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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dragon Style

When I first heard about Komodo Dragons, I imagined them as small, adorable little reptile creatures, as though the name dragon were the inverse of a large man being nicknamed tiny.  I wasn’t prepared for the much larger reality of the animals that are not unlike crocodiles or alligators in form, size and behavior.

Komodo, a world heritage site and the main island where these dragons reside in eastern Indonesia, is reachable only by boat.  It was one of the principal attractions of our week-long cruise from Labuan Bajo, Flores to Bali. 

We arrived at the island in the early morning. During breakfast, vendors came onboard, offering small, carved wooden dragons of the size that I had been given to believe earlier were life-size, maybe two feet long.

Before our trek, we were advised not to wear red or orange colors, which attract unwanted attention from the dragons.  We should keep with the group, escorted by three locals with long sticks, who, we hoped, would protect us in case the dragons got rowdy.

Our first dragon sighting occurred quickly, just after our local guides briefed us on the geography of the island and safety precautions.  They then led us to an area they described as the kitchen, a short walk away from the entrance, where a low fire was smoldering.  The creature emerged, heaving one side of his body at a time, in a slow crawl.  As he got closer, within 30 feet from us, we heard him, “haaahhh,” like a witch at Halloween.  Viscous, poisonous saliva dripped from his mouth, his forked tongue hanging languidly from his mouth.  Not pretty.

More dragons followed.  A female, recognizable by her smaller head and shorter tail, emerged and lay about 20 feet in front of us.  A male approached her, somewhat hesitantly, it seemed, until he was on top of her.   Our guide smiled and told us this was love, dragon style.  Copulation seemed imminent, but she appeared listless, uninterested.  He didn’t push matters.  And so they lay for a while, one on top of the other, before he slowly wriggled away.

But despite their heft and otherwise slow movements, when hungry and prey is in sight, they can move surprisingly swiftly.  Thankfully, we didn’t have occasion to witness such a feat.

No, these are not gentle beings.  When hatched after nine months in an egg, the baby dragons instinctively climb up trees where they live for several years, until they feel safe enough to descend without the fear of being eaten by other dragons, including their parents.  And when they hunt, they bite their prey, poisoning them with the bacteria in their saliva.  They then follow the infected animal around for up to two weeks, before it collapses.  The feeding begins.  We noticed skulls of water buffalo and other unlucky victims here and there along our walk.

Occasionally, humans find themselves on the menu, having misjudged the intentions, ferocity and speed of the dragons.  Once bitten, they must be rushed to a hospital for treatment if they are to have any chance of survival.  But, according to our guide, the nearest adequate medical facility is in Bali, several islands and nearly 300 miles away.  And transportation in these parts is unreliable.

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