Mr. Safina, a local guide working at Komodo National Park, took a particular relish in describing the way a Komodo dragon’s strong jaws can snap a man’s leg in two. He’d lived on Rinca – a speck of land off Indonesia’s Flores Island, and one of the five places Komodo dragons reside – his whole life, and he was used to the various horror stories that surfaced every now and then after a tourist wandered off the trail or a kid got ambushed while playing in the bush. Standing in front of an assembly line of water buffalo, deer and wild horse skulls – dragon chow – Mr. Safina laughed while gesturing to a row of little wooden crosses stuck in the nearby mud. On each stick, a date and a foreigner’s name was scrawled in white paint. “Those are tourist graves!” Mr. Safina joked. “No really, they’re actually just baby mangrove markers that tourists bought to restore the forest. Now, are you ready to go see the dragons?”
Like so many other tourists, for me, a trip to Indonesia was not complete without a detour to see the world’s largest lizard in its natural habitat. (Read Brendan Borell’s dispatch from his trip to Komodo Island, as featured in our special “Evotourism” issue of Smithsonian magazine.) In recent years, visitors have increasingly flooded this corner of Indonesia, drawn in by the thrill of brushing close to something wild and dangerous. Dragons are not to be taken lightly: male lizards can grow up to 10 feet long, weigh 150 pounds and eat up to 80 percent of their own body weight in one sitting. Though attacks are exceptionally rare, they do occasionally occur, mostly when a park guard lets his focus slip for a moment, or a villager has a particularly unlucky day.
Here are some of the most infamous attacks, as described by Mr. Safina and corroborated by media reports:
A Tragic Playdate
In 2007, a dragon killed an 8-year-old boy on Komodo Island, marking the first fatal attack on a human in 33 years, the Guardian reported. The attack took place in March’s dry season, so rangers speculate that the murderous lizard may have been particularly hungry given that the watering holes – and the prey that gather there – had dried up. The dragon lunged when the boy went behind a bush to use the bathroom, MSNBC writes.
Mr. Safina recalls the boy’s friends – who had been playing together in the scrubland near their village – rushing to get help from their parents. According to the Guardian, the boy’s uncle came running and threw rocks at the lizard until it released his nephew. While the Guardian writes that the boy died from massive bleeding from his torso, Mr. Safina recalls the boy being bitten in half.
In light of the tragedy, park wardens launched an island-wide hunt for the man-eating lizard, though whether or not these efforts produced results remains unclear.
Shipwrecked with Dragons
In 2008, a group of SCUBA divers found themselves swept from waters near their boat by the Flores region’s infamously strong current. After spending 10 hours spinning in the tide, around midnight the group washed up on the beach of what seemed like a deserted island, approximately 25 miles from where their ordeal had begun. Their troubles, however, were far from over. They had found their way to Rinca Island, where an estimate 1,300 dragons live.
The attacks began almost immediately, the Telegraph reports. A relentless lizard repeatedly came at a Swedish woman, who smacked it with her diving weight belt. It chewed at the lead belt while other divers threw rocks at its head, she said, all the while eyeing her bare feet.
For two days and two nights, the traumatized divers contended with dragons and the tropical heat, surviving off of shellfish they scraped from rocks and ate raw. Finally, an Indonesian rescue crew spotted the diver’s orange emergency floats spread out on the rocks. Though in shock, the group rehydrated at the local hospital on Flores Island and celebrated their survival at the town’s Paradise Bar.
Death in the Garden
In 2009, 31-year-old Muhamad Anwar set out to gather sugar apples from an orchard on Komodo Island. A misstep that sent him falling from the tree proved to be his undoing. Two Komodo dragons were waiting below, and sprang on Anwar. His neighbors heard the commotion, and ran to his rescue minutes later. By the time they arrived, however, Anwar had already suffered fatal injuries, and was bleeding from bites to his hands, body, legs and neck, the Guardian reports. Anwar died shortly after the attack, in a clinic on Flores Island.
Other accounts, however, contest some of these details. CNN writes that Anwar – a fisherman – was actually trespassing on the island, and was in an area forbidden for people to enter. This account also reports that Anwar bled to death on the way to the hospital, and was declared dead upon arrival. Even if CNN got this right and Anwar was guilty, however, death by dragon seems an overly steep punishment for eating a bit of forbidden fruit from the garden of Komodo.
