Indonesia Says Tourism Threatens Dragons

Is tourism endangering one of the world’s most iconic lizard species? It seemed that way after the unexpected announcement that Komodo National Park in Indonesia, home of the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) may be partly closed to visitors for a full year.

But scientists say the Komodo dragons in the park are doing just fine. They claim that instead of keeping tourists out, Indonesia should do more to protect Komodo dragons outside the park.

Komodo National Park consists of a group of islands with a total land area of 407 square kilometers. The two largest ones, Komodo and Rinca, are home to Komodo dragon populations and are open to visits by tourists; some 160,000 people came in 2018, most of them foreigners. Tourism has made the Komodo dragons “tame” and less inclined to hunt, according to Viktor Laiskodat, governor of the East Nusa Tenggara province, where the park is located. In addition, rampant poaching has reduced the number of Timor deer (Cervus timorensis), the dragon’s main prey; as a result, the dragons have become smaller in size, Laiskodat recently claimed. To “manage the Komodo dragon’s habitat,” Komodo Island should be closed to visitors for a year.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry could halt the plan. The tourism industry is pushing for intervention. Tour operators around East Nusa Tenggara oppose the plan. The chairman of the West Manggarai chapter of the Association of Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies said the association, as well as tour operators around the province, reject the government’s plan to temporarily close the national park for improvements.

And there is no need for the partial shutdown, says Maria Panggur, a scientist in charge of ecosystem monitoring at the park. According to government data, the park was home to a healthy population of more than 2,700 Komodo dragons in 2017, with more than 1,000 on Komodo Island. A study by the Komodo Survival Program (KSP) in Denpasar, Indonesia, and colleagues found that the populations on both Komodo and Rinca have remained relatively stable between 2002 and 2014. It claims that the the population is stable within the national park area.

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Human activity does have some effects on the population. A 2018 study by Purwandana showed that animals exposed to tourism—which get fed—were bigger, healthier, less alert, and had higher chances of survival than dragons elsewhere. But tourists can only visit about five square kilometers of the park; about 95 percent of the Komodo dragons are isolated from them, so the impact is minimal, Panggur says.

Laiskodat is right that illegal hunting of Timor deer appears to be common; In December 2018, for instance, police intercepted 100 dead deer shipped to a harbor in nearby West Nusa Tenggara. But it’s not clear how keeping tourists out would solve that problem, and “there has been no statistical proof for the decline of the deer population,” says Achmad Ariefiandy, lead scientist at KSP.

“If the governor really wants to protect Komodo dragons, he should start looking at Flores,” the province’s main island, Panggur says. Northern Flores is home to a Komodo dragon population of unknown size that is “more sensitive to extinction,” because of its proximity to humans and the lack of conservation resources, says Tim Jessop, an integrative ecologist at Deakin University in Waurn Ponds, Australia, and a scientific adviser to KSP. There are several reports about people killing dragons because they attacked cattle.

The Flores population is considered significant because is isolated from the western populations. A DNA study confirmed that they are very different genetically from the populations on Komodo and Rinca. Retaining this diversity is extremely important for the species’ ability to respond to climate and habitat changes.

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