Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Monday, March 06, 2017


Today is the 37th birthday of one of the world's most interesting and important National Parks, Komodo National Park in Indonesia's Lesser Sunda Archipelago. In North America, much has been made lately of the importance of our national park system in protecting biodiversity, and while it's probably true that it's our strongest tool for that job, that's less an endorsement of the parks than an indictment of our success in protecting biodiversity. With a couple of exceptions, the National Park tradition in this part of the world is to protect beautiful scenery rather than hotspots of biodiversity, but in the rest of the world, it's more common for national parks to take on that job, and Komodo National Park is one of the best examples of this, and an example in microcosm of the Sysiphean nature of that task. 

Komodo National Park was founded by the government of Indonesia in 1980 as a continuation of a long effort to protect the planet's largest lizard, the Komodo Dragon, or Ora (Varanus komodoensis). Oras were first protected by law in 1915 by the Sultan of Bima, just three years after Peter Ouwens first described the species to European science. In 1928 the Colonial Dutch Government declared the island of Komodo a wilderness reserve, adding Padar and southern Rinca 10 years later. Today's park spans part of Nusa Tenggara Timur, in the Sunda chain between the major islands of Sumbawa and Flores, comprising the entire range of the Ora, outside of the large and heavily-populated island of Flores: the islands of Komodo, Padar, Rinca, Gili Motang, and all of the tiny adjacent islets. 

Oras can reach ten feet in length. A couple of other monitor species can equal this, but those are more slender, long-tailed animals well under half the weight of an Ora of similar length. Like practically all members of their family, Oras are carnivores. Opportunistic generalists, they eat carrion, small prey like rodents and snakes, and kill mammals as large as Timor Deer (Cervus timorensis floriensis), Timor Pigs (Sus scrofa vittatus) and Water Buffalo (Bubalis bubalis). All three of these large herbivores were introduced by humans: the pigs probably long ago, the other two in the 19th century, the buffalo by Floresians and the Deer by the Sultan of Bima, from the island of Sumbawa. The preeminent Komodo Dragon scholar Walter Auffenberg surmised that the species originally evolved to feed on the dwarf elephants Stegodon sondaari and S. florensis that inhabited the region until a few thousand years ago, and transferred their techniques to the large newcomers. As far as I know, reports of Oras preying on the wild horses (Equus caballus) that the Sultan of Bima introduced to Rinca have yet to be confirmed.
Auffenberg also credited Oras with the ability to kill prey with a septic bite, a story that has only recently been debunked. Controversy continues to swarm about the nature of their bite, which contains complex toxic proteins capable of inducing hypothermia, paralysis, haemophilia and loss of consciousness. Oras are capable of stuffing themselves with as much as 50% of their own weight. Such a meal can sustain them for over a month. Usually everything but the hair and bones are digested, ultimately leaving nothing but a dry fecal pellet. 
  The lizard I'm befriending in the photo above is a tame one at the Bali Reptile Park. It, like practically all captive Oras, is descended from a few lizards captured on Flores in the 1980s. These lizards are distinct from those of other islands, where they lack the bluish tones. It seems like genetic transmission across the narrow strait between Flores and Rinca has been minimal, presumably due to the treacherous currents there. In the late 1980s, the population on Padar vanished after a wildfire scorched most of the island, and it's likely that the surviving Oras, unable to find prey, swam to nearby Rinca. Since the fire, Timor Deer have recolonized the island, and park officials are considering translocating Oras back to Padar, a notion I object to, since the lizards are arboreal for the first two years of their lives. Since there are not yet many large trees on the island, any experimental introductees would likely eat their offspring faster than they could produce them.

The island of Flores is well populated with humans, although Labuan Bajo is the only town on the western end of any size. The Oras on this island have been persecuted as livestock-killers for centuries, and they persist only in a few rugged areas. In what numbers is anybody's guess, but it's likely that between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals survive on the island. At the moment, probably around 1,200 call Komodo home, while 1,000 are shared between Rinca and Nusa Kode. Fewer than 100 live on the single arid cone of Gili Motang. 
  Oras can live as long as 50 years, and they become sexually mature at 4-5 years of age. Beginning in June, males, who outnumber females by more than 3:1, become more active, attempting to domineer and intimidate other males, while seeking, courting and eventually copulating with females. 
The courtship season lasts through August, and eggs are usually laid a couple of weeks after fertilization. More often than not, the female selects an orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt) mound as a nesting site. Like other members of their family, these birds construct huge piles of sand mixed with leaf litter where their buried eggs are incubated by the compost. The female Ora guards her 12-30 eggs for four months, until they hatch. From that time on, they're on their own. 
Komodo National Park is mostly uninhabited by humans; only four villages occur within its boundaries. Komodo Village (Kampung Komodo) is by far the largest of these, with around 1,600 inhabitants. Small human settlements have come and gone over the centuries, but Komodo Village is the biggest the island has known. It was established early in the 20th century by the Sultan of Bima as a penal colony. Bugis fisherman from Sulawesi, drawn to the region's rich fisheries, also settled here (the Bugis have a long tradition of seamanship; in past centuries, the region's most feared pirates were of this ethnicity, and European sailors returned with terrifying stories of them, giving rise to the term “boogie-man”). 

