Merge & Al's Excellent Adventures

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Journey to Komodo Island, home of the prehistoric Komodo dragon

In December 2024, I got a chance to check off a long-time bucket list item – seeing Komodo dragons in their natural habitat.  I’ve been fortunate to see these formidable creatures in the zoological parks several times, but I’ve always wanted to see them in their natural environment.  During my eight-week sojourn on the MS Westerdam in late 2024, the ship made a stop at Komodo Island, one of 29 islands in Komodo National Park in Indonesia.  The Park is within the Lesser Sunda Islands in the border region between the provinces of East Nusa Tenggara and West Nusa Tenggara, and includes the three larger islands of Komodo, Padar and Rinca, as well as 26 smaller ones.

Komodo National Park was established in 1980, and declared a World Heritage Site and a Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1991.  The unique Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), the largest living species of lizard, is classified as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), primarily due to habitat loss, human encroachment, and the impacts of climate change.  Conservation efforts are crucial to their survival, including habitat preservation and legal protection from hunting and trade.  The park was initially established to conserve the Komodo dragon, which can reach lengths of up to 10 ft (3 m) and weights of over 150 lbs (70 kg).  Since then, conservation goals have expanded to protecting the entire biodiversity of the region, both marine and terrestrial.

A view of Komodo Island from the MS Westerdam in Slawi Bay
The entrance to the National Park

Komodo Island does not have large ship docking facilities so the MS Westerdam had to drop anchor a few miles from shore in Slawi Bay, and we had to use tender boats to get to the island.  You cannot visit the National Park unless you are accompanied by a trained guide, so a group of us were met by a local guide on arrival in the early afternoon.  He carried a large forked stick for protection as we walked the trails, but at that time of the day, he really didn’t need to bother.  All the dragons we saw were sleeping the afternoon heat away.

The MS Westerdam docked a few miles from shore
Three Komodo dragons napping …
Komodo dragons everywhere!

Komodo dragons are truly fascinating creatures, representing a prehistoric era of reptiles that continues to thrive in the modern world. Their survival is tightly linked to ongoing conservation efforts and responsible tourism practices that respect their habitats and natural behaviors.  They have huge bodies, clearly powerful limbs, and long, flat heads with rounded snouts. Their skin is rough, scaly and durable, and I was told that their scales contain tiny bones called osteoderms, which act as a form of natural armor.  As apex predators in the ecosystem, they are carnivorous and have a wide-ranging diet that includes invertebrates, birds, and mammals.  They are capable hunters that apparently use stealth and power to ambush their prey, including large animals such as deer, pigs, and even water buffalo.  An interesting aspect of their hunting strategy is their venomous bite, which contains toxins that inhibit blood clotting and lower blood pressure, overwhelming their prey with shock and blood loss even if they manage to escape the initial attack.

Apparently, when they choose to, they can move quite fast!

There are twelve terrestrial snake species that also call Komodo Island home.  Unfortunately, since we visited in the early afternoon, the heat of the day kept them in hiding and we did not spot any.  The guides told us that the Timor rusa deer, horses, water buffalos, wild boars, and Asian palm civets are also commonly found here.  The deer in particular are common prey for the Komodo dragons.  Other than the dragons, the only animal we managed to catch a glimpse of was a wild boar.  Again, the heat of the afternoon probably kept the rest deep in the undergrowth. 

The guide explained that despite the fact that many of the Komodo dragons were napping fairly close to each other, they are actually solitary animals, only coming together to breed.  The females lay about 20-30 eggs, which they then bury in the earth or in the nests of orange-footed scrubfowl, a strategy that offers thermal regulation to the eggs. We saw several of these dirt mounds as we walked the trails.  The eggs incubate for around eight to nine months, and the hatchlings are quite vulnerable, often falling prey to predators, including adult Komodo dragons.  Which is why I was absolutely ecstatic to spot a baby Komodo up against a rock face as we came to the end of our walkabout.  Not only did I see it, but I was able to capture about 20 seconds of it on video!

This is a baby Komodo dragon, only about 2-3 ft long. In this photo, it has its tongue out
I couldn’t believe I managed to capture this on video!

There are also approximately 1,000 people who live on the island, most engaged in supporting the tourist economy.  While I didn’t visit their village, I understand that the living conditions are very basic.  Many of them handcraft a variety of souvenirs, and sell them just inside the park gates.  I always like to support these local economies so I bought a wooden Komodo dragon before I left.

My handcarved pet Komodo dragon, going home with me!

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