Maxing out at 10 feet long and tipping scales at 200 pounds, Komodo dragons are the largest lizards on Earth—and they’re certainly formidable. With a top speed of 12 miles per hour and a venomous bite, they can take down a deer or water buffalo—and may occasionally attack humans. But that reputation hasn’t been enough to keep poachers away, and in the aftermath of a major smuggling case, the government of Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province may close Komodo Island to tourists beginning January 2020, reports Laila Afifa at Tempo.co.
The possible closure comes after authorities thwarted a smuggling ring last week that was selling the lizards and other rare animals overseas as part of the exotic pet trade. Police seized five Komodo dragons the smugglers were attempting to sell on Facebook. According to the Andre Barahamin at the South China Morning Post, the poachers admitted that they had already sold 41 animals abroad for between $3,500 and $35,000 depending on their size and whether they were alive or dead. It's believed those animals were collected on Flores Island, which has a coastal population of the lizards, not on Komodo Island itself.
After provincial officials met with authorities from Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry—which manages Komodo Island, part of Komodo National Park—provincial spokesman Marius Jelamu told Afifa that the park would close for a year to allow for revegetation and let the lizard population to increase. “Those are our plans to manage Komodo National Park especially Komodo Island in 2020,” he said.
Barahamin reports that the announcement of the closure is premature, and the respite for the island is not yet a done deal. Indonesia’s environmental ministry is currently conducting an assessment of the island due to conclude in July. The ministry’s director general of conservation, Wiratno, says his agency has the final say and will determine whether to close the island to tourism based on that report.
The idea of shuttering the island was first raised in January when East Nusa Tenggara governor Viktor Bungtilu Laiskodat announced Komodo island would be closed for a year to give both the lizards and the population of the Timor deer they like to hunt the chance to rebound.
Whatever happens, the poaching incident has drawn attention to Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Kate Lyons at The Guardian reports that there are roughly 5,700 Komodo dragons left in the wild, most on the islands of Komodo, Padar and Rinca within the park boundaries. Even if Komodo Island closes, visitors will still be able to see the dragons at the parks other islands.
The pet trade is not the only threat to the mega lizards. A recent upgrade at Labuan Bajo airport, which serves the Komodo area, means the region can now receive about 1.5 million visitors per year. Barahamin reports that in 2014, Komodo National Park received 80,626 visitors, which jumped to 159,157 last year. In May 2018, the park began receiving its first large groups of Chinese tourists, and cruise ships are beginning to make the area a port of call reports Ernest Kao at The South China Morning Post.
In fact, Kao reports that developers are hoping to turn the remote town of Labuan Bajo into the next Bali, with trips to visit the dragons as one of the star attractions. But concerns have been raised about pollution, habitat loss, overfishing and the loss of freshwater in the Park due to tourism and poor management.
Agus, one of the forest guides in Komodo National Park, tells Kao he looks at the coming flood of visitors with anxiety. “This is the last natural habitat for the Komodo dragon,” he says. “Too much tourism will not be good for the local marine life or [the park]. We need to balance tourism [with conservation] of the ecosystem.”