Something has survived...

Why has the Komodo Dragon died out on one Indonesian island but not another? By Sheila Large

THE stench of rotting carcass hit us long before the trap became visible. For a non-carnivore, the sight of dismembered goat limbs in various stages of decay was unnerving. Worst of all was the dainty hoof of an almost intact leg swaying gently overhead. The bait surrounded a long wooden box, covered in strong metal netting, in which lay the largest species of monitor lizard in the world, a Komodo Dragon.

Tied up and probed, with nails and tail snipped for blood and DNA samples, this particular specimen would soon be released back into the wild. Eventually it should grow into a dinosaur- sized 330lb, 12ft-long monster.

Dispatched to the Indonesian island of Flores by the environmental charity Earthwatch, our intrepid band was here to help scientists working with this endangered species in south-eastern Indonesia, to discover why it had died out entirely on the neighbouring island of Pradar and to explore ways of reintroducing a sustainable population there. Sponsored by prestigious Millennium Commission fellowships, four of us were to use our findings to improve understanding in schools and communities; the other three were paying volunteers contributing to Earthwatch's global programme of eco-ethological and environmental projects.

The dragon, known locally as ora, is a merciless beast. The septic bacteria (staphylococcus) from its bite is capable of causing death. With a taste for gangrenous meat, it will savage an animal beyond recovery, leaving the dying creature to rot for a few days before returning for the feast.

But today ora is threatened by the illegal burning of its native savannah and by poachers stealing the wild boar and deer on which it preys. The main reason they are endangered is that they are so local. Inhabiting just two geologically unpredictable islands, they are vulnerable to being wiped out altogether by any small ecological disruption. Separated from the island of Komodo by the 20 miles of water that joins the Indian ocean and the South China sea in a treacherous collusion of whirling dervish currents, Flores is one of the world's most volcanically unstable places. A spectacular legacy of its turbulent past is the three multicoloured crater lakes of Keli Mutu appearing in various combinations of turquoise, olive green, maroon and black.

After a night on the island at the family-run losmen (guesthouse) Chez Felix - good food, friendly, helpful staff, adequate rooms and dingy bathrooms with cockroaches aplenty - we piled ourselves (and enough gear to equip a small town) aboard a gaily coloured and touchingly optimistic pick-up truck.

Wae Wuul Reserve in north-western Flores is ruggedly remote. The dominant savannah forest and mangrove swamp are in stark contrast to the lush rainforests of western Indonesia. Rice is cultivated, though not in the same ingenious tiered fashion as on Balinese mountainsides.

The ranger's station was a primitive wooden shack close to a tiny farming village. Thuggish looking spiders occupied the inner rooms so most of us opted to spend the nights under a diamond-bright southern sky. Happily the friendly villagers tolerated sharing their single standpipe with a gang of sweaty Euros. And the dragons? Less than 150 still roam this area, and their scarcity became apparent after that first goat- festooned encounter.

Four mature females had been located here with the help of electronic tags, attached in earlier expeditions. Using a portable receiver and antenna, the activity-rate, length of sun exposure and body temperature of these animals could now be recorded at specified times of the day, providing vital data for digitising into computer files, enabling the team to establish the healthiest and most endurable blood strains.

Earthwatch's preparation assured us that no hike would last more than an hour. This assumed levels of mega-fitness. We trekked though bleak savannah, still smoking from ground clearing arson, and through lush banana plantations, negotiating deep ravines across flimsy rope bridges.

But this was a gentle stroll compared with what came next: pursuing the dragons over rugged hills. With periodic stops to point aerials and listen for bleeps we toiled sweatily for hours over near-perpendicular slopes. Only hidden lumps of painfully jagged rock prevented us from hurtling headlong several thousand feet into densely forested valleys.

It was also hard to forget that the dragons were potentially lethal animals, though John, one of our wonderfully patient guides, stripped a stout bamboo pole to make me a tongkat, the traditional weapon against marauding ora. It certainly helped propel me across the post-apocalyptic, fire-razed terrain, but in dragon-thwarting it proved largely redundant.

And dragons were indeed just round the corner. One of the tagged animals, Annabelle, was spotted inert and well camouflaged on the bamboo-forest slopes. Her mud-brown, mottled skin distinguishable from the surrounding vegetation only with good binoculars. She clearly wasn't budging from the important business of thermoregulating - basking in the sun until warm enough for activity.

Nevertheless, caution was required: even when replete, dragons can attack to inflict a fatal wound, ensuring the source of the next weekly meal. We were warned to keep well above her because if she did decide to galvanise, she would get up quite a speed on the downward slope. But Annabelle was going nowhere. So switching radio frequency we raised the aerial in search of her scaly sister Esmerelda. She too seemed to be nearby and, from the irregularity of the bleeps, getting frisky. When another steep climb defeated me, it was agreed that our guide, Mary, should lead me back to base while the others followed machete- wielding Alex, driving a path through the partly petrified undergrowth.