More recently, ethnic Manggarai from Flores have joined the population, which has exploded from a mere 30 citizens in the 1920s. Culturally, Komodo Village is still closer to Bima than anywhere else. It is situated across the bay from Loh Liang, the Park's main ranger station and visitor's center. On the island of Rinca, two villages, Rinca (settled near the turn of the 20th century) and Kerora (settled in 1955), are each less than half the size of Komodo. A small eponymous village on the island of Papagaran completes the list of human habitation, save a handful of research and ranger stations with part-time populations. 
Each village boasts an elementary school, but college-preparatory studies are out of reach. The communities are dependent on fishing, which supplies 97% of village income. Squid, shrimp and milkfish (Chanos chanos) are the most important quarry, but mantis shrimp, sea cucumber, abalone, and various groupers, tuna, sharks and billfish have historically been sought after. Most farming is subsistence-level only, although some produce is sold in markets, along with some wild products like Tamarind (Tamarindus indica), a dominant tree on the islands. A growing number of Komodo Village artisans make their living selling woodcarvings and other crafts to tourists at Loh Liang.
In 1995, officials of Komodo National Park, along with the Indonesian Government, local municipalities and experts from the Nature Conservancy, began hammering out a 25-year management plan for the Park. This plan, designed to cope with expanding human populations, both permanent and transient (especially tourists) while maintaining a viable Ora population and a healthy Marine environment, began implementation in 2001. Thoughtful and practical though it is, the plan has met with controversy in Indonesia as well as abroad. It has been inaccurately criticized by anti-conservation activists in the USA as a plan foisted on the Indonesians by western conservationists. One of the most outrageous smears appeared in the Wall Street Journal article When Good Lizards Go Bad, where Yaroslav Trofimov manufactured a preposterous theory that the plan had changed the behavior of Oras, causing them to kill Humans in the park.

Today, the Oras are in no imminent danger. Their populations are currently declining, but not to a worrying degree. Deer, pigs and other dragon food abounds on Komodo and Rinca, but an unchecked human explosion will doom the dragons. More urgent is the situation beneath the ocean's surface. This part of Nusa Tenggara is especially rich. Its vast coral reefs contain crucial spawning grounds for Napoleon Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) and other fish of great economic importance to the region. The Management Plan bans a number of destructive and effective fishing methods, including explosives and poisons, reef gleaning, long lines, gill nets and demersal (bottom) traps, effectively restricting fishermen to using hook and line and traditional light nets. It also imposes catch limits and denies access to grouper and Napoleon Wrasse spawning grounds. A long list of fish species is proscribed, as are all marine invertebrates except squid. Some rather Draconian measures have been taken on land. All immigration has been disallowed; not even marriage confers a right to residency in the Park. Dogs and cats have been banned, as have most other domestic animals, save goats and chickens, and restrictions have been put on use of fresh water. The gathering of firewood is no longer allowed and the laws prohibiting hunting of deer, pigs and buffalo are being strictly enforced. It's the fishing restrictions, though, that have impacted the already struggling villagers the hardest, and they've caused considerable anger. There have been shootouts between rangers and fishermen, resulting in several deaths. Balancing the needs of the burgeoning villagers and those of the finite ecosystem is difficult, and the fact that it's being imposed from outside causes real resentments.
For powerful predators adapted to kill large prey, it's surprising how rare Ora attacks on humans are. The earliest documented fatality was a 1931 attempted predation on a 14-year-old boy, whose adult companions frightened the lizard off, but couldn't prevent his death of blood loss. Some years later, an adult deer hunter who fell ill was left behind by his companions. They returned to find his lifeless remains partially eaten by Oras. A similar case in 1974 was the 78-year old Swiss Baron Rudolf von Rading, who, after climbing ¾ of the way to a summit, decided against completing the hike, urging his friends to to go on without him. They returned to the appointed meeting place to find nothing but his camera and spectacles. The marker above commemorates this spot (with camera and glasses placed for effect). Another death took place a year ago in June of 2008, when a 9-year-old boy named Mansur had the rudest possible interruption of a backwoods bathroom break. As in the 1931 case, the Ora was chased off by adults, but the boy died quickly of blood loss. Park officials attempted, but were unable to track the animal down. This was the fourth confirmed death (all occurred on Komodo Island) from an Ora, although there have been many non-lethal bites and unsubstantiated stories (many from Flores), a good portion of which are probably true. The fact is that Komodo Dragons are, and always have been a danger to people where the two coexist, but only a modest one. Their behavior towards humans has not changed; as always, an attack is unlikely but unpredictable. 
Mr. Trofimov's WSJ article made much of a supposed ancient and mystical Komodo Village rite where Oras were fed to keep them from attacking. No such custom ever existed. It is true that legend considers humans and Oras relatives (actually more like cousins than reincarnations of ancestors), but the ritual described in the article most likely refers to on-site gutting of poached deer, for the Management Plan prohibits no other type of dragon feeding. The goat sacrifices that Trofimov mentions were staged for tourists in exchange for cash at the site in the photos above. The top pic shows the observation platform. Behind it is the famous commode, for which the island was named (okay, that's a fabrication of my own). The lower photo shows the view from the platform. The concrete ring was a pool built to attract Oras. A goat was staked in the clearing behind this pool for the benefit of park visitors. These sacrifices were discontinued in the '90s as a result of changing attitudes and the basic understanding that teaching Oras to associate humans with feeding is a pretty lame idea. 
  The dilemma of Komodo village is a microcosm of what we all face. A century and a half ago, Alfred Russell Wallace traveled this region and marveled at the simplicity of island ecology. In that simplicity, he could see how organisms change and adapt, just as Darwin did in the Galápagos. In the same way it seems painfully obvious to us how limited the good citizens of Kampung Komodo are by the resources of their little island.
(This post is a revised version of my original refutation of Yaroslav Trofimov's WSJ, which I originally posted in September, 2008.)

upper: SPARRING KOMODO DRAGONS (2009) oil on canvas 48" x 72"
image #5: photo taken by Steve Derham at Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. All other photos taken by CPBvK at or near Komodo Nat'l Park, Indonesia