Selasa, 08 November 2011

KAWASAN WALLACEA 4 - In the land of dragons

In the land of dragons


Dragons do exist in our world, and being up close with one in the Komodo National Park of Indonesia will send a primeval sort of fear coursing through you.

It was a cleft in the ocean floor that gave rise to the giant lizards. To the east of this cleft lay the shallow continental shelf and the lands of Asia. To the west, sundered for millenia, new forms of life emerged, and new hierarchies of primacy.

On a few of these remote islands, free from predators, an apex predator emerged in the unlikely form of a lizard, hearkening back to pre-historic times when giant reptiles stalked the planet.

Isolation wreaks strange changes — in some creatures, the phenomenon of dwarfism occurs, while in others, the reverse happens. And so it happened that the land lizards of these islands grew to become the largest of their kind on the planet. There is an intriguing alternative theory, however, that says these lizards are actually dwarves, compared to fossilised remains of a monster lizard that once roamed Australia.

A fishing boat navigating the coast of Flores Island where visitors
disembark to visit the Komodo National Park.

The cleft in the ocean became known as the Wallace line, named after the biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, who observed the dichotomy in flora and fauna between adjacent islands during his travels in the 19th century. The Wallace line is a virtual line running between Borneo and Sulawesi down to the strait between Bali and Lombok.

The islands of what has been called Wallacea, encompassing all of what is now Nusa Tenggara of Indonesia, have endemic life found nowhere else and fauna more closely associated with Australasia than with Asia.

Although he was a prolific collector of specimens and a keen observer, Wallace — curiously enough — never once mentioned the dragons that dwell here.

Their fearsome reputation eventually led to a Dutch expedition that revealed them to the West in the early 20th century. This expedition supposedly inspired the idea of King Kong — a giant ape found on a remote island where prehistoric monsters flourished.

Today, we know these giant lizards by the name of Komodo dragons.
Komodo dragons occupy only a few islands — Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motang, Gili Dasami, and the northern coast of the island of Flores. An endangered species since the early 20th century, they were the reason the Komodo National Park was established in 1980. It was declared a World Heritage site in 1986.

The Komodo dragon is considered endangered

The islands of Nusa Tenggara lay like scattered shards of quartz against the velvety sheen of the sea in the late afternoon. Cratered with the massive calderas of dormant volcanoes, with silver arcs of shimmering beach, the islands are rocky and brown, the result of hot, desiccating winds from the Australian continent.

There is still a primeval feel to this part of the world, the sense of space and openness undiluted by tall buildings and the other accoutrements of modernity. We saw yachts sitting in the shelter of Labuan Bajo harbour on the western end of Flores, with bald tussocked islands for backdrop. From here, it was two hours by slow boat to neighbouring Rinca island, the closest place where the dragons can be seen.

The boat coughed and sputtered along the coastline. Except for a few scattered settlements, the coast was empty. We passed stands of mangrove trees, precipitous slopes of crumbling rock, voluptuous hills covered by a thin layer of brown grass and pockets of vegetation that faded into the vast hinterland of the island.

A strong breeze ruffled the water surface and rattled the boat as we approached Rinca. The wind died as we came into a quiet inlet ringed with mangrove trees. In the distance, some two to three hours away by boat, reared the craggy silhouette of Komodo Island.

I disembarked at a wooden jetty where a sign welcomed the visitor to Loh Buaya of the Komodo National Park.

It was suddenly hot and stifling after the stiff breeze of the open sea. A narrow footpath skirted the mangrove forest and led into a broad open valley, at the end of which was a cluster of huts. This was the headquarters of the national park on Rinca, where I registered and obtained the services of a park ranger.

Besides the Komodo dragons, a number of other interesting animals inhabit Rinca. One of these is the megapode, a terrestrial bird which constructs large mound nests from vegetation, in which their eggs are hatched from the heat of the decaying organic matter. Megapodes are only found to the east of the Wallace line.

Komodo dragons make burrows in the ground for their dens

Outside the huts was a long beam, on which were hung a number of bleached buffalo skulls. The wild buffalo is the largest animal on Rinca island, and the skulls were remains of animals felled by the dragons.

The ranger assigned to me lived his whole life on Rinca. There was a single village on the island, and the locals had taken to piling large rocks over new graves to prevent the dragons from digging up the corpses. Komodo dragons have a very keen sense of smell, and can supposedly detect scents from as far as 10km away.

The swinging side to side movement and the flicking out of a yellow, forked tongue is to “taste” the air to detect prey.

The ranger, Mansur, was a soft-spoken man who was armed only with a forked wooden staff. He didn’t have any special advice, only to stay a safe distance from the animals and not to wander off the path. Since Komodo dragons can outrun a human being, I wondered what we would do if one decided to make a dash at us.

The remains of buffaloes that fell victim to Komodo dragons

We didn’t have to go far to see one — there were a couple lazing in the shade between two of the raised huts.

Up close, the Komodo dragon evokes a primal reaction that reaches into and churns your stomach. Animal fear takes over when you’re this close to something that considers you their food.
The sight of that enormous lizard, with its coat the texture of chain-mail armour, blunt head reminiscent of a huge snake, hooded eyes, thick legs with sickle-shaped, wicked looking black claws and muscular tail as long as the rest of the animal almost made me weak at the knees.
I was looking at a couple of adults. They can grow up to 2m-3m in length and live for up to 50 years. They were inert and completely ignored us.

Mansur took me for a short hike on a footpath. We climbed a small hill, at the top of which was a spectacular view of the sea and the islands beyond, and also of the rolling topology of Rinca. Dark ribbons of trees inhabited the deeper, wetter valleys, but on exposed slopes was brown grassland.

In contrast to the stillness of the valley below, it was windy up on the hill. Mansur grabbed my hand and gestured. No more than 10ft (3m) away, and disguised so cunningly by the grass that I had completely missed it, was a mature dragon looking in our direction.

It had been attracted by the wind flapping a piece of loose clothing, which I quickly suppressed. Mansur seemed unfazed, but I was not. We continued our walk along the footpath, Mansur pointing out dried gray pellets that were the droppings of the dragon.

At the bottom of the hill, we came to a small trickle of water in a stand of trees. A big wild buffalo was drinking at the stream, and just nearby were the bones of another buffalo — a ribcage and portions of the spine. It was the remains of a Komodo dragon meal.

I asked Mansur if people hunted the Komodo dragon for food.

He smiled and replied, “Orang tak makan dia, dia makan orang (People don’t eat it, it eats people)”.

Although very rare, there have been a few cases of humans being attacked by Komodo dragons. Although a carrion feeder, the dragons will ambush prey. Even if an animal manages to escape from the bite of a dragon, it is only a temporary respite.

The toxin in the bite is enough to kill the prey, and the dragons always come back later or trail their prey for the feast. Besides big prey such as buffalo, wild pigs and deer, the Komodo will also hunt smaller animals such as monkeys and even juvenile dragons.

A little farther on, we came across ground burrows made by the dragons, and nearby was a mating couple, engaged in a rather brutal coition. Males outnumber females by a ratio of 3:1 on Rinca, with a total population of over 1,000 on the island.

It is estimated that there are 4,000-5,000 Komodo dragons in existence, and they are considered endangered due to a variety of threats, including the very low numbers of breeding females.

I left the island with a sense of relief, thankful for the wide open spaces of the sea and the liberating breeze. Komodo dragons are not cuddly or cute and not easy to love, but one cannot help but admire its domination in such a harsh and arid environment.

I also felt sorry for the other animals who had to share their habitat with this predator.

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