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The Year of the Dragon: Komodos

These dragons might have escaped from old legends, but this time they’re the ones in distress. Chloe Moriarty explores the lives of the lesser-known Komodo Dragons, and explains how humans are becoming the real life ‘dragon-slayers’.

 

The Year of the Dragon is now roaring in, and its arrival encouraged me to consider my own perceptions of dragons. When I first thought about dragons, the image that came to mind was one of a fire-breathing creature from legends of old, with rough scales and a horned head, aggressive and fierce in nature. If I had thought more deeply, I might have recalled the tale of Saint George, the patron saint of England, who battled an evil dragon in his quest to rescue a Libyan princess. What I can say, however, is that the first image that crossed my mind was definitely not of a Komodo Dragon.


A Komodo Dragon in the Komodo National Park, Indonesia. Credits: Yuli Seperi via Wikimedia Commons.


Occupying only 5 small islands out of the possible 17,000 in the Indonesian archipelago, Komodo Dragons are the world’s largest lizards, growing up to 3 metres in length and weighing up to 140kg. They are believed to have been roaming the Earth for almost 4 million years, having originally evolved in Australia and outlasted the major megafaunal extinction of 50,000 years ago. Their sharp teeth and venomous glands allow them to hunt large prey, including cattle and deer, and have solidified them as the apex predator throughout their habitat.


Despite their fearsome reputation, Komodo Dragons generally avoid human encounters and have coexisted relatively peacefully with Indonesian villagers for centuries. However, their territorial nature can occasionally cause conflict with humans, and in 2007 a boy was fatally wounded by a dragon in the first attack in over 30 years. Komodo dragons and humans are increasingly coming into contact due to changing human-environment relationships, including as a result of rising deforestation, posing a threat to the survival of Komodos across their limited range.


Traditionally, Komodo dragons are viewed as ‘relatives’ by the Komodo islanders, and therefore locals would rarely attack the creatures if they wandered into their villages. Unfortunately, changing island demographics have increased the likelihood of aggressive behaviour towards the dragons, and the expansion of human settlements across the islands has fragmented the remaining Komodo habitat.


Declining prey availability, as a result of these settlements, and a simultaneous rise in cattle farmers has increased the likelihood of Komodos hunting domesticated livestock, and this drives locals to shoot the dragons in the defence of their livelihoods. The lizards have also been hunted for traditional medicine ingredients and as trophies, and trapped for display in zoos; with an average lifespan of 30 years, humans are cutting the lives of the dragons tragically short.


Unfortunately, this is not the only threat to Komodos. With sea level rising, it is predicted that Komodo dragons will lose up to 30% of their island habitat in the next few decades. Without further action to reduce global emissions and an increase in conservation effort, it is likely that the dragons will become entirely extinct on the island of Flores by 2050, and that their abundance will be reduced significantly across their entire range. Due to these threats, Komodo dragons are now classified as ‘Endangered on the IUCN Red List.


An aerial view of the 5 Indonesian islands home to Komodo Dragons. Credits: Jon Hanson via Wikimedia Commons.


Positive work is underway to protect Komodo dragons, and in 1980 the Komodo National Park was established with the aim of conserving the remaining dragons and their habitat. Hunting is outlawed within the national park, and rangers are required to accompany park visitors in order to prevent any disturbance to the resident dragons. Research is also underway to try to ascertain the number of remaining individuals, estimated at around 3,500 dragons, through the use of camera monitoring and trapping.


Charities such as the Komodo Survival Program are also playing an important role in raising awareness of the declining dragon population by educating school children and community stakeholders on the significance of the Komodo dragons. They also offer training days for local conservation workers to learn how to spot indicators of dragon presence in the area, and how to use drones to assess any disturbance to the Komodo habitat. More locally, both WWF and Chester Zoo offer people the chance to adopt a Komodo dragon, helping to fund the vital work of dragon conservationists.


Komodo Dragons provide an active connection to the past, having been alive since our first ancestral humans occupied the Rift Valley in Kenya. They have lived through major periods of climate change, and have experienced the spread of humans across the globe. Sadly, they may not be able to survive the latest challenges of anthropogenic climate change and habitat destruction. As this Year of the Dragon dawns, it is imperative that we rewrite the ending of the world’s last dragons, and change the story from one of ‘dragon-slayers’ to one of ‘dragon-savers’.



About the Author: Chloe Moriarty is a second-year Geography student at the University of Exeter, with a keen interest in historic extinctions, human-wildlife conflicts, and environmental law. She runs an environmental campaign on campus, and volunteers weekly for an environmental education charity. You can find out more and connect with Chloe via her LinkedIn.

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3 Comments


Guest
Feb 11

Super interesting! A great read and very well written

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Guest
Feb 11

so interesting! Loved this 😊

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Guest
Feb 11

Really interesting read, and great narrative.

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