Dragons really exist. No, they can’t breathe fire. And you definitely won’t see them fly through the air (unless you’re viewing a SpaceX launch—the reusable spacecraft is named Crew Dragon). But at 10 feet in length and more than 136 kg, Komodo dragons are the closest thing we’ve got to the mythical beasts that haunt our dreams (and kids’ cartoons).
The cool thing about these creatures is that even though they are massive meat-eaters, they are also extremely accessible. You can see them at zoos throughout the U.S., such as the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky, Toledo Zoo & Aquarium in Ohio, or Pittsburgh Zoo in Pennsylvania, which have recently reopened after COVID-19 shutdowns. Other zoos with Komodo dragons—currently closed due to the pandemic—include the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. and the Bronx Zoo.
But to see them in their native habitat, you would have to travel to one of four Indonesian islands. What you cannot do is wander by yourself—because the woods are full of dragons.
This has led to the creation of a thriving tourist industry that can get you up close and personal with the gigantic, carnivorous beasts. But visitors do need to take serious precautions before entering Komodo National Park. To protect the dragons’ habitat, less than 5 per cent of the park is open to tourists, and each visitor must be accompanied by a guide or ranger armed with a 6-foot-long wooden staff.
“They use that to just push the dragon off if one takes a bit too much interest in you,” says Rob Pilley, a herpetologist and wildlife filmmaker.
“We have this phrase,” says Tim Jessop, an integrative ecologist at Deakin University in Australia. “We consider Komodo dragons deadly, but not dangerous.”
Jessop has been studying Komodo dragons for about 20 years, and what he means is that it would certainly be possible for one of these behemoths to take down an adult human. The reptiles can open their jaws nearly 180 degrees, their teeth are flat blades like those of a great white shark, and they can explode out of the underbrush to ambush prey. Oh, and Komodo dragon saliva contains a rudimentary venom that reduces blood pressure and increases bleeding.
But despite all of this, a variety of factors make death-by-dragon highly unlikely.
The world’s largest lizards are ectotherms, for starters, and this means their energy levels vary with the heat of the day. But even when they’re all charged up after basking in the sun, that energy must be carefully conserved for foraging and mating. More than anything, these lizards are prone to lounging.
In 2018, Rob Pilley was in Komodo National Park filming a segment for an upcoming PBS documentary called Nature: Spy in the Wild 2. It was early August and the height of the dragon breeding season. And this means that large males the size of crocodiles were engaging in ritual combat where they wrap their forelegs around each other and rise into the air before crashing back down.
“Ultimately, the winner is the one who body-slams the other one onto the ground,” says Pilley.
“These dragons are pumped up on testosterone. They’re looking for fights. And they’re really, really cross, because they are also ravenously hungry.”
All of which makes for great footage, of course. But Pilley and his crew’s attention to the dragons in their frames made them vulnerable to other dragons lurking in the scrub. And that’s where the rangers and their sticks come in handy.
“You’ve literally got to have eyes in the back of your head, because dragons, they come out of the bushes,” says Pilley. “Several times we’d be sitting there filming these guys squaring off, and another male would suddenly turn up behind us and the rangers would be like, ‘Get up, get up, get up!’”
Most importantly, Pilley says you should never run from a Komodo dragon. Why? Because that’s what prey animals like deer and pigs do. And you don’t want a dragon to confuse you with a prey animal. Fortunately, with an expert guide at your side, visiting with the dragons can be done safely, and injuries to tourists are essentially unheard of.
Livestock owned by local people often aren’t as lucky, though. And this can put Komodo dragons at odds with humans, just like lions in Africa or tigers in India. But Achmad Ariefiandy is working to change that.
Ariefiandy is an ecologist with an Indonesian nonprofit called the Komodo Survival Program. Each field season, he and his team trap and implant microchips into as many dragons as possible, providing some of the first data ever recorded about how these lizards spend their days. The program also works to educate locals about the value of sharing their habitat with dragons and how better grazing practices can help reduce losses to the islands’ top predators.
These animals exist only in Indonesia, says Ariefiandy. And they’re already listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“If these animals go extinct, people can never see them again,” says Ariefiandy. “So we need to really protect them.”
Komodo National Park is currently closed to visitors on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that might end up being a good thing for the dragons. In July of 2019, authorities had planned to close the national park for the entire following year, saying that the presence of so many visitors had started to impact the animals’ breeding and feeding habits. However, that decision was overturned in September, and the park remained open until Indonesia started to limit international travel in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. So it seems the Komodo dragons got their respite after all.
There may be other animals in the world claiming the name dragon—bearded dragons, Chinese water dragons, and otherworldly looking aquatic seadragons. There are dragonflies, pink dragon millipedes, tiny gliding reptiles known as flying dragons, deep-sea black dragonfish, and sharp-scaled dragon snakes. But of all the animals on this planet that have been named after mythical reptiles, nothing compares to the Komodo dragon.
Foot-long forked tongues. Venomous slobber. Scales like medieval chainmail.
“They really are kind of a dark hero in this tiny pocket of the world,” says Jessop.