[words & photograph © Mark Eveleigh]
“A dragon killed a big monkey behind the kindergarten last week,” seven-year-old Fatima is telling me. “The dragon was huge… and even the monkey was bigger than some of the little kids.”
The ‘kindergarten’ she’s referring to is really just a humble little breezeblock hut behind the tiny fishing village that’s her home on Rinca Island. The ‘dragon’ in question is one of the world’s most formidably fearless predators.
Even at first sight the mysterious islands of the Komodo archipelago can be intimidating places. Dappled by a stormy monsoon sky, they rise out of the Indonesian sea in great humpbacked ridges that are covered with windblown savannah grasses and spiked with the tousled heads of lontar palms. Just across the straits on Flores Island such palms are tapped for illicit hooch known as sophie. But on Rinca there are no sophie-tappers. Most people in Fatima’s village are Muslims but, even so, few people risk spending more time than strictly necessary in the dragon-infested wilderness that lies beyond the village perimeter.
“We don’t leave the village without good reason now,” one old man told me as we sat by the ramshackle jetty that is, to all intents and purposes, the only gateway to Rinca village. “If we need firewood or to collect fruitwe go in groups…always armed with sticks and machetes.”
“Something has happened to the dragons here lately,” his wife chirps in. She has the glazed eyes and dark stump-teeth of a betel-nut chewer. “They were never so fierce before but now there are people being attacked every month and we lost more than twenty goats already this year.”
Not far from the couple’s house is the work-shed where, just the week before, an old lady was attacked. 83 year old Ibu Haisah needed 35 stitches but was lucky to escape only with the loss of one finger and the few pints of blood that she left on the rice sacks in the shed.
This was the latest of five serious attacks in the four months before I arrived on the little island.
These separate incidences were not just territorial warnings, mock charges or cases of mistaken identity: given the chance the dragons would certainly have eaten their victims.
A recent study by Indonesian NGO Komodo Survival Program estimated that little Rinca Island has about 12 dragons per square kilometer. You’re never far from a potentially lethal predator here but the odds are raised substantially when you live in a village that’s permeated with the scent of goats and the sun-dried ikan bugis fish that is a staple diet here.
Experts believe that Varanus komodoensis (as the world’s biggest lizard is scientifically known) may have evolved to such spectacular size – the biggest recorded in the wild was 3.13m long and weighed 105kg – to hunt a pygmy elephant that once lived in these forests. A dragon’s jaws are capable of crushing even the thigh bones and hooves of the big buffalo and wild horses that graze here and even a relatively small dragon would be capable of killing an adult human. The dragons are aware that all it takes to bring prey, literally, to its knees might be a single shredding bite: the diabolical saliva that drips uncontrollably from a hungry dragon’s jaws contains not only 50 types of bacteria but also the toxic anticoagulant that ensures that a severely bitten victim will eventually bleed to death. By the time this has happened, however, other dragons will have been attracted to the feeding frenzy by scent that they can detect over a distance of four kilometres.
We watched a commuting colony of three thousand flying foxes and swam at night amid phosphorescent plankton that rippled around our bodies like blue neon.
The little boat that brought us to the island had deposited us here via a roundabout cruise among the churning currents and infamous reefs of the Komodo archipelago. We’d haggled for fair price to charter the little skiff from Labuhan Bajo port on the west coast of Flores and the diminutive skipper Pak Bandy and his mate Erdi had piloted the Cahaya Komodo faultlessly through the channels to Komodo main island. We’d trekked on Komodo and stood within a few feet of the big dragons that doze in lazy (though unpredictable) clumps around the ranger station. We’d watched a commuting colony of three thousand flying foxes and we swam at night amid phosphorescent plankton that rippled around our bodies like blue neon.
We slept on deck in the bay at Komodo village and went ashore in the morning to drink hot sweet kopi with Pak Raisil, a community leader.
“We have dragons here sometimes,” he told me. “We hear the children shouting ‘Ora! Ora!’[Dragon! Dragon!] and we run to chase it away. We lose a goat from time to time but it’s a long time since anyone was attacked here.”
