November 13, 2014

Here Be Dragons: Komodo and Rinca

“Oh, shit,” muttered our guide, Paul, when three formerly slumbering dragons raised their heads to look directly at us. They sampled the air with their tongues, smelling to see if we were meat, mineral or vegetable. Confirming the potential for a meal they began to lumber toward us. Paul, all 5’4” nervous inches of him, and his forked stick, were all that protected us from the deadly reptiles which had recently attacked another ranger, a water buffalo and had pretty much eradicated the island of wild horses.

“Do they know what your stick is?” I asked. “I mean, will it keep them away?” The stick, which all the rangers carry, can discourage a casually inquisitive dragon we learned. But if a dragon is intent on attacking about all you can really do is run fast and climb a tree. Paul looked me over, “I’ll leave you my stick,” he said.

Paul first learned about Komodo Dragons when he was a boy living in a village on Flores Island. He saw their photo in a book and thought they’d be wonderful to see in real life. By the time he’d completed his ranger training and had worked for a couple of years as a guide on Rinca (where several rangers are attacked each year) it became clear to him that the dragons were unpredictable and dangerous; he was looking into a career change. “My parent’s don’t even know this is my job,” he told us. “They think I work in a restaurant.”

We encountered our first dragon before we even learned Paul’s name. Resting under a tree in the afternoon heat it was just off the path that ran between the dock and ranger station. The dragon was bigger but less menacing than expected. “That’s a young male,” Paul told us. It was still well under its potential of three metres and 100 kg. But Maia pointed out if it woke up, “its bite contains toxic bacteria and a protein that stops your blood from clotting.”

Despite Paul’s obvious fear of the dragons he was upbeat about our trek. He sent us into the ranger station to buy our stack of tickets (one for our boat, three for the park, three for conservation, one for the trek, one for the camera…) then explained our trekking options: short, medium or long; jungle or hills.

Deciding on a 1.5 hour hills hike we headed through the camp where the rangers lived and where the dragons like to hang out, just in case food magically falls from the kitchen. While we watched some food did fall and the dragons woke up. Sounding like a Darth Vader fan club they huffed and argued over the scrappy little snacks, and then they began flicking their forked yellow tongues out at us.

“Maybe you would like to hike now,” Paul suggested as he herded us away from the approaching dragons. Assuming the dragon drama was a bit of ranger theatrics I barely glanced back as we headed off along the trail. A few minutes later we spotted a water buffalo lounging in a pool of water. As we neared it was clear the buffalo was in distress. Paul pointed out where a dragon had wounded it and explained it would die soon.

Maia, who had been reading about Komodos explained that the dragons have an efficient way of killing large prey. Rather than fighting to the death they let bacteria from the wound do the work for them. Peering back toward the camp, checking for menacing shapes, I started to understand why Paul was so spooked by the dragons. Puff, they aren’t.

After passing a second healthier buffalo we came across a female Komodo guarding her nest. Then we started the upward climb to take in the view. “The blue posts are where the hotel is going to go,” Paul told us pointing out a half a dozen survey marks the stretched over the hill. Despite being a National Park and a World Heritage Site somehow, someone seems to have paid off the right person and a hotel is planned for a grassy ridge above the ranger station. Paul quietly outlined the problems—from no water on the island during dry season, to the impact a hotel could have on dragon nesting sites. None of the rangers could understand how the hotel had been approved.

At the top of the next crest I stopped to bandage a blister. Paul lost his relaxed look and peered at my foot anxiously, “Is there blood?” The dragons could smell blood up to five kilometres away he explained to Evan in a quiet voice. Satisfied my foot wouldn’t bring out the dragons Paul went back to pointing things out and was thrilled when we caught sight of one of the last remaining wild horses on the island.

Looping back down the hill, we encountered a pair of buffalo-less hooves on the trail. Dragons will eat every part of an animal; bones, hair and all but apparently their digestive system draws a line at feet. With another blister forming I couldn’t help but hope the foot aversion extended to humans, or at least that the hooves were a sign that the local dragons were currently all well-fed. An adult dragon only eats about once a month but it was clear as I hobbled along that if a dragon was looking to pick one of us off, my chances weren’t good.

Despite being potential dragon-fodder I was eager to do a second hike early the next day—to catch the dragons when they were more energetic and to check out a jungle hike. When we reached the dock Ramli introduced himself as our guide. He told us he’d grown up with the dragons on the island—but because his village only had school up until grade six he couldn’t finish high school and was only a volunteer guide (Park Rangers need a High School Diploma).

Curious if growing up with the dragons had made him more confident than Paul; Maia asked if he was afraid of the Komodos. “Oh, yes,” he told us. Then he went on to tell the gruesome story of how one of his friends had been eaten by a dragon one day after school, “His father called him for lunch but he didn’t come. Then he heard the dragon…”
“Oh, shit,” I muttered and we headed into the bush.

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