September 5, 2008

Komodo Dragon Fights for Survival As Habitat is Lost

By Kathy Marks

THE KOMODO dragon, a giant carnivorous lizard that feasts on water buffalo and occasionally even attacks humans, is disappearing from its limited habitat, zoologists have warned.

The dragons, which grow to 10ft long and weigh as much as 26st, are found only on Komodo and a handful of neighbouring islands in central Indonesia. Already endangered, their numbers are dwindling as a result of habitat destruction and hunting of their prey.

An expedition by Indonesian and American zoologists found that the protected species had vanished from one of the smaller islands, Padar. On two other small islands, Nusa Kode and Gili Motang, the populations have dropped to 75 and 115 respectively.

Jeri Imansyah, a member of the team, told Indonesia's Tempo magazine: "The theoretical threshold in determining that a species is on the way to extinction is the presence of less than 100 individuals in its population."

Komodos, the world's biggest monitor lizards, have a ferocious reputation. Heavily-built with a powerful tail, massive claws and razor-sharp teeth, they periodically attack people. However, the only fatal incident in more than three decades took place last year, when an eight-year-old boy was mauled.

In June, a group of divers including three Britons spent two days fighting off dragons after they were stranded on Rinca island. The reptiles retreated only when they were pelted with rocks.

The dragons' favourite prey is goats, wild boar, buffalo, and above all deer. One bite can be fatal, as their saliva contains dozens of species of poisonous bacteria - a result of them feeding on rotting animal carcasses. They often kill their prey by wounding it first, then waiting for septicaemia to set in.

On Padar island, hunters have wiped out deer and boar, according to Ramang Isaka, the head of management at the Komodo National Park. He told Tempo that as recently as 2000, dragons had been abundant on the island. But none remain. "Total extinction," Mr Isaka said. "There's no Komodo excrement found any more on Padar."

Tree-felling is another reason that dragons are in decline, experts believe. They need forests to shelter from the sun, and young dragons climb trees to escape from cannibalistic adults. While taking refuge in the branches, they survive by eating insects, birds' eggs, geckos and small lizards.

Gili Motang and Nusa Kode lie within the national park but they are isolated and rangers rarely visit them. Mr Imansyah said he had seen fishermen chopping down trees there in order to build a fire and cook their catch.

The larger islands, Komodo and Rinca, are each home to more than 600 dragons, which serve as a tourist attraction. But on Flores, which lies outside the national park, they have disappeared from the east coast, where there was once a healthy population, and declined in other areas. Surveys suggest there may be fewer than 3,000 dragons left. There are Komodo dragons in captivity, including at London Zoo, where they were introduced as part of a conservation breeding programme. Females are able to reproduce without sperm fertilising their eggs, which is highly unusual. Zoologists from London and San Diego have played a leading role in studying and monitoring dragons in the wild.

On Nusa Kode and Gili Motang, the giant lizards have adapted to their environment. With few large mammals present, they eat rodents and geckos. Generally, they are smaller than average.

The Zoological Society of London has urged Indonesia to ban deer hunting and slash-and-burn farming to arrest the decline in the dragon population.

Originally published by By Kathy Marks Asia-Pacific Correspondent.

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