Photo: GOH CHAI HIN / AFP
For millennia, it roamed several Indonesian islands unchallenged except by others of its own kind, and yet the Komodo dragon has slipped a notch on the scale of the world’s inhabitants threatened with extinction, as climate change and human activities close in on its habitat.
Able to grow up to 10 feet (3 meters) long and weigh 150 pounds (68 kilograms) or even more, Komodo dragons are a top-tier predator capable of sudden bursts of ferocious energy to pursue their prey. They are feared and revered for their size, speed, strength, and venomous bite.
But following a recent assessment of the species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has moved the world’s largest lizard from “vulnerable” to “endangered” on its Red List of Threatened Species.
“Because Komodo dragons have a very restricted geographical range, and thus a low dispersal capacity, climate change could thus negatively affect Komodo dragons,” Mark Auliya, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Monitor Lizard Specialist Group, told VICE World News.
Rising global temperatures and sea levels are expected to reduce the Komodo dragon’s suitable habitat by at least 30 percent in the next 45 years, the IUCN said in a separate statement.
Having a “low dispersal capacity” means a species is not well able, if at all, to move away from its birth area and establish itself in a new habitat. Komodo dragons are endemic to a number of islands in Indonesia, most famously Komodo island where the giant lizard derives its name. Despite pandemic travel restrictions, they remain one of the country’s biggest tourist draws, and authorities are controversially trying to build a “Jurassic Park” style resort to capitalize on the interest, a move that has drawn widespread criticism.
In Indonesia, the species has eight subpopulations living among the five islands that comprise the Komodo National Park, and on Flores island.
“Populations of the Komodo National Park are currently considered stable and well-protected. However, the majority of the Komodo dragon population on Flores still remain unprotected,” Auliya said.
The IUCN estimates the total Komodo dragon population to be about 3,458, excluding very young hatchlings. A majority of the animals are found within the Komodo protected area, and it is the ones outside that are more imminently threatened.
More than 30 years ago, the Komodo dragon population on Padar island, one of the five in the current protected area, had gone extinct but was repopulated in 2004. Auliya said the poaching of deer, one of the lizard’s most common prey, was suspected to have caused their extinction on the island in the late 1970s.
“Adverse human behavior such as changing habitat, fires, livestock conflicts, roadkills, invasive species, and illegal off-take may threaten a subpopulation of the species, and the magnitude of these threats vary among islands and subpopulations,” Auliya added.
On Flores, a mountainous island with some dense forest and savanna, human settlements are taking over wild areas and reducing Komodo dragons’ geographical range. The IUCN found that Flores loses 1 percent of its forest every year, which would amount to 45 percent in a span of three generations. Human hunters also compete with Komodo dragons for deer and other animals the lizards feed on.
Efforts to protect Komodo dragons on Flores are underway, including the establishment of the Wae Wuul nature reserve on a portion of the island, Auliya said. Ranger posts were installed, along with programs to inform local communities about the plight of the species.
No other predators pose a threat to Komodo dragons except other Komodo dragons. The lizards have been known to turn on one another when food is scarce. Their hatchlings stay on trees to protect themselves from the adults, which live on the ground.
In August, the Indonesian environment ministry said the tourism project dubbed “Jurassic Park” will push through at Komodo National Park despite warnings from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization that it could have a negative impact on the environment, Reuters reported.
The report quoted environment official Wiratno as saying the project would proceed as “it’s been proven to have no impact.”