Trapping Komodo Dragons for Conservation

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
January 29, 2003
To catch a Komodo dragon in the dry deciduous monsoon forests of Indonesia's Flores Island, biologist Claudio Ciofi and his colleagues set a "10-foot mousetrap" with a freshly killed goat as bait. Then they wait.

The Komodo dragon, Varanus komodoensis, is the world's largest lizard, sometimes growing up to 10 feet long (3 meters) and exceeding 150 pounds (70 kilograms). Powerful as this creature seems, it has met its match in man's depredation. Ciofi's research stands to boost the species' population in the wild and in the world's zoos.

"These are charismatic beasts and not that much is known about them," says Ciofi, a research fellow at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. "Their habitat is shrinking fast, particularly on Flores, where the human population is growing rapidly and where there are few protected areas (for the dragons)."

The Komodo dragon qualifies as "vulnerable" to extinction, according to the United Nations' International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

The fearsome lizards, considered mythic by westerners until expeditions in the early 20th century, now live only on five small islands, 300 miles (500 kilometers) east of Bali: Flores, Gili Dasami, Gili Motang, Komodo, and Rinca.

The lizards also inhabited the island of Padar until about 1980, when they mysteriously disappeared. Researchers believe that there are either very few dragons here, or they have become extinct.

Ciofi estimates the remaining population hovers somewhere around 3,000.

In 1980, Gili Dasami, Gili Motang, Komodo, Rinca, and Padar all became part of the Komodo National Park. Later two reserves—Wae Wuul Reserve on the west coast and Wolo Tado Reserve on the north coast—were added on Flores. However, there is still much of the dragons' range on Flores that is not protected.

Trapping Dragons

During his visits to the islands over the last 10 years, Ciofi has had a hand in tagging and examining about 250 Komodo dragons.

The goat that Ciofi uses for bait is a favorite meal of the lizard, which can pick up the smell of carrion from three miles away.

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 microchip—essentially an ID tag—underneath 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 captivity—more 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.

National Geographic Today, 7 p.m. ET/PT in the United States, is a daily news journal available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to learn more about it.

Got a high-speed modem? Watch National Geographic Today in streaming video.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.