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Leapin' Lizards!

An arduous 30-hour journey is rewarded by a day and night among Komodo dragons on their remote island preserve

March 05, 2000|MARSHALL S. BERDAN | Marshall S. Berdan is a writer who lives in Alexandria, Va

KOMODO ISLAND, Indonesia — The rickety old diesel launch chugged and sputtered its way through the cobalt blue sea toward a palm-lined beach backed by rugged mountain pinnacles burnished gold in the afternoon sun. Save for a small fishing village, the only token of human presence to be seen was the long, wooden dock toward which our grubby group of 15 assorted "eco-adventure" travelers was slowly making its watery way.

Receding into the island-dotted waters behind us was the Scandinavian surplus ferry that we had boarded shortly after dawn in the ramshackle port of Sape on neighboring Sumbawa.

Arriving here about six hours later was certainly the fulfillment of a fantasy of sorts. But what we had all come our separate ways to see conjured up images more appropriate to H.G. Wells' sinister "Island of Doctor Moreau."

Ahead of us was the small (9 by 22 miles) island of Komodo (pronounced kuh-MO-doe), home of the world's largest lizard, the notorious "Komodo dragon." The island is a national park that encompasses adjacent Rinca Island, also a dragon habitat.

Just getting to Komodo was achievement enough to stir a palpable excitement in our group as we neared the shore. It had taken me, my wife and my sister-in-law 30 hours by plane, bemo (minibus) and ferry to travel the 300 miles from Bali, the civilized world's conception of paradise, to Komodo, the naturalist's conception of the forest primeval. The trek last April involved a miserable overnight stay in a dank, buggy hotel in Sape to be sure we'd catch the early morning ferry.

Not that Komodo is a particularly comfortable place to stay. The only choice is the camp run by the Department of Forestry's park service. There we would each pay 15,000 rupiah ($2) to spend the night on a mattress on the floor in a Malay-style wood-and-thatch cabin.

But it wasn't the arduousness of the journey or the primitive conditions that concerned us; it was the thought that all our effort might be for naught.

Until 1994, a dragon sighting was just about guaranteed thanks to a policy that required arriving visitors to bring their own "dragon bait"--a live goat. As tourists looked on in horrified delight from a viewing platform overlooking a wooded ravine, the goat was duly dispatched, to the immense satisfaction of the half-dozen dragons teeming below.

That practice had been abandoned, not out of concern for the goats but because the pampered predators were in danger of losing their ability to fend for themselves.

Our fears proved to be groundless, for within 10 seconds of setting foot on the island, we saw our first Komodo dragon--or, more accurately, the hind parts of one of the scaly, dark brown behemoths as it lumbered off into the underbrush. Over the course of the next 24 hours, we would see roughly two dozen of Komodo's 2,000 resident dragons, and not all of them would be fleeting glimpses.

And thanks to the English-speaking guides and a small exhibit hall, we would learn quite a bit about the fascinating and generally misunderstood creatures.

For starters, they aren't dragons, nor are they the last of the dinosaurs. They are monitor lizards, the largest of the species; mature males can reach 10 feet in length and weigh 300 pounds.

And despite their popular name, they are not limited to Komodo but can be found on several smaller nearby islands and the western part of neighboring Flores Island.

Zoologists believe that the dragons are the descendants of an extinct Australian species that swam to these dry, isolated islands and then prospered, thanks to the treacherous offshore currents that kept them separated from both predators and competitors. Eventually, however, man came along.

Sometime in the 16th century, a storm forced a party of pearl fishers to seek refuge on the island. Their horrifying tales of flesh-eating monsters persuaded the authorities that Komodo would be an ideal site for a penal colony. (Europeans--Portuguese, English and Dutch in succession--had colonized the islands by then.) Five hundred years later, the fishing village of Kampung Komodo is populated by their descendants, who, not surprisingly, have built their houses on stilts well out over the water.

It wasn't until 1911 that the West received its first documented dragon sighting, from the pen of Dutch naturalist J.K.H. Van Steyn. Maj. P.A. Ouwens, the curator of the Botanical Gardens at Bogor, near Jakarta, sailed out to verify Van Steyn's account and brought back two skinned specimens. In a rare example of early environmentalism, the Dutch colonial governor placed the entire island under protection in 1912. In 1980 the Indonesian government upgraded it to a national park. In 1991 it was declared a World Heritage Site.

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