There’s plenty to keep travellers intrigued on the Indonesian island of Flores. It’s home to some of the world’s best diving, as well as the stunning Kelimutu volcano, plenty of waterfalls and caves, interesting rice terrace formations, and the skeletons of a recently discovered ancient human species referred to affectionately as ‘hobbits’.
Possibly the most famous of the region’s attractions, though, are its Komodo dragons. These magnificent creatures are the largest species of lizard on the planet. They can grow to 3 m in length and weigh as much as 70 kg. These ferocious hunters are a truly spectacular sight, and to witness them in their own environment is an incredible experience.
HOW TO GET THERE
Komodo dragons are endemic to just a few islands in Indonesia, including Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang, and Padar. While there are long boat trips from Lombok, most people take a domestic flight to the small port town of Labuan Bajo on Flores. From there, tours depart daily to Rinca and Komodo, where it’s possible to join a guided trek. Most visitors opt to go to Rinca because it’s a shorter boat ride. The best way to see them is to combine your tour with a couple of dives or some snorkelling in Komodo National Park. Blue Marlin Komodo offers two dives and dragon trekking on Rinca for 2,000,000 IDR. Often, one of the dive sites is Makkasar or Mauan, both of which are regularly visited by another giant – the manta ray. If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, there are few places that offer the opportunity to tick off two such remarkable creatures in one day.
It’s a small walk from the pier on Rinca to the ranger station and ticket office. There, you’re assigned a guide, who comes armed with a forked stick to protect you against the Komodo dragons. Most treks last for one hour and take you behind the ranger station into some light forest. It isn’t a challenging path, and you can easily traverse it in flip flops.
If he’s available, ask for Ramli. He’s been leading tourists through dragon territory for decades and has even appeared on a couple of wildlife documentaries, including BBC Life. He’s guided David Attenborough, and he knows everything there is to know about the Komodo dragons and their habitat.
CHANCES OF SEEING KOMODO DRAGONS
Komodo dragons are solitary animals, which only come together to hunt or breed. There are roughly 2000 on Rinca, but they’re spread out over an area of 29,000 hectares. It’s possible you won’t see them, but highly likely that you will. Often, you’ll find a group of Komodo dragons basking in the sun just behind the ranger station, but if your guide encourages you to press on, it probably means he has something special in store for you to see. If you’re exceptionally lucky, you might see them feeding, or see males fighting for the right to mate.
YOUNG KOMODO DRAGONS
April is the best time to visit if you’d like to catch a glimpse of a juvenile. Female Komodo dragons lay 15 to 20 eggs in nests abandoned by megapodes (a turkey-like bird). They incubate for 8 or 9 months, although the female only protects them for the first few. When the rainy season comes, the eggs are covered with mud until they hatch.
Komodo dragons eat a lot of carrion, but they also hunt large mammals, like deer and buffalo, as well as invertebrates and birds. On occasion, they’ve been known to successfully attack humans too, but they will rarely do so unprovoked. They can run at speeds of up to 20 km/h and attack with a deep bite to the leg or jugular. The bite itself is usually not fatal, but a toxic cocktail of bacteria and venom in their saliva causes their prey to weaken and, eventually – some weeks later – to die. The dragons lie in wait and will eat almost their own body weight in one meal if it’s available.
While they very rarely become aggressive towards humans, their behaviour can change in an instant, so it’s important to remain cautious during the trek. When we visited, we were charged by three fierce-looking adults. Ramli shook a hat on the end of his stick to attract their attention, before sprinting off into the forest and leading them away from us. I was too alarmed to keep my camera rolling, so here’s some footage of Steve Backshall experiencing a very similar encounter, taken from the Deadly 60 series made for BBC Earth.
FUTURE OF THE SPECIES
Volcanic activity, earthquakes, poaching and loss of habitat have all contributed to the decline in the number of Komodo dragons. As is sadly the case for many of the planet’s most spectacular inhabitants, they are listed as vulnerable and appear on IUCN’s Red List. In 1980, Komodo National Park was founded to help protect them, and there are also conservation projects taking place on Flores. Despite best efforts, there are now only a few thousand remaining in the wild, making it an even greater privilege to experience.