her black obsidian eyes unreadable. The beaded folds of her flesh hung from her neck and she had kicked her rear legs behind her with the insouciance that comes from being at the top of the food chain. Luckily, she was still digesting a meal from earlier that week—a small deer, according to Ishak—and in her postprandial stupor would probably not be pondering cuisine for another month.
Up ahead, however, I knew there were dragons in the brush, possibly hungry ones. At the top of a pass, a white cross commemorates Rudolf Von Reding Biberegg, an elderly Swiss tourist who vanished in 1974, presumably killed by a Komodo dragon. “He loved nature throughout his life,” the epitaph says.
The Komodo dragon—the world’s largest lizard—first attained notoriety in the Western world following its discovery by Dutch colonial officials a century ago. Still, surprisingly few biologists have studied the creature in its natural habitat, which encompasses five islands in the Nusa Tenggara archipelago. Perhaps the most determined researcher was Walter Auffenberg of the Florida Museum of Natural History, who led an expedition to Komodo Island beginning in 1969. He needed three men to subdue some of the lizards, rodeo-style. They lassoed the Komodos, muzzled their snouts, tied their powerful legs together and blindfolded them to calm them down. Auffenberg weighed and measured the beasts and tagged them to keep track of their movements. The heaviest was 120 pounds, but a lizard with a full stomach can easily exceed 200 pounds.
Auffenberg spent more than a year on the island studying the dragon’s natural history—from its sunbathing habits to its courtship rituals—but he went out on a limb when he suggested that the dragons had evolved to their current size so they could hunt now-extinct pygmy elephants called Stegodons. In 1987, the U.S. scientist and author Jared Diamond lent his support to this theory, arguing that when the dragons’ smaller ancestors first arrived on Flores they had no carnivorous competitors and gradually grew larger to take advantage of such hulking prey.