Travel: Into the lair of a dragon turned lounge lizard: Geoff Pope went to Komodo to watch the monsters feeding. He found something altogether more domesticated

THE Komodo Dragon, the world's largest lizard, reputed man-eater and pet to the Emperor Tiberius, is confined to three islands in Indonesia. Of these the island of Komodo offers the best chance of seeing a three-metre-plus monster. Situated only three islands out from Bali, Komodo is now proving a popular excursion.

Unfortunately, this popularity has now not only removed the element of chance from seeing these creatures but also has turned them into little more than circus attractions.

For a number of years it was common practice for visitors to Komodo to bring a goat with them; this would be killed by the wildlife wardens and used as bait to attract the dragons. As the popularity of Komodo increased, a feeding area became established and the lizards stopped doing what should have come naturally. Instead of hunting wild boar and spotted deer they preferred to hang around a dry river bed awaiting tourists bearing caprine gifts.

With the dragons becoming increasingly lazy, it was eventually decided to end the practice of having one goat for every group and instead to have regular twice-weekly feedings. So now on Wednesdays and Sundays a flotilla of small boats chartered from the neighbouring island of Flores, descends on Komodo to discharge a large, camera-toting human cargo. They walk past giant bush turkey nests, past the sounds of boar and deer scurrying through the undergrowth and past the helicopter landing pad built for President Suharto of Indonesia's visit in 1988.

Once at the dry river bed the 100 or so tourists are crammed into a wooden stand overlooking nature's arena, where the ever-obliging dragons devour the sacrificial goat.

When I first saw the dragons last year I managed to avoid feeding time at Komodo. Instead my first view was obscured by a Japanese television crew. Ideal fodder for documentary makers and tourists alike, the Komodo dragons have become a permanent, lethargic feature in the dry river bed.

With a guaranteed twice-weekly feed (more often if a wealthy tour party arrives willing to pay for a private viewing), the world's largest lizards have been encouraged to abandon their role in the food chain so that tourists can watch them eat.

Afterwards, the visitors drift back to their boats and the presidents to their helicopters, having watched these magnificent creatures in the same way as a long-ago visitor to Tiberius's villa would have seen the emperor throwing scraps of meat to his caged pet.

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