National Geographic : 1927 Aug
STALKING THE DRAGON LIZARD ON THE ISLAND OF KOMODO BY W. DOUGLAS BURDEN T HE following 21 photographs were taken on a scientific expedi tion of the American Museum of Natural History to the Lesser Sunda Islands in Malaysia. The primary object of this expedition was the quest of the dragon lizards of Komodo, the largest lizards in the world, which were first re ported in 1912 by P. A. Ouwens, a Dutch scientist of Buitenzorg, Java. As there are many interesting problems of a zoogeographic nature to be worked out in this region, general collecting of reptiles and amphibians was an important part of the program. The Sunda Islands are volcanic, built up from the bottom of the sea by a suc cessive series of flows. The eruptions of lava have arisen along the axis of the Sunda Fold, a great arc in the earth's crust extending for more than 3,000 miles, from Sumatra to the Philippines. Although Bali, Komodo, and Wetar be long to a single group of islands, the ex traordinary differences in the people who inhabit them and in the character of the islands themselves are striking. In Bali, a luxuriant toyland of coconut groves and paddy fields, we found an erupting volcano, an advanced civilization, and a people remarkable for their beauty and form. From Bali we proceeded on the S. S. Dog, an official yacht given to us by the Dutch Colonial Government, to Komodo, the home of the dragon lizards. Komodo was relatively unexplored, only a few white men having landed there. With its fantastic sky line, its sentinel palms, its volcanic chimneys bared to the stars, it was a fitting abode for the great saurians we had come so far to seek. Deer, wild boar, water buffalo, and game birds were abundant on the island. THE LARGEST AND OLDEST LIVING LIZARDS With the use of baits we attracted the giant lizards, which flocked around in con siderable numbers, so that we were able to observe their habits, select those which we wanted for a museum group, and catch others alive. The lizards, which attain a length of o1 feet and a weight of 250 pounds, are known to scientists as Varanus komodo ensis. They are vicious, carnivorous rep tiles, which attack their food much as the great flesh-eating dinosaurs must have done, ripping off great chunks of meat with their sharp, recurved saw-edged teeth and swallowing them whole, bones and all. The Varanus lizards first appear as a genus in the early Eocene, some sixty mil lion years ago; so that we have here not only the largest, but also the oldest, of living lizards. But Komodo is geologically recent. Thus, an old animal is found on a young island. How did it get there? Whence did it come? A VISIT TO WETAR After five weeks of collecting and ob serving, we proceeded from Komodo to Wetar, situated at the eastern limit of the Lesser Sunda chain. As it arose out of the sea, the island appeared a vast mass of torn and splintered mountains. The central portion is unexplored, and small wonder, for the tumble of jagged peaks presents insurmountable barriers oppos ing the traveler's way. Bali was inhabited by Malays practicing the Hindu religion; Komodo by a few Malay convicts exported there by the Rajah of Sumbawa. Wetar, on the other hand, is inhabited by Papuans, who belong to a large group of peoples classified by anthropologists as Oceanic Negroids. The Malays, being a mixture of Mongoloid Polynesian, have no negroid blood. At Wetar we camped on the shore, en joying the luxury of sleeping a la belle etoile. Collecting proceeded apace until finally one fine morning we sailed away into the Banda Sea, homeward bound. We had secured a large collection of reptiles and amphibians. Of the dragon lizards we had 14 specimens, two being alive. The rest were to be used for study purposes and for a mounted group in the new Hall of Reptiles of the American Museum.