National Geographic : 2014 Jan
102 national geographic • January 2014 The lizards also scavenge—they’re opportun- ists, always on the lookout for food, alive or dead. Scavenging takes less energy than hunting, and the dragons can detect the scent of a rotting car- cass from miles away. Little is wasted: The big liz- ards aren’t picky about which body parts they eat. Despite the dragon’s somewhat off-putting habits, islanders do not necessarily respond with fear and disgust. An Indonesian folk story tells of a prince about to slay a dragon. His mother, the Dragon Princess, appears and cries, “Do not kill this animal. She is your sister Orah. I bore you together. Consider her your equal, because you are sebai—twins.” Modern times have not entirely quashed this belief. In Komodo village I climb a crooked wooden ladder to the house on stilts of an elder named Caco, who guesses his age to be 85 years. My guide says this slight, bespectacled man is a dragon guru; the elder doesn’t refute the title. I ask him how villagers feel about dragons and the danger they pose. “People here consider this ani- mal our ancestor,” he says. “It is sacred.” In years past when islanders would kill a deer, he said, they’d leave half the meat as an offering to their scaly relative. Then things changed. Although no one has solid figures, the dragon population appears to have declined over the past 50 years. The gov- ernment offered legal protection, responding to pressure from conservationists and also re- alizing the economic value of dragon-related tourism. In 1980 much of the dragon’s habitat was turned into Komodo National Park (KNP), which encompasses all of Komodo, Rinca, and other smaller islands. Later three nature reserves were added, two of them on Flores Island. Dragons are safeguarded from any human assault within KNP. What’s more, dragon prey is also off-limits: Killing deer is forbidden. And thus villagers are no longer able to offer meat. That, some say, has made the dragons more than a bit peeved. Attacks aren’t common, but recently a few have made the news. Last year a 6.5-foot-long moni- tor wandered into an open office in KNP and bit two rangers, each on the left leg. The men were flown to Bali for treatment to prevent infection. Both recovered. In another incident an 83-year- old woman fought off a six-plus-footer with a homemade broom and well-placed kicks. The dragon bit her hand, which needed 35 stitches. Other incidents have ended tragically. In 2007 a dragon attacked a village boy named Mansur, who had taken a break from a soccer game to relieve himself behind some trees. He died of blood loss. Today villagers who see a dragon coming close or putting the move on livestock will typi- cally yell and throw rocks. “People who live with dragons are used to living with dragons,” Ciofi says. “You might shoo a squirrel away that comes to steal your lunch. They treat dragons like that.” As for dragons that attack, the government has moved offenders away from villages, but the animals usually return. Not all encounters end badly. The first man to really sit with dragons for a spell was Walter Auffenberg, a curator at the Florida State Mu- seum. In 1969 and ’70 he and his family camped on Komodo Island for 13 months, recording de- tailed observations of the animals’ every move. He authored an insightful book, The Behavioral Ecology of the Komodo Monitor. Auffenberg’s family was surprisingly relaxed about venturing afar to rough it among deadly Last year a 6.5- foot-long monitor wandered into an open office in Komodo National Park and bit two rangers. Jennifer S. Holland’s new book is Unlikely Loves, about odd animal duos. Stefano Unterthiner covered leaping langur monkeys for our August 2011 issue.