When Good Lizards Go Bad: Komodo Dragons Take Violent Turn
By YAROSLAV TROFIMOV
August 25, 2008; Page A1
KAMPUNG KOMODO, Indonesia -- At least once a week, an unwelcome intruder crawls under a clapboard wall and, forked tongue darting, lumbers its way into Syarif Maulana's classroom.
"Then, everyone screams, there is no more school, and we all run away very fast," says the 10-year-old boy. "We are very afraid."
The intruder, a Komodo dragon, is the world's largest lizard, an ancient, fierce carnivore found only on a handful of remote islands in eastern Indonesia. Reaching 10 feet in length, the dragons feed on buffaloes, deer and an occasional human. Just a year ago, a boy about Syarif's age died in a dragon's jaws, his bones smashed against rocks to facilitate reptilian digestion.
That killing, and a spate of other close encounters, has fanned a panic in the dragons' main habitat, the Komodo National Park. Touted by Indonesia as its "Jurassic Park," this rocky, barren archipelago is home to some 2,500 dragons and nearly 4,000 people, clustered in four fishing villages of wooden stilt houses.
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.