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Komodo: Here Be Dragons!

The Hunt-Lennox globe map of approximately 1510 is thought to be the first that used the phrase ‘hic sunt dracones’(here be dragons !). The words appeared off the eastern coast of Asia, and may refer to Chinese sailors’ tales of real dragons on a few small Indonesian islands. The western world only confirmed the presence of these dragons in 1910 when a Dutch man was able to photograph and skin one of the giants, a Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis Ouwens).

Komodo dragons are the largest living lizards in the world and have been a stable species for around 90 million years. They are thought to have evolved from giant monitor lizards from Australia, but have been isolated so long that they became a species in their own right. The average size of a male dragon is 8 to 9 feet long and about 200lbs in weight. These creatures may offer one of the closest experiences we can get similar to that of walking with dinosaurs.

Their skin is rough and durable, reinforced with bony plates called osteoderms. They have very good vision (of up to 300m) and are also very speedy, being able to reach speeds of 13 mph. All these traits help them with their carnivorous diet, and to life up to the reputation of being a dragon.

Furthermore, komodo dragons are such fierce hunters they can eat very large prey such as water buffalo, deer, pigs and the occasional human. Larger individuals have also been known to cannibalise smaller dragons. These beasts can eat 80% of their body weight in one feeding, enough to see them through a long time of lethargic behaviour. The dragons have a particularly ferocious hunting technique. First, dragons spring up and knock their prey to the floor with their huge feet. The lizards have highly infectious saliva which contains 50 strains of bacteria, with a single bite to its prey, the animal will die within 24 hours from blood poisoning. After attacking, the dragons will retreat to bide their time until their prey slowly and painfully die.

The Komodo dragon is not only unique due to its hunting behaviour, they are one of the only animals able to reproduce without male fertilisation. This is down to a process of asexual reproduction known as parthenogenesis. This was only discovered in 2006, when a dragon called Flora mothered five baby dragons at Chester Zoo, despite never having been kept with a male. However, in all documented cases of this phenomenon, females have only produced male offspring. This incredible reproductive process allows for females to enter an isolated ecosystem and produce offspring that can become founding members of a new population. Although scientists are looking into just how viable this trait could be due to the potential detrimental effects of inbreeding between offspring and mother.

In the wild, ground nests of the Megapode bird (Megapodius reinwardt), are often used by female Komodo dragons for laying eggs. These nests are mounds of earth and twigs more than 150cm high and 5m-6m in diameter. The dragons avoid ‘putting all of their 'eggs in one basket’ by laying their eggs in a number of separate nests, in order to avoid mass predation. On average mothers lay around 18 eggs, having incubation periods of around 220 days. The mother dragon not only incubates her grapefruit-sized eggs but often builds decoy nests to confuse predators (often other dragons).

At birth the baby dragons are only 30cm long, and so very vulnerable. As soon as they hatch, the young will run away and climb up trees to avoid being eaten by other komodos or potentially even their mother. When they are around four years old (around 1.2 m), the young dragons will come down from the trees and live on the ground. Those dragons that make it past their early years can expect to live a fairly stress free life lasting as long as 30 years.

Moving on, Komodo dragons have a very limited population range and are only found in the wild on four islands in Indonesia. These are the lesser Sunda Islands of Komodo, Rinca, Gili Montang and Gili Dasami – all being within the Komodo National Park. These island habitats are a mixture of tropical dry forests to savanna like deciduous monsoon forest. In general these islands are rather barren and extremely hot with average temperatures of 35 c. The naturally low range of this species leaves them vulnerable to expanding human populations and interference.

The current population of dragons seems relatively stable at about 5,000 animals yet scientists are concerned that only 350 of them appear to be breeding females. This may be a normal sex ratio; little is known about the species. However, the dragon’s limited distribution makes them highly susceptible to natural or human-caused events, such as storms, fire, or disease.

Primary threats to the dragons include illegal hunting and loss of habitat to human settlement. Before conservationists got involved the dragons were sought after as trophies by big-game hunters. In the early 1900’s many dragons were trapped for sale to zoos and private collectors around the world. It is not just the hunting of the dragon that was a concern, but dragons were having to compete with people who were hunting the same prey. Over hunting of deer, pigs and buffalo; slash-and-burn agricultural methods and high competition with feral dogs began to put pressure on dragon populations.

Komodo dragons are offered some protection from these issues as their entire home range is encircled by the Komodo National Park that was established more than 30 years ago. Still the IUCN have classified the dragons as being vulnerable to extinction, the truth is we still know little about their population dynamics and so this threat could well be more severe than we think.

As with any conservation effort, the hardest part is trying to identify the most effective way to begin. From a conservationists point of view, the population needs to continually be monitored so that any changes are immediately known. It is also important to characterise the genetics within the current population to detect genetic bottlenecks. Captive breed insurance colonies have been developed with the Smithsonian Zoo, having successfully hatched over 55 offspring now living in more than 30 zoos around the world.

As well as the scientific side of things, environmental education programs are being used to help local people understand the importance of the dragon and why they are beneficial in the ecosystem. This work can be funded by a burgeoning tourist industry that has grown around the Komodo national park, with thousands of people a year paying to come and see the dragons. This tourism also offers incentives to the local people to protect the dragon as they bring in so much money into the local economy.

After 90 million years of existence I feel that it is important that we do all we can to protect our planets dragons. The komodo national park is a place of wonder and majesty, it would be a shame if future generations could not experience this extraordinary world. Recent research has shown that we should not just protect them for the sake of the dragons, but they could help humans too. Dragon blood plasma could be used to develop medication for humans as it contains a powerful antibacterial substance that is being used to develop new antibiotics. This should be a lesson that we should protect all the wonders of our world, one day they might save us.

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