The Komodo Dragon

Local legend says that the dragons—members of the monitor lizard family and often called Komodos for short—are descendants of a lost child who took refuge in one of their burrows. Modern science reports that they evolved from dinosaurs that lived in Asia some 130 million years ago. Indonesian cultures have known about them for centuries, and they may have inspired dragon myths throughout Asia, but the rest of the world did not believe the legend until a Dutch Indies army officer brought back evidence in 1911. A year later, Peter Ouwens, curator of the Bogor Botanic and Zoological Gardens in Java, published a landmark paper on the species, bestowing them with the scientific name Varanus komodoensis. The popular "Komodo dragon" moniker was coined by Douglas Burden, who led an American expedition to the island in 1926—also said to have inspired the movie classic King Kong. Since then, the creatures have attracted all sorts of international attention, including that of the Cousteau Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and the World Wide Fund for Nature. A classic account of early, adventurous times on the island is Sir David Attenborough's Zoo Quest for a Dragon, written when he was a BBC executive at just 27 years old.

Today, the 2,000-some Komodo dragons in the park area are the largest lizards on Earth. They lay soft, white eggs, which hatch in April or May, and can live up to 50 years. Young Komodos are excellent tree climbers. Mature dragons have sharp hearing and a keen sense of smell that can pick up the scent of carrion from 11 km (7 miles) away. To chase down live prey, they can run at speeds of up to 28 km (18 miles) per hour, and they can gobble down three kilograms (six pounds) of meat in a minute. Excellent swimmers, Komodos have been spotted cruising the waters more than a kilometer (½ mile) offshore. Reliant on the sun for body heat, they're generally active during the daylight hours, and usually hunt in the afternoon. Deadly weapons include their tail, used to knock down prey; serrated teeth that deliver poisons to disable quarry; and razor-sharp claws, which they use to slash through a victim's belly. Komodo attacks on humans are rare but not unheard of, so exercise caution around them. Guides carry forked sticks that they use to push the massive dragons out of the way when necessary.

A Final caveat: Remember that the dragons aren't the only danger here—there are giant spiders, scorpions, and venomous vipers. Thus, a guide must accompany everyone outside the main visitor compound. Always walk carefully and be conscious of your surroundings: you're in a wildlife refuge where humans are the intruders.

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