These locals have long viewed the dragons as a reincarnation of fellow kinsfolk, to be treated with reverence. But now, villagers say, the once-friendly dragons have turned into vicious man-eaters. And they blame policies drafted by American-funded environmentalists for this frightening turn of events.
“When I was growing up, I felt the dragons were my family,” says 55-year-old Hajji Faisal. “But today the dragons are angry with us, and see us as enemies.” The reason, he and many other villagers believe, is that environmentalists, in the name of preserving nature, have destroyed Komodo’s age-old symbiosis between dragon and man.
For centuries, local tradition required feeding the dragons — which live more than 50 years, can recognize individual humans and usually stick to fairly small areas. Locals say they always left deer parts for the dragons after a hunt, and often tied goats to a post as sacrifice. Island taboos strictly prohibited hurting the giant reptiles, a possible reason why the dragons have survived in the Komodo area despite becoming extinct everywhere else.
For us, giving food to the dragons is an obligation, our sacred duty,” says Hajji Adam, headman of the park’s biggest village, Kampung Komodo.
Indonesia invited the Nature Conservancy, a Virginia-based environment protection group, to help manage the park in 1995. An Indonesian subsidiary of the group, called Putri Naga Komodo, gained a tourism concession for the park in 2005 and is investing in the conservation effort some $10 million of its own money and matching financing from international donors.
With this funding and advice, park authorities put an end to villagers’ traditional deer hunting, enforcing a prohibition that had been widely disregarded. They declared canines an alien species, and outlawed the villagers’ dogs, which used to keep dragons away from homes. Park authorities banned the goat sacrifices, previously staged on Komodo for the benefit of picture-snapping tourists.
“We don’t want the Komodo dragon to be domesticated. It’s against natural balance,” says Widodo Ramono, policy director of the Nature Conservancy’s Indonesian branch and a former director of the country’s national park service. “We have to keep this conservation area for the purpose of wildlife. It is not for human beings.”
When people hunt deer, it poses a mortal threat to the dragons, which disappeared from a small island near Komodo after poachers decimated deer stocks there, officials say. “If we let the locals hunt again, the dragons will be gone,” says Vinsensius Latief, the national park’s chief for Komodo island. “If we are not strict in enforcing the ban, everything here will be destroyed.”
But, while the deer population remains stable in the park, many dragons these days prefer to seek easier prey in the vicinity of humans. They frequently descend from the hills to the villages, hiding under stilt houses and waiting for a chance to snap at passing chicken or goats. Much to the fury of villagers, park authorities, while endorsing the idea in principle, so far haven’t acted on repeated requests to build dragon-proof fences around the park’s inhabited areas. The measure is estimated to cost about $5,000 per village.
“People are scared because, every day, the dragons come down and eat our goats,” complains Ibrahim Hamso, secretary of the Kampung Rinca village. “Today it’s a goat, and tomorrow it can be our child.”
A year ago, a 9-year-old named Mansur was one such victim. The boy went to answer the call of nature behind a bush near his home in Kampung Komodo. In broad daylight, as terrified relatives looked on, a dragon lunged from his hideout, took a bite of the boy’s stomach and chest, and started crushing his skull.
“We threw branches and stones to drive him away, but the dragon was crazed with blood, and just wouldn’t let go,” says the boy’s father, Jamain, who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name.
Unlike in the U.S. and many other Western countries, park rangers here don’t routinely put down animals that develop a taste for human flesh.
A few months later, Jamain’s neighbor Mustaming Kiswanto, a 38-year-old who makes a living selling dragon woodcarvings to tourists, and whose son had been bitten by a dragon, was attacked by another giant lizard after falling asleep. In June, five European divers, stranded in an isolated part of the park, said they successfully fended off an aggressive dragon by throwing their weight belts at it. …
To the villagers in Komodo, the recent incidents provide clear evidence of an ominous change in reptile behavior. “I don’t blame the dragons for my boy’s death. I blame those who forbade us from following custom and feeding them,” says Jamain. “If it weren’t for them, my boy would still be alive.”
Officials at the Nature Conservancy’s Indonesian headquarters in Bali dismiss such widespread belief about a connection between the attacks and the ban on feeding the dragons as “superstition.” The group and its Komodo subsidiary reject any responsibility for Mansur’s death.
The boy “shouldn’t have crouched like a prey species in a place where dragons live,” says Marcus Matthews-Sawyer, tourism, marketing and communications director at Putri Naga Komodo. “You’ve got to be very careful about extrapolating and drawing any conclusions.”
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.