Dragon Under the Desk
In 2009, Maen, a fellow guide like Mr. Safina, headed to the staff office as he would any other morning. Like all the other buildings on Rinca Island, Maen’s unit sat on stilts, and hungry dragons would often gather below to wait for the occasional food scrap. On this morning, however, Maen sensed that he was not alone. Just settling in at his desk, he looked down. At his sandled feet lay a dragon, peering back up at him.
As it turned out, one of the cleaning crew had left the office door open the night before and the hungry predator had crept in, likely in search of food. Heart pounding, Maen attempted to slowly withdraw his leg from the dragon’s vicinity. But he moved too quickly, cueing the motion-sensitive carnivore to lunge. The dragon chomped down on Maen’s leg, clenching its jaw shut. Maen kicked at the dragon’s neck, then grabbed its jaws with his hands and wrenched its mouth open, slicing open his arm in the process.
Although Maen shouted for help, most of the rangers were in the cafeteria and could not hear his screams. Only one picked up on the noise, and came to investigate.
“I shouted and he came to help me but he didn’t like to come up because the dragon was still moving around,” Maen explained to travel writer Michael Turtle, of Time Travel Turtle. “Then he saw the blood on the floor and he got everyone from the kitchen. All the people come running here, but other dragons follow along as well.”
The dragons – which can smell blood and the scent of death from nearly 6 miles away – followed the crowd. Some rangers fended off the would-be feeding frenzy, while a couple others darted into Maen’s office to help their colleague fight free from his attacker. Maneuvering their injured friend through the pack of dragons waiting outside, they managed to carry him to the island’s dock, where he was rushed to Flores Island’s hospital. The injuries were too much for the small medical center to contend with, however, and Maen wound up being flown to Bali for six hours of emergency treatment and 55 stitches, MSNBC reports. All in all, it took him six months to recover from his brush with the dragon.
Despite the encounter, Maen went back to work, although he only stays indoors now so he does not have to deal directly with the animals. “The dragon, I can’t remember which one, he’s still alive,” he told Turtle. “But I think now he’ll be bigger. If he had a bigger neck then, I couldn’t have hold it open.”
Horror in Hollywood
Dragon attacks can occur outside of Komodo National Park, too. More than 50 zoos around the world keep the animals as attractions. In 2001, Phil Bronstein, an investigative journalist formerly married to actress Sharon Stone, suffered an unfortunate encounter with a Komodo dragon at the Los Angeles Zoo. Stone had arranged a private visit to the zoo’s dragon pen as a present for her husband, who, according to a Time Magazine interview with Stone, had always wanted to see a Komodo dragon up close. Stone described the incident:
Phil didn’t know where we were going or why we were going there. It was a complete surprise. So we came around the corner and he was like, ‘Oh my god this is so fabulous, I’ve always wanted to see this.’ And the zookeeper said, ‘would you like to go in the cage? It’s very mild mannered. Everybody goes in there. Kids pet him. It’s fine.’
Bronstein accepted the invitation and went into the dragon’s cage with the zoo keeper. The lizard began licking at Bronstein’s white shoes, which the keeper thought must remind the animal of it’s white rat meals. Following the keeper’s advice, Bronstein removed his shoes and socks to avoid tempting the lizard. Then, as he moved into a better position to take a photo with the animal, it lunged.
So there was that hideous moment where the three of us… It’s such a break in reality, it’s so inconceivable that it’s happening, but there’s that moment of stillness where you just stare in disbelief. Then Phil screamed and we heard this crunching sound.
Bronstein managed to pin the lizard’s head down with his other foot, but the animal began jerking back and forth in an attempt to maul and eat its prey. Children gathered around the cage’s glass wall, Stone recalled, taking in the spectacle.
Bronstein managed to wrench the dragon’s jaw’s open and throw it from his foot, then dragged himself out of the cage as the lizard came at him from behind. The top half of Bronstein’s foot was gone, Stone said, and he was covered in scratches from the animal’s lunges at his back. Bronstein survived the incident and did not press charges, though Stone complained that the zoo allegedly continued to allow close-up encounters with dangerous animals following the incident.