Indonesia's Komodo National Park attracts a particular kind of traveler, eager to see the namesake dragons that exist nowhere else in the world. The place is remote, scorching hot and barren as a bone, prowled by hundreds of giant carnivorous lizards that can outrun humans and tackle water buffalo. The world's largest lizard grows up to ten feet long and more than two hundred pounds, capable of eating half its own weight in a single meal. Aided by wind, it's also able to smell fresh blood as far as five miles away. As one might expect, the archipelago that comprises the park is almost uninhabited. Almost. In the coastal village of Kampung Komodo, many ethnic Bugis fishermen have managed to coexist with the 1,200 dragons who dominate the island.
The dragons do turn on the humans. In June 2007, a nine-year-old boy was attacked while relieving himself in the brush on the fringe of the village. The dragon was chased away, but rapid blood loss proved fatal for the boy, one of just a handful of documented deaths over the years. The presence of as many as 50 strains of virulent bacteria in the lizards' saliva means just one bite can kill if untreated. The villagers build their homes on stilts and keep their goats on raised planks as extra precautions. In the evening hours, when the dragons are most active, they rarely stray beyond the glow of outdoor lanterns. And, as a rule, red clothing is avoided since it can be mistaken for blood and attracts attention.
Inevitably, though, there are times when the lizards come down from the hills to poke around. Villagers respond with sticks and stones: Public fork-shaped sticks are widely available, but if none are at arm's reach even children reflexively throw rocks that send them on their way. Short of these, locals say it's best to project as big a presence as possible by barking, flailing one's arms, and stomping feet. An aggressive posture will, in most cases, make the dragons back off as they prefer a sneak attack from the shadows over a direct confrontation.
Some say the reptiles are coming down from the hills more often to feed on animals, but the Bugis insist the dragons have done more good than harm by luring outsiders and their money to their far-flung island. The Bugis augment their living by selling woodcarvings of the lizards, known as Oras, to visitors arriving at the park entrance across the bay on privately chartered boats or the occasional cruise liner. The lizards "live here and we have our families, so we must share," says Komodo native Kadir Ahmed. "The dragons are our friends."
It is a symbiotic relationship. The mostly Muslim Bugis on Komodo do not eat the Timor pigs that are a staple of the dragons' diet, and have generally refrained from hunting deer and water buffalo, leaving the dragons with abundant prey that have kept populations up. "They are really the perfect people to live here because they understand how important the dragon is [for their livelihood]," says Yusuf Sahabun, a veteran park ranger. Although poaching occurs, he notes that offenders these days are generally not from the island. The same goes for the fishermen who illegally use dynamite to blast Komodo's hyper-diverse coral reefs, threatening an underwater ecosystem that offers world-class diving.
Strict, and, some would even say, draconian measures devised by the Indonesian government have curtailed such problems in recent years, making the place a rather austere destination for tourists. Some of these rules trouble villagers like Abdul, 28, who contends that life on the island is already "so, so difficult." Reduced tourist traffic from the economic recession has further pinched his earnings as a wood carver. Conservationists with the Nature Conservancy, the Virginia-based environmental group enlisted by the government to help manage the park, counter that while the dragon population is not in serious danger, unchecked human activity would spell extinction.
For now, however, the dragons have their way. Inside the park deer and pigs roam aplenty, ready to be ambushed with a stealthy burst. There is no need to venture far to see them in action, either. There are always a few loitering around the visitor's center, enticed by the scent of cooking food. The rangers, accustomed to their habits, give them a wide berth. But first-time visitor Daniel Irvine of Burlington, Vermont, practically stumbled into a pair resting in the shade of a cabin as he rounded a corner moments after arriving. "I didn't expect it would be that easy to see them," he says. From then on, he kept his head on a swivel; and carried a big stick.