Once a Komodo dragon is caught in the trap, the researchers restrain it with ropes, then take measurements and draw blood for genetic studies. They implant a small microchipessentially an ID tagunderneath the skin behind the right hind leg and harness the creature with a radio transmitter.
Each island has a distinct genetic population of lizard. Ciofi takes blood samples from lizards in all islands to determine the relationships between the populations, effectively creating a family tree for the species.
Eventually, researchers may decide to repopulate the island of Padar. The genetic data gathered on the other islands will help choose the right lizards to colonize the island.
"Claudio is a superb biologist and a major player in genetic and captive breeding research," says James Murphy, a research associate at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. Murphy recently retired as curator of herpetology at the Dallas Zoo where he worked for thirty years.
"But Claudio's main contribution is that he has alerted people, in particular the Indonesian government, to the threats facing each population of Komodo dragons."
Threats to the Dragon
On Flores, Ciofi believes that dragons probably once ranged throughout the entire island. But now, with a human population of 1.5 million, the dragons are thought to inhabit only parts of the western and northern coasts.
On both coasts the dragons face threats. In the west, poachers set fires to the savanna to frighten deer out of the area, which they then kill. The fires destroy the lizard's primary habitat. Between 1991 and 1998, after fires had ravaged nearby savanna, researchers noted a 25 percent drop in the number of dragons in the Wae Wuul Reserve on the west coast, which suggests than man is indeed impinging on the dragons' territory, according to Ciofi.
On the northern coast, farmers employing slash and burn agriculture are destroying the dragons' forest habitat.
Ciofi emphasizes human development must be sustainable balancing the welfare of both the local community and the dragons. Preserving the dragons and their habitat, for example, benefits the community by bringing tourist revenues.
Ciofi is establishing a field research station on the west coast of Flores Island, near the headquarters of a national park. The station will serve as a training center for rangers and a temporary storage facility for blood samples. It will also provide Internet access for data analysis.
Ciofi is collaborating on his research with professor Putra Sastrawan of Udayana University in Bali, local villagers and the Indonesian government.
Komodo dragon breeding programs around the world depend on this from-the-field genetic data to maintain their populations.
About 300 Komodo dragons live in captivitymore than 60 of which have been born and bred in the United States. Since November, seven baby Komodo dragons have hatched at the Denver Zoo, in Colorado.
"I never dreamed that someday I would be raising seven little dragons," says Rick Haeffner, curator of reptiles and fishes at the Denver Zoo.
Strengthening the Komodo dragon's genetic legacy helps preserve these creatures in Denver and in Indonesia. The dragon also serves as an "umbrella species," says Ciofi, protecting other less charismatic critters that also share the distant islands.
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