Land of Dragons. Flores Islands

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

That salvia has a deadly cocktail of over 60 bacteria

Published first in Mail Today (Jul 2016)

For the lay, Eat, Pray, Love tourist, Indonesia is Bali and Bali Indonesia.  For them it is as if the other 17000 or so islands of this archipelago do not exist at all. But Indonesian islands were to British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, what Galapagos islands were to Charles Darwin, both regions helping them formulate their theory of evolution independently.

Interestingly however, in what may be one of the scientific world’s freakish misses, Wallace, who spent eight long years painstakingly studying, chronicling and discovering thousands of species in this part of the world, lived much like the Bali revelers, in complete oblivion of a beast that today is wild Indonesia’s hottest emblem. The komodo dragon, in fact remained shrouded in mystery until as late as 1910, when one of them was killed and its skin sent to scientists in Java.

Today komodo dragons cold-stare you from hoardings, coins, souvenirs, brochures and T-shirts across Indonesia.

 (sanjay austa austa)

Komodo Island. One of the five islands where the dragons dwell

“Komodos here are not tame. Not like in Zoo”. Our guide is at pains to impress on us the ferociousness of the world’s largest lizard. He is one of the many who narrate to us the unfortunate incident of a Swiss trekker who many years ago, went off the beaten path in the Komodo National Park and was made short work of by the dragons.

“It is lucky if you find the komodos and lucky if you don’t”, the guide concludes epigrammatically.

We take it all in, in the 40 minute speedboat ride to Komodo National Park from Labuan Bajo, the largest city in Flores Island, and a springboard for Komodo National Park excursions.

Komodo National Park includes   four of the five islands where the dragons live. These four islands are brown with clumps of green clinging only about their coast. A perfect habitat for the cold-blooded that like to sun in the dry savannah grass.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Baby dragons have to keep out of reach of the cannibalistic adults.

The dragons however also sun themselves right on the pier making for a frightful reception committee. However when we alight at Komodo Island, we meet only fork stick wielding rangers at the other end of the long wooden pier. Along with the island’s herbivores; the buffalos, the wild boars, and the deers, humans are also on the dragon’s menu and the forked sticks come in handy to stave them off .

Thankfully on our trek in the savannah , the rangers don’t launch into a maddening dragon chase, a la the tiger safaris in India. Our ranger, like a latter day Wallace stops for every bird sound in the trees and any scampering in the undergrowth. However in the dappled light of the midday sun, the birds are camouflaged and we only get a good glimpse of a brightly coloured jungle fowl.

The ranger then turns his attention to the trees. He tells us in particular about the galand or the palm tree. It’s different from the palm tree whose cultivation has wrecked havoc in large swathes of Indonesian jungles, particularly in Borneo. This one is a wild variant, with no oil, bearing fruits only once in its lifetime. After bearing fruit- perhaps having thus fulfilled its evolutionary duty- it dies. “ There is a soft place inside this tree which is inhabited by geckos and baby dragons”, the ranger informs us. The baby dragons, barely twelve inches at birth, no sooner hatched, scamper up trees like this, to hide from cannibalistic dragons including their mother.

DCIM@GOPROGOPR1562. (sanjay austa austa)

The dragon habitat is surrounded by beautiful coral reefs

“Komodo no good mama no good papa”, as the ranger puts it. The baby dragons live in their arboreal confines for as long as four years until they become bigger, eventually tipping the scale at about 70 kilos. This is when they lose their ability to climb, keeping in turn other baby dragons out of their reach.

A short walk away we see an array of fork stick armed rangers hard pressed to keep a menacing dragon at bay. He swaggers, head swinging from side to side, tasting the air with its forked tongue. Another dragon – the bigger of the two – lies absolutely stationary. From both their mouth drips saliva, which scientists say has over sixty deadly bacteria.

The aggressive one is the female says one ranger. No it’s an adolescent says another. They debate. But soon concede its hard to tell a male from a female. Males in the dragon world however are pretty much dispensable. The dragons are one of those few miraculous creatures capable of Immaculate Conception. In the absence of a male, the female dragon reproduces asexually.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

An adult dragon can weigh upto 70 kilos

What made these dragons so big? The dragons are a perfect example of what biologists call ‘island gigantism’. Cold blooded reptiles if geographically isolated for a long time have a tendency to grow larger, while big mammals have a tendency to grow smaller, a tendency the scientists call ‘island dwarfism’. Before man introduced the buffalo, the wild bore and the deer on these islands, the dragons used to feed on the now extinct pygmy elephant.

Wallace, besides chasing butterflies and insects, was always on a look out for fascinating fauna in Indonesia. He found many but missed the most unusual of them all. How the dragons might have shaped his ideas on evolution is only a matter of speculation. But as strange new discoveries continued to be made in these islands east of Bali (the fossil of yet another human species; the Homo floresiensis was discovered here only in 2003) the last world on these islands has not been said yet.

2 Responses to “Land of Dragons. Flores Islands”

  1. Ushamrita says:

    Wonderful pictures.
    Informative article.

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