I have recently returned from a journey to Rinca Island, within Komodo National Park, Indonesia. Thanks to funding from a Zoo Conservation Fellowship, the purpose of my visit to this remote location in the Lesser Sundas region was to assist Indonesian biologists from the Komodo Survival Program (KSP) for a week of gathering data on the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo Dragon.
This giant monitor lizard, which grows to 3 metres in length, is found only on a handful of small islands within close proximity to each other.
After leaving Sydney, my first port of call was Bali, a stopping point on the way to the islands. Here I met with Dr Tim Jessop from the University of Melbourne. Tim has spent many years studying Komodo Dragons and is a renowned expert on the species, publishing much of what is now known about the ecology of the lizards. Together we travelled by a small plane to Labuan Bajo, a small fishing town in western Flores, where we joined with the KSP team for dinner. The KSP team, led by dedicated biologists Deni and Achmad, gave us a briefing on recent findings and their field season so far. Upon hearing of recent happenings, one could not help but become excited at the week to come and the opportunity to see and work with these large majestic predators on an island that they dominate. The following morning, we left on a boat for a two hour trip to the ranger post of Loh Buaya, on the island of Rinca.
Immediately upon arrival, we set to business carrying supplies and equipment to the sleeping quarters before assembling the traps onto backpack carriers. A total of eight, three metre long traps were carried out to predetermined locations within the monsoonal forest, bordering on the open savannah. With extreme humidity and heat, carrying the traps with an awkward load of up to 25kg through the forest presented a welcome workout. When assembled, the traps offered a safe and harmless way to capture the dragons. Each of the traps was baited with goat meat, with a further bag of rotting goat meat hoisted above the trap to lure the dragons close. Twice a day for the next week, we would be checking each of these traps for dragons in addition to capturing any dragons found wandering through the forest.
Whilst locating and capturing dragons on the island, numerous other fauna were also encountered. This included the large, introduced mammalian prey of the komodo dragon, with a number of water buffaloes seen wallowing during the day and pigs and herds of deer found foraging at night. Reptile species were also prevalent throughout the forest, with five snake species located during the week, including the beautiful green pit viper and Russell’s viper. The call of large and boldly-marked tokay geckos could be heard loudly at night, as they hunted on the buildings and trees around the ranger post. Even a number of smaller mammals were present on the island, most notably the two microbats that circled above my head whilst I slept, generously removing the mosquitoes hovering above me.
Over the course of seven days, 27 dragons were captured ranging from hatchling lizards to giant beasts that had surely been roaming the island for 30 years or more. The data collected from this research provides the KSP team an accurate estimate of their population trends and conservation needs. It has also provided information on many other aspects of their ecology, including their nesting behaviour, prey density and thermal biology. Very impressive also was the dedication and commitment of the KSP team. Each day, they proved to be a very resourceful and efficient cohesive unit, with a combination of two researchers and three field staff from Komodo and Rinca Island. The team and their tremendous work ethic ensure that the future of the Komodo Survival Program is in good hands.