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Forked Tongues Rule

At a pristine park in Indonesia, protected Komodo dragons frolic by the sea. Humans live in squalor, in a life called poverty.

July 05, 2006|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

KOMODO, Indonesia — Mohammed Sidik used to sell goats to Komodo National Park to feed to the wild Komodo dragons, the world's largest lizards, in a gory display for tourists.

Park officials banned the practice a decade ago because they worried that the dragons were becoming lazy. Now the 10-foot-long predators waddle three miles to this squalid coastal village, raid Sidik's herd and eat his goats for free.

"For the last two years they have been coming to the village," said Sidik, 60, who has lost seven animals to the dragons. "When they get thirsty, they come down to our well. The park no longer feeds goats to the dragons, so now the dragons come here."

The dragons' visits highlight how things have gone in Komodo National Park since its founding in 1980: great for dragons, not so great for people (and still not good for goats).

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 08, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Komodo dragon: An article in Wednesday's Section A about Indonesia's Komodo National Park said the Komodo dragon, known for its extraordinary sense of smell, has odor receptors on its tongue. The lizard uses its tongue to gather air samples and then brings those to the receptors on the roof of its mouth.

The park, about 300 miles east of Bali, is one of the few places in Indonesia where people are scarce. It is also one of the few places in the country where the need to protect nature has been placed above the economic interests of people. The result is a park that is pristine and well-protected, a rare species that appears to be thriving, a place where damaged coral reefs are making a comeback and the human population lives in squalor.

Komodo National Park boasts crystal-clear water, miles of deserted beaches and world-class dive sites where rushing currents help protect the reefs from bleaching. A visitor can sail among the park's islands all day and only occasionally see another boat.

The creation of the park, which the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy helps manage, brought sharp restrictions on the ways in which villagers could make a living. Hunting, farming and logging in dragon habitat was banned. So were bombing the reefs with homemade explosives and fishing with cyanide.

Amid the influx of tourists, little has been done to create new economic opportunities for the villagers.

"What we regret most is that we welcomed the national park with open arms but they haven't done anything for us in 20 years," said Amin Bakar, the village secretary.

The park was established in part to protect the Komodo dragon, which is found only on the islands in or near the park. The species, which became known to scientists less than a century ago, is officially classified as vulnerable. Today there are about 5,000 dragons in the wild.

The Komodo, which shares a common ancestor with dinosaurs, is the largest of the monitor lizards and hunts such creatures as deer, pigs, goats and other dragons. It can run quickly in short bursts but often lies in wait until an animal comes within a few feet, then attacks it. The constantly drooling Komodo has a mouthful of deadly septic bacteria, so an animal that escapes after being bitten is almost certain to die within a week. The dragon is immune.

Komodos have poor hearing but an extraordinary sense of smell. The tips of their long, pale, forked tongues have odor receptors and continually flick in and out as the animals plod along, swaying from side to side. A Komodo can smell carrion from 2 1/2 miles away.

A dragon rarely attacks humans, although at least one person reportedly has been eaten in recent times -- an elderly Swiss tourist who apparently took a nap under a tree. Newspaper editor Phil Bronstein was bitten on the foot by a Komodo at the Los Angeles Zoo in 2001 after his then-wife, actress Sharon Stone, gave him a behind-the-scenes tour for Father's Day.

At Komodo National Park, visitors can approach within a few yards. A ranger stands by with a long stick to fend off any animal that appears threatening, although it seems scant protection.

Komodo island is about the size of the San Gabriel Valley and its population is tiny, roughly 1,300 in Komodo village and a dozen or so who stay at the park headquarters. The ramshackle village stretches along Loh Liang bay to the south, and its setting is spectacular. It sits on a narrow strip of land, with steep hills rising behind it.

The island's beauty stands in stunning contrast to the poverty of the village.

"It used to be easy for us to hunt for deer and get food, and we used to chop down the trees to build houses, and if we wanted to go fishing it was unlimited," said Mala, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name.

A plump woman of 35, Mala sells food and toiletries to her neighbors from a kiosk next to her house. "Since the national park," she said, "we have been half-dead to get something to eat because everything is restricted."

Komodo is one of the poorest villages in Indonesia, a country where more than a quarter of the population lives below the official poverty line, on family income of less than $75 a month.

Most of the flimsy houses appear to have been made from scrap lumber. Built on stilts, some lean precariously. Men and women lounge beneath the structures, which offer the only shade in the village.

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