No more than 10 yards down there was an eerie rustle. Mary gripped my arm in fear. As the bush parted she fled in screaming defiance of all warnings to stand stock still. Futilely, I attempted to hide behind a wisp of bamboo. The dragon's domed head thrust towards me; close enough to see into its myopic, lizardy eyes. The tail lashed with a force that snapped small trees as she turned, and the ground trembled under her thunderous and ungainly weight.

We crept, still shaking, back to the edge of the lake where complacently wallowing caribou provided much-needed reassurance that there were no dragons there.

If giant dragons remain shy on Flores, the local villagers do not. Except for the more remote homesteads, where young children run, screaming from the sight of our red faces and clumping boots, the islanders are all hospitality. Muslims, Hindus, Catholics and animists live contentedly in even the smallest communities. We heard mass in a hut just doors away from the mosque. Clothes are a sometimes bizarre mix of traditional and western, which are plentiful in the weekly market, an hour-long expedition across what must be the least sheltered, scorching mountain trail in the world.

During the service I realised that my shirt was on inside out and wondered if anyone one had noticed. Then I spotted a woman wearing a batik sarong over a pink shortie nightie with a bunny rabbit on the pocket and I thought perhaps not.

If sometimes oddly worn, clothes are immaculately laundered. No mean feat with cold water and charcoal-filled irons. Their standards of grooming show up our grubby khaki shorts and muddy boots but negotiating the precarious ribbons of earth crisscrossing the rice-paddies is a sure way to get very filthy indeed, providing much amusement for the sure-footed children.

We turned up at a much-vaunted dance festival dirty and dishevelled to be greeted by the entire village at its most dapper. Drinking coconut milk sweetened with raw cane sugar we watched intrigued as the ritual whip-dancing got under way. Initially concerned when some of the veterans showed off their ancient weals, we soon discovered that this was more fun than fetish. With good-natured barracking from the crowds, elaborately dressed men fended the lashes of leather whips with artfully placed shields. The younger men had no battle scars so were either much handier with the shields or the days of blood letting were over. Also showing off old wounds was an elderly survivor of a long-ago dragon savaging. The skin had healed over the 30-year- old gashes but the mangled arm was left almost useless. Such incidents are fortunately rare, which is just as well as the nearest doctor is a three-hour walk away.

Before ending our trip, we planned to visit the neighbouring island of Komodo, with its much larger dragon population.

We left Wae Wuul watched by the usual posse of soulful-eyed children and the entire village wishing us bon voyage. And wish they might. Added to the near impossible load were now two heavy wooden traps. Teeth rattled as the truck bounced and lurched back to the port of Laban Bajo. Up front, hiding from the bait-encrusted traps, I had a prime view of the oil light glowing menacingly all the way.

Yet we made it in time to charter one of the many available fishing boats and brave the unpredictable crossing to Komodo island. Whirlpools and eddying currents were evident in the dying sun's impossibly scarlet rays.

Two hundred miles over to the west of here lies the lush island of Bali. But here in eastern Indonesia the terrain and flora and fauna were more similar to that of Australia. At first sight Komodo island typified this rocky desolation.

But the next day, in the mellow sunrise, it seemed remarkably greener and kinder. Accommodation in the National Park was cheap, basic and comfortable in lofty, timber cabins with shared, clean bathrooms. And there were lots of dragons.

A tongkat-bearing guide provided commentary as he led us through a benign forest where huge Komodos lolled away the sunshine hours, well-fed and supine. Moved by our attentions they began to heave about, tongues flicking the air and it was easy to see why early travellers spread frightening tales of monstrous hissing lizards with dagger-like claws and fiery yellow tongues - the probable source of the Chinese dragon.

Until a few years ago, the local authorities had held public feeding sessions for the dragons as a spectacle for tourists. Fortunately this appalling practice has now stopped. Apart from pandering to ghoulish barbarism, providing regular meals was affecting the animals' behaviour, diminishing their natural hunting instinct and endangering survival.

So the reserve no longer meddles with natural law, even if the wild boar and red deer might occasionally wish it did when face-to-face with a hungry dragon.

Tied up and probed, with nails and tail snipped for blood and DNA samples, this particular specimen would soon be released back into the wild. Eventually it should grow into a dinosaur- sized 330lb, 12ft-long monster.

Dispatched to the Indonesian island of Flores by the environmental charity Earthwatch, our intrepid band was here to help scientists working with this endangered species in south-eastern Indonesia, to discover why it had died out entirely on the neighbouring island of Pradar and to explore ways of reintroducing a sustainable population there. Sponsored by prestigious Millennium Commission fellowships, four of us were to use our findings to improve understanding in schools and communities; the other three were paying volunteers contributing to Earthwatch's global programme of eco-ethological and environmental projects.

