Rumours have been spreading that Komodo Island will be closing for one year starting in January 2020. While nothing has officially been announced by the Indonesian government, both Indonesian and international media have reported the closure as “news” and the effects have been rippling through the tourist industry.
Many local people who work in tourism on the nearby islands of Lombok and Flores are concerned about the rumours of the closure affecting their businesses and livelihood. Travellers have already started cancelling their 2020 holiday plans to Indonesia after reading the news, or simply planning to travel elsewhere.
Says traveller David Flower – “We booked a two day trip, one day of which was going to Komodo Island. We heard the news about closing and contacted the company. They said that we can still do the tour but that we may have to change the itinerary. We decided to cancel as we really wanted to visit the dragons on Komodo Island. There does seem to be some confusion over whether the island will be closing or not, but we didn’t want to take the risk. We will visit one day.”
So will Komodo Island really be closing?
The real answer = Nobody knows yet.
As our friend, Ibey, who runs the popular Lombok to Flores boat trip, said: “It’s still discuss.”
Most of the tourism in this region is based around the infamous Komodo Dragons, many of which inhabit the island of Komodo. However, what many people do not know is that Komodo’s neighbouring Rinca Island also has a large population of the dragons, as do several other islands in the archipelago, not forgetting Flores Island itself!
According to Live Science, there are 1,700 dragons on Komodo, 1,300 on Rinca, 100 on Gili Montang and up to 2,000 living in the Mbeliling Forests on Flores Island. Other sources say that dragons also live on the island of Padar.
In total, UNESCO figures state there are around 5,700 Komodo Dragons currently living throughout the entire Komodo National Park on five of the 29 islands.
Given that it is possible to see Komodo Dragons on several of the islands of the national park, as well as the fact that the decision to close Komodo Island has still not yet been confirmed, there is really no need to cancel a trip to this part of Indonesia in 2020.
So why do they want to close Komodo Island anyway?
Following in the footsteps of other popular Southeast Asian islands, Koh Phi Phi and Boracay, Komodo Island is believed to be closing for conservation reasons, mainly to protect the most famous inhabitant of the island, the mighty Komodo Dragon. The island will be closing to all people, not just tourists.
Apparently, the closure comes in response to the smuggling of 41 Komodo Dragons that was recently exposed by the East Java Police. The dragons were allegedly sold abroad for the price tag of 500 million rupiah each (approx. $35,000 US).
The other major problem is the illegal hunting of deer on the island which has been going on for some years. With the deer being the main source of food for the dragons, the hunting threatens the survival of the dragons. The closure will allow time for local deer populations to replenish.
Travel writer, Samantha Lego, took a trip to Komodo Island recently to find out more about the plight of the Komodo Dragons and the recent tourism boom…
Daily Struggles of the Komodo Dragon
A large, scaled head emerged from the depths underneath the conservation hut. Its tongue flicking out and tasting the moisture in the humid, sweaty air. As he pulled himself out into the open, his large, reptilian body swayed with the effort of moving through the heat of the midday sun.
Suddenly, motion to the right had everyone jumping back in fright. Another, considerably larger beast had entered the arena, lunging out with a powerful force of his hind legs, he launched himself onto the intruder. The weight of the larger male pushing down, flattening the first into the dust and asserting his dominance over his foe. Sensing his defeat, the submissive dragon crept back to his hole to settle into motionless once again.
These power struggles take place daily on Komodo Island. Yet little do these dragons know, there is an even bigger power struggle happening on their behalf.
The Growth of Tourism on Komodo Island
Komodo Island is at a crossroads. There is a tourism boom happening in Labuan Bajo, on the nearby island of Flores, including a recent, major upgrade to the regional airport and the construction of new, luxury hotels. Due to these changes, visitor capacity has shot from 150,000 to over 1.5 million for the UNESCO-protected Komodo Island National Park in East Nusa Tengarra.
Due to this increased accessibility to the region, more travellers are flooding to this island chain, drawn by the thrill of encountering the fearsome living dragons!
Komodo Dragon numbers were up 48 per cent from 2017 to 2018. And while only 10 per cent of the park is actually open for tourists, if visitor numbers continue to climb, more infrastructure would be needed to accommodate them within the park, creating a vicious circle which would impact the dragon’s already limited habitat.
