Category Archive 'Komodo Dragon'

13 Sep 2008

I’m Not Retracting

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Carel Brest van Kempen and friend

An August 25 WSJ article blamed a management plan by outside environmentalists which prevented feeding of komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) by residents of Kampang Komodo for the large monitor lizard’s increased opportunism and aggression, and for occasional incidents of human predation.

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.”

This sounded like a good story to me and I blogged it here.

On the other hand, I have since found via Steve Bodio, that Carel Brest van Kempen, a Nature artist who knows his Oras as well as the local area, has a very different perspective, and makes a persuasive case contradicting the WSJ.

Mr. van Kempen says the village traces its origin to a penal colony, was settled by piratical Bugis fisherman from Sulawesi (whose ancestors were so naughty, he alleges, they inspired the English term “bogeymen”). The village has grown to 1600 residents, and Mr. van Kempen disapproves. “An unchecked human explosion will doom the dragons, ” he believes. Drastic measures were imposed by a 25-year plan drafted by outside experts. Mr. van Kempen endorses that plan, considering it “a thoughtful and practical attempt at a rather Sisyphean task.”

That Sisyphean task is obviously keeping the ora habitat free of local settlements.

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.

If one actually reads the plan, one is obliged to conclude that the poor ignorant villagers, persons of low education who thoughtlessly reproduce themselves and get in the way of ecological progress are being first prevented from fishing by the most effective techniques and for the most marketable catch. Meanwhile, a totalitarian regime regulating intimate details of daily life (Don’t spray pesticides! How much water are you using? No dogs or cats, or wives from off-island, either!) must make things unpleasant indeed for residents, who are clearly being not all that subtly nudged to pack up and go away.

Once they’re gone, in comes the multi-million-dollar beach resort for eco-tourism, offering reef snorkling and dragon watching for beaucoup dollars per diem.

Steve Bodio and Matt Mullinex were dazzled by the details that van Kempen throws around, and by his obvious personal acquaintance with the neighborhood. I’m not persuaded. I remain permanently suspicious of Sarastro and all his expert planners, and on the basis of habitual preference for underdogs, I remain on the side of those local fishermen who are clearly getting pushed around.

The oras will clearly make out. The Indonesian government can make a good buck selling glimpses of this kind of unique wildlife to tourists, so they’ll be well protected.

No retraction from me.

25 Aug 2008

Environmentalists Turned Dragons into Maneaters

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The Wall Street Journal describes how policies imposed by environmentalist outsiders are making it difficult for human residents of Eastern Indonesia to co-exist with Varanus komodoensis.

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.


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