The dragon, known locally as ora, is a merciless beast. The septic bacteria (staphylococcus) from its bite is capable of causing death. With a taste for gangrenous meat, it will savage an animal beyond recovery, leaving the dying creature to rot for a few days before returning for the feast.

But today ora is threatened by the illegal burning of its native savannah and by poachers stealing the wild boar and deer on which it preys. The main reason they are endangered is that they are so local. Inhabiting just two geologically unpredictable islands, they are vulnerable to being wiped out altogether by any small ecological disruption. Separated from the island of Komodo by the 20 miles of water that joins the Indian ocean and the South China sea in a treacherous collusion of whirling dervish currents, Flores is one of the world's most volcanically unstable places. A spectacular legacy of its turbulent past is the three multicoloured crater lakes of Keli Mutu appearing in various combinations of turquoise, olive green, maroon and black.

After a night on the island at the family-run losmen (guesthouse) Chez Felix - good food, friendly, helpful staff, adequate rooms and dingy bathrooms with cockroaches aplenty - we piled ourselves (and enough gear to equip a small town) aboard a gaily coloured and touchingly optimistic pick-up truck.

Wae Wuul Reserve in north-western Flores is ruggedly remote. The dominant savannah forest and mangrove swamp are in stark contrast to the lush rainforests of western Indonesia. Rice is cultivated, though not in the same ingenious tiered fashion as on Balinese mountainsides.

The ranger's station was a primitive wooden shack close to a tiny farming village. Thuggish looking spiders occupied the inner rooms so most of us opted to spend the nights under a diamond-bright southern sky. Happily the friendly villagers tolerated sharing their single standpipe with a gang of sweaty Euros. And the dragons? Less than 150 still roam this area, and their scarcity became apparent after that first goat- festooned encounter.

Four mature females had been located here with the help of electronic tags, attached in earlier expeditions. Using a portable receiver and antenna, the activity-rate, length of sun exposure and body temperature of these animals could now be recorded at specified times of the day, providing vital data for digitising into computer files, enabling the team to establish the healthiest and most endurable blood strains.

Earthwatch's preparation assured us that no hike would last more than an hour. This assumed levels of mega-fitness. We trekked though bleak savannah, still smoking from ground clearing arson, and through lush banana plantations, negotiating deep ravines across flimsy rope bridges.

But this was a gentle stroll compared with what came next: pursuing the dragons over rugged hills. With periodic stops to point aerials and listen for bleeps we toiled sweatily for hours over near-perpendicular slopes. Only hidden lumps of painfully jagged rock prevented us from hurtling headlong several thousand feet into densely forested valleys.

It was also hard to forget that the dragons were potentially lethal animals, though John, one of our wonderfully patient guides, stripped a stout bamboo pole to make me a tongkat, the traditional weapon against marauding ora. It certainly helped propel me across the post-apocalyptic, fire-razed terrain, but in dragon-thwarting it proved largely redundant.

And dragons were indeed just round the corner. One of the tagged animals, Annabelle, was spotted inert and well camouflaged on the bamboo-forest slopes. Her mud-brown, mottled skin distinguishable from the surrounding vegetation only with good binoculars. She clearly wasn't budging from the important business of thermoregulating - basking in the sun until warm enough for activity.

Nevertheless, caution was required: even when replete, dragons can attack to inflict a fatal wound, ensuring the source of the next weekly meal. We were warned to keep well above her because if she did decide to galvanise, she would get up quite a speed on the downward slope. But Annabelle was going nowhere. So switching radio frequency we raised the aerial in search of her scaly sister Esmerelda. She too seemed to be nearby and, from the irregularity of the bleeps, getting frisky. When another steep climb defeated me, it was agreed that our guide, Mary, should lead me back to base while the others followed machete- wielding Alex, driving a path through the partly petrified undergrowth.

No more than 10 yards down there was an eerie rustle. Mary gripped my arm in fear. As the bush parted she fled in screaming defiance of all warnings to stand stock still. Futilely, I attempted to hide behind a wisp of bamboo. The dragon's domed head thrust towards me; close enough to see into its myopic, lizardy eyes. The tail lashed with a force that snapped small trees as she turned, and the ground trembled under her thunderous and ungainly weight.

We crept, still shaking, back to the edge of the lake where complacently wallowing caribou provided much-needed reassurance that there were no dragons there.

