Komodo dragons are fascinating creatures: giant carnivorous lizards that can grow to almost ten feet in length and they are the apex predators on the Indonesian islands that they inhabit. With their toxic breath, resulting from the high levels of bacteria contained in their mouths, the Komodo dragons can infect and disable their rivals or their prey with one bite. They are the largest species of monitor lizard in the world, and seeing one is a major attraction of Bali holidays.
As part of his recent “Last Chance to See…” series, Stephen Fry travelled to islands around Bali to get close to the remarkable Komodo Dragon. The area of Indonesia he visited is stunningly beautiful with bright blue seas, lush tropical forests and unusual animals; it is easy to understand why Bali holidays are so popular.
Stephen’s introduction to the Komodo was a cautious one. He and his guide found two dragons in a dry clearing near a wooden house. The creatures appeared relaxed and fearless; it became apparent that they were comfortable around people as one of the Komodos slithered up the front steps to explore the porch of the house.
The camera got close enough to one lizard to see its pimpled armour-like scales, and the flicker of its forked tongue. Stephen’s companion for the trip, zoologist Mark Carwardine, explained how until quite recently the Komodos were hand-fed in order to make a show of them for tourists. This feeding made them unhealthy and more aggressive, which together with their lack of fear of humans was not a sustainable situation: away from the tourist crowds, Komodo dragons have even been known to attack people. Of course, the same is true of the safari beasts of Africa; the potential risk from Komodos does not stop them being a major draw for Bali holidays, and the danger probably enhances the fascination.
Now the care of the Komodos is better managed and it is no longer acceptable to feed them. This should help ensure their future. Because they exist only on five small islands, their IUCN conservation status has been defined as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘threatened’. Thankfully, the Indonesian government has made it illegal to interfere with them.
Stephen Fry is not the only BBC presenter to visit the Indonesian islands. When Sir David Attenborough first introduced Indonesia to television viewers in 1956, as part of his Zoo Quest series, it wasn’t long before Bali holidays were a well established holiday option for tourists. Nonetheless, Attenborough chose to hike to remote villages which he described as ‘off the beaten track’, and where his visit caused a stir with the indigenous people. He was able to get a glimpse of their undocumented customs and describe their astonishing environment.
In his very proper Queen’s English, Sir David spoke about the villagers’ music and the wooden pipes they had carved. He explained how sharp swords and fighting cocks are used as part of spiritual ceremonies, and of course, he described the animals he saw. There was a saddle-shaped pig, pot bellied and seemingly bow-backed; and the remarkable pangolin anteater, which to the untrained eye could be mistaken for a small relative of the Komodo. But mostly, Sir David marvelled at the ‘untouched areas’ that he saw, speaking of the palm trees, bamboo and rice-terraced hillsides of the tropical scenery, seemingly in awe of this paradise that you can now experience on Bali holidays.