The first Komodo dragon I saw in the wild was a gorgeous adult female, blocking the trail like a two-metre-long sentinel in Indonesia’s Komodo national park. For a moment, in my awed mind, she was a mythical dragon demanding payment for passage. But this thought was quickly scuttled as two tourists raced in front to capture a selfie with the apex predator. The agitated dragon ran off into the underbrush – they were lucky she didn’t run the other way and bite off one of their legs. I’d travelled thousands of miles to see a Komodo dragon and it had just been scared away by reckless travellers.
Now, a major upgrade of Labuan Bajo regional airport is set to bring more tourists to the 29 islands that make up the Unesco-protected park, potentially threatening its eponymous beast. The airport used to handle 150,000 tourists a year; now it can accommodate 1.5 million, with its new terminal and lengthened runway.Garuda Indonesia now flies there at weekends from Bajawa and Denpasar.
The world’s largest lizard, the Komodo dragon is arguably Indonesia’s best-conserved large animal. Protected under Indonesian law, the population is relatively stable with around 2,500 animals in the park and another 2,000 on larger Flores island, though this population faces habitat loss. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s populations of orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos continue to plummet as rainforest is destroyed for palm oil, mining, timber and paper industries.
People here truly appreciate the dragon, my guide, Arman Rikardus, told me. He said increasing tourism meant that locals like him didn’t have to move to Bali to find work, although they have witnessed a sudden rise in inflation as the number of people moving to Labuan Bajo pushed up the cost of food and housing.
He also warned that if tourism gets out of control, the demand for new infrastructure could cut into the dragon’s already limited habitat. At present, less than 10% of the national park is actually open to the public, so many of the dragons are able to live out their lives without ever running into a selfie-snapper.
The government hopes to mitigate the impact of more tourists: entrance fees for foreigners were recently increased sharply – a day pass with tax now costs between £10 and £15, plus an extra £5 for a guide – in a bid to raise more revenue. The park has also stopped the practice of feeding goats to dragons for tourist entertainment.
Currently, the biggest threat to the dragons is the poaching of deer which is their prey, and the rise of human populations. The species shares the park with nearly 4,000 people, many of whom supplement their incomes by selling curios and snacks to tourists. The dragon dominates the food chain and underpins the local economy.
The local government hopes that tourists will start venturing beyond dragons: Flores is home to several stunning volcanoes, rare birds, and the cave where scientists discovered homo floresiensis – Flores man, also known as the hobbit of Indonesia. The region has some of the best diving and snorkelling on the planet. For all that, the Komodo dragon is still the star attraction: outside the new airport sits a massive statue of the area’s favourite resident. You can take a selfie with this one without the risk of losing a limb.