If giant dragons remain shy on Flores, the local villagers do not. Except for the more remote homesteads, where young children run, screaming from the sight of our red faces and clumping boots, the islanders are all hospitality. Muslims, Hindus, Catholics and animists live contentedly in even the smallest communities. We heard mass in a hut just doors away from the mosque. Clothes are a sometimes bizarre mix of traditional and western, which are plentiful in the weekly market, an hour-long expedition across what must be the least sheltered, scorching mountain trail in the world.

During the service I realised that my shirt was on inside out and wondered if anyone one had noticed. Then I spotted a woman wearing a batik sarong over a pink shortie nightie with a bunny rabbit on the pocket and I thought perhaps not.

If sometimes oddly worn, clothes are immaculately laundered. No mean feat with cold water and charcoal-filled irons. Their standards of grooming show up our grubby khaki shorts and muddy boots but negotiating the precarious ribbons of earth crisscrossing the rice-paddies is a sure way to get very filthy indeed, providing much amusement for the sure-footed children.

We turned up at a much-vaunted dance festival dirty and dishevelled to be greeted by the entire village at its most dapper. Drinking coconut milk sweetened with raw cane sugar we watched intrigued as the ritual whip-dancing got under way. Initially concerned when some of the veterans showed off their ancient weals, we soon discovered that this was more fun than fetish. With good-natured barracking from the crowds, elaborately dressed men fended the lashes of leather whips with artfully placed shields. The younger men had no battle scars so were either much handier with the shields or the days of blood letting were over. Also showing off old wounds was an elderly survivor of a long-ago dragon savaging. The skin had healed over the 30-year- old gashes but the mangled arm was left almost useless. Such incidents are fortunately rare, which is just as well as the nearest doctor is a three-hour walk away.

Before ending our trip, we planned to visit the neighbouring island of Komodo, with its much larger dragon population.

We left Wae Wuul watched by the usual posse of soulful-eyed children and the entire village wishing us bon voyage. And wish they might. Added to the near impossible load were now two heavy wooden traps. Teeth rattled as the truck bounced and lurched back to the port of Laban Bajo. Up front, hiding from the bait-encrusted traps, I had a prime view of the oil light glowing menacingly all the way.

Yet we made it in time to charter one of the many available fishing boats and brave the unpredictable crossing to Komodo island. Whirlpools and eddying currents were evident in the dying sun's impossibly scarlet rays.

Two hundred miles over to the west of here lies the lush island of Bali. But here in eastern Indonesia the terrain and flora and fauna were more similar to that of Australia. At first sight Komodo island typified this rocky desolation.

But the next day, in the mellow sunrise, it seemed remarkably greener and kinder. Accommodation in the National Park was cheap, basic and comfortable in lofty, timber cabins with shared, clean bathrooms. And there were lots of dragons.

A tongkat-bearing guide provided commentary as he led us through a benign forest where huge Komodos lolled away the sunshine hours, well-fed and supine. Moved by our attentions they began to heave about, tongues flicking the air and it was easy to see why early travellers spread frightening tales of monstrous hissing lizards with dagger-like claws and fiery yellow tongues - the probable source of the Chinese dragon.

Until a few years ago, the local authorities had held public feeding sessions for the dragons as a spectacle for tourists. Fortunately this appalling practice has now stopped. Apart from pandering to ghoulish barbarism, providing regular meals was affecting the animals' behaviour, diminishing their natural hunting instinct and endangering survival.

So the reserve no longer meddles with natural law, even if the wild boar and red deer might occasionally wish it did when face-to-face with a hungry dragon.

komodo fact file

Getting there

STA Travel (0171 361 6161) offers flights through Malaysia Airlines from Heathrow via Kuala Lumpur to Denpasar, Bali from pounds 454 (with some restrictions) to pounds 679.

Merparti flis regularly from Bali to Flores. STA will book this for pounds 98 single but it is easy and much cheaper to book island hoppers from Denpasar.

Where to stay

Losmen accommodation on Flores costs from 20,000R to 40,000R B&B. Accommodation in Komodo Island National Park starts at 25,000R. Exchange rate is about 13,000R to the pound. Ferries travel at irregular intervals to and from Labuan Bajo. Better to get a group together and charter a boat for about $30 round trip, taking 15 or so people.

Costs for Earthwatch projects incorporate a contribution to the organisation and a share of the expedition expenses. The Komodo Dragon research trip is pounds 1,490 per person and includes all accommodation, travel on and between islands and meals. Facilities range from tents at the field stations, with primitive washing facilities, to double cabins with shared Indonesian mandis (scoop-water-over-yourself arrangement).

Teachers and community leaders who can use their experience to raise conservation awareness can apply for an Earthwatch Fellowship sponsored by the Millennium Commission and Royal SunAlliance. Expeditions work with wildlife across the world and all costs are covered. This year's applications are closed but there are opportunities for 1999 (Earthwatch, 57 Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6HJ, 01865 311601).

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