Just across the water on Rinca there is an unmistakable feeling of tension however. A couple of mbau (as the dragons are called on Rinca) doze at the Loh Buaya ranger station here too – Mr Mansur, a dragon with a broken leg, is a permanent resident for example. But here the doorways are fenced and kept closed and rangers and visitors alike are constantly reminded to remain alert. One of the bloodiest attacks took place here when a big dragon ambushed a ranger from under his desk inside the main office. It took the other rangers some time to fight the dragon off and, meanwhile, a frenzy was developing among other dragons that came galloping to the scene, attracted by the smell of blood.
The equatorial sun has not yet risen above the treetops when a young park ranger called Aris leads us into a jungle valley behind Loh Buaya. He carries a long forked staff for protection. All over Africa rangers, in far less risky situations, are forbidden from leaving camp without high-calibre rifles yet it seems that these sticks are – in conjunction with a stout pair of legs for running – the only line of defense against dragon attacks for Komodo National Park rangers.
They say that the first people who lived here were rebels exiled by a king of Sumbawa,” Aris tells me. “I guess he figured that the dragons would kill anyone who was left here.
We’ve been searching for an hour and have seen only monkeys, big Sunda deer, wild pigs and countless jungle fowl. The giant reptiles maintain a low profile although I have the unsettling feeling that they’re watching us.
“The dragon you see lying by the trail is not dangerous.” Aris says. I notice that when the ranger talks he twists sideways back over his shoulder but his eyes rarely waver from the bush around us. “They attack from behind with terrible speed. You never see the one that gets you.”
Like the Nile crocodile and the great white shark, the Komodo tends to attack with lightning speed from unseen ambush. Unlike either of these super-predators, however, the dragon is not restricted to water and ranges far and wide across land and sea (they have even been seen swimming between islands). I soon realize that I am in the company of the man who has probably racked up more miles trekking solo around Rinca than any other. Aris regularly walks back to his home in the village when he finishes his week on duty at Loh Buaya. The walk takes him about seven hours straight over the highland ridges that are home to wild horses, deer, buffalo and, of course, dragons.
I always see several dragons when I walk up there,” he says. “I’ve been chased a few times but I think my god will always protect me.
Suddenly the stillness is split by an ominous sound of cracking timber from across the valley. I wonder under my breath if Aris’s god will maybe protect me too. Just this once.
But it is just a tree cracking, weakened perhaps by the recent monsoonal downpours. It hangs for a moment, slumping against its neighbours, branches linked as if it’s being supported by old friends. Then it slips, and falls with an almighty crash.
There is just time for the noise and dust to settle when we’re surprised by the sound of more crackling in the underbrush behind us. There is so much noise that I assume it must be a buffalo but suddenly we find ourselves in the no-mans-land between two big dragons and what they hope will be dinner. Apart from being masters of ambush dragons are quick-thinking opportunists. The din of crashing timber, the squeals of panicked macaques, the squawk of scattering jungle fowl could spell bad news for some unfortunate jungle creature.
Aris pushes us backwards down the trail, his staff poised towards the nearest dragon. We cringe back into the bushes and try to blend in, feeling more vulnerable even than the little macaques in their treetop refuge. The dragons flick their forked tongues, tasting the air, hoping to catch the acrid scent of blood. Then they turn and lumber up the trail towards the fallen tree.
I’d trekked often through predator territory: tracked jaguars on foot in Central America and black panthers in the Kenyan highlands; camped in tiger country in India and once found myself face-to-face with seven lions in a remote Ugandan park. But nothing had prepared me for the suspense of even a short walk through the domain of the Rinca dragons. It’s a refreshingly humbling experience to realize that all around you in the bush are giant reptiles that could potentially make a meal of you in a few short minutes…and that your only deterrent is a forked stick.
The world’s super-predators serve to remind modern man that his place at the top of the food-chain is not entirely assured and little Rinca Island is one of the most dramatic locations in the world to experience this feeling.