To combat this, the government is channelling a lot of money and resources into preserving the reptiles as an aspect of national identity. As such, they are rumoured to be planning the year-long shut down of Komodo Island. All in order for this talisman of Indonesian culture to recover from the recent waves of over-tourism.
The Effect on Local Business
Friends who run dive schools and boat companies in Lombok and in the town of Labuan Bajo, Flores and the surrounding areas have naturally been concerned about the rumoured shut-down. A closure would mean a great knock to visitor numbers and therefore, the livelihood of many people working in tourism in the region.
Amidst panic, representatives of the island travelled to Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, in February to meet with the Vice President, Mr. Jusuf Kala, to ask about the future of Komodo Island and Komodo National Park.
According to a blog posted by local company, Wicked Diving, Flores representative Ms Marta Muslin reported the following from her meeting with the VP: “It is fake. It is not true.”
Furthermore, the Director of Nature Conservation and Ecosystems, Mr Wiratno, at the Ministry of Conservation and Forestry also claimed, on February 22nd, that the rumours of closing Komodo National Park are false.
“It is devastating to have big news channels report this as being true, and as ‘news’.” Says Anne from the Flores company, Wicked Diving.
“Many local people here depend on the tourism industry for their income. Numbers to Komodo National Park and Flores have been dropping since the first rumours were spread early this year. A delegation from Flores went to visit the Vice President to find out the truth. They were told it is not true. The Director General of Nature Conservation and Ecosystems wrote a statement about it, to stop the rumours. Then the media picked it up and some even stated the whole of Komodo is closing!”
She continues: “There are 29 islands in the National Park, one of them is Komodo island. The total park covers 1,733 km2 of area. Komodo dragons can be observed on four islands. Please come and visit; snorkel with manta rays, walk on pink beaches and visit uninhabited islands. Please share the message – Komodo is Open!” #Komodoisopen
So what next for the Komodo Dragon?
The reptile is on both the protected and endangered species list. Their status is marked as vulnerable by the National Geographic.
Although flourishing on Komodo and Rinca, dragon numbers are falling on the smaller islands and on Flores. Experts say that Komodo dragons are in jeopardy and could very well become extinct because of human activity on the islands, mainly due to the over-hunting of the dragons’ food sources, the local deer.
Conservationists are worried that without protective measures to replenish their prey, the fierce dragons could turn to cannibalism and their hard-won numbers would soon plummet, putting them again, at risk of extinction.
The largest lizards on Earth
While their species’ position may be fragile, the dragons themselves are not. Known as ‘oras’ to the small populations of local Muslim fisherman, they are the largest lizards on earth, weighing up to 300 pounds and measuring up to ten feet long.
In the mornings, when the cool air gives them the energy needed to move, they hunt wild deer, Timor pigs and water buffalo that populate the island, smelling blood and death from more than nine kilometres away. Once fed, they become rather docile, spending their afternoons lazing in the shade or in their burrows. This is why it’s common to see deer within striking distance of dragons with no hint of fear. It’s also how they allow tourists on the island with seemingly laughable safety measures. Guides are only armed with long, wooden sticks against what is so obviously an apex predator.
Due to their large size, it’s unsurprising they spend the heat of the day lethargic and still, but Komodo dragons are swift when they need to be, moving at speeds of up to 30 kilometres per hour. If that’s not daunting enough, their bites are venomous. A dragon’s jaws contain sophisticated venom glands which cause paralysis, muscle spasms and prevents blood clotting which causes their prey to bleed to death. While exceptionally rare, dragons have also been known to attack and maim humans, with 30 incidents recorded since 1974, including five fatalities.
The fight is real
They may not rank on the cuteness scale like other iconic Asian animals, such as pandas, but Komodo dragons have proven to be a catalyst and rallying point for both locals and visitors to bring strong conservation values to Indonesia.
The Komodo dragon is a creature of fantasy, but on these few islands, they are very real. Without human intervention to prevent hunting and poaching on the island, as well as sustainable tourism measures put in place, they soon could become a recent memory… left to the imagination of future generations about when dragons once walked the land.
Whether the shut down of Komodo Island will go ahead or not, it’s clear that something needs to be done to protect Indonesia’s most iconic creature, and one of the most extraordinary animals on the planet.