By noon, we were out of the forest and had crested the ridge, gazing out across golden meadows and aquamarine waters that could have easily been mistaken for a southern California scene. We then trotted down the mountain. I slipped three times—unlike Fred’s 6-year-old daughter, who held out her arms like she was flying and didn’t trip once on the crumbling slope. When we got to the bottom and arrived at the last stop on the hike, Loh Sebita camp, we saw our last dragon, a somewhat pathetic creature lounging next to a wooden building on stilts, the kitchen. “If the dragon can’t hunt, he might come here,” Ishak says. “Sometimes the cook may throw out a chicken bone.”
The Komodo dragon is an endangered species, with an estimated 3,000 remaining in the wild. Conservationists say the animals have the most restricted geographic range of any large predator, and that poses a risk because a volcanic eruption or an islandwide fire could prove devastating. Jessop says the populations remain stable and healthy on Komodo and Rinca islands, but the numbers are falling on the smaller islands. On Flores, which is heavily developed and lies outside the national park, fewer than 100 dragons eke out a tenuous existence, and people (illegally) poison them to protect their goats. A small local organization, the Komodo Survival Program, was founded by one of Jessop’s Indonesian collaborators. But most of the support comes from park entry fees and businesses catering to dragon tourism.
Komodo dragons may not rank up with panda bears on the cuteness scale, but they have undoubtedly become a flagship species that has helped convince locals and visitors to embrace conservation in Indonesia.
The dragon is “a creature of imagination and fantasy,” says Fry. Except it’s real. And, he adds, “You are able to get up to it very, very close.”