Komodo is done. The island and national park in Eastern Indonesia, famous as the only place on Earth where you can find Komodo dragons living in their natural environment, is shutting down for at least a year after a steady stream of tourists has dramatically changed the local ecosystem.
"The NTT government will reorganize and improve the Komodo National Park so that it can further sustain Komodo habitats," Viktor Laiskodat, the governor of East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), told Tempo. "We plan to close the park for an entire year."
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The Komodo dragon, a giant—and deadly—monitor lizard, are endemic to the islands in Eastern Indonesia and no where else. Thought to be an example of island gigantism, they are the top predator in whatever ecosystem the live in thanks to their voracious appetites and strong, toxic bites. The creatures are a major draw to the Komodo National Park, which spans three islands, and are responsible for the region's $2 million-a-year tourism industry. It pulls an average 120,000 people to an otherwise remote part of the country, at least 63 percent of which come from abroad.
But, as we've seen in so many other places recently, all tourism might be good the economy, but it's often bad for the environment. In the past year, Boracay, in the Philippines, was shut down to tourist arrivals after its iconic beaches became what President Rodrigo Duterte called a "cesspool" awash in raw sewage. In Thailand, Maya Bay, in Thailand's Phi Phi Leh was shut down as well in a bid to save its reefs—made famous by the movie The Beach—from total destruction.
That plan seems to be working, with local marine scientists recently reporting a return of the reef's blacktip reef sharks after being gone for years. Could it be equally effective in Komodo, an island chain that the governor laments has lost its "wild" state in recent years?
The NTT government has allocated Rp 100 billion ($7 million USD) to "restructure" and redesign the national park. The money will be used to restock the island with its Timor Deer population—a primary food source for the Komodo dragons—as well as plant new trees and update its infrastructure.
The Komodo dragons, once seen as feared predators, have gotten listless and docile in recent years amid a flood of tourist arrivals and easy food to scavenge. No one wants to pay all that money to see some sunbathing lizards, the governor argued, so he wants the part to return some of the wild to this wilderness. He basically wants tourists to see the kinds of scenes caught on nature documentaries like Planet Earth II and less of the stuff that crew saw but didn't include in the doc (like Komodo dragons in your bathroom).
The governor blamed the theft, or poaching, of its local Timor deer population behind both the laziness of the dragons and their now smaller size. It's unknown how reducing tourist arrives will stop poachers too, but the logic here seems to be that the island needs time to replenish its deer populations.
“The Komodo dragons are not as huge as they used to be because the population of deer, which are their main food, continues to decline following rampant deer theft in the region,” he told Tempo. “Their animal instincts will surface if the food chain is cut. If their main food is abundant, their instincts will be different. That is what motivates the government to temporarily close the area to tourists for a year.”
While the park itself will be closed for a year, the rest of the islands, like Rinca and Padar, will remain open for non-Komodo dragon tourism.
"The plan to close Komodo National Park will only be applicable for Komodo Island," the governor told the state-run news wire Antara. "Tourists can still visit Rinca Island, Padar Island, and others."
It's still unknown when the park will shut down, but it's expected to take place sometime in 2019. It's also unknown what will become of the more than 130 people directly employed by the park to help guide tourists and keep them safe from the dragons.
The Ministry of the Environment and Forestry said it needs to review this idea and speak with the Ministry of Tourism before anything happens. A local official can't "unilaterally" decide to shut down a national park, a ministry official told the Jakarta Post.
But the park might be just one of many tourist locations in Southeast Asia to temporarily shutter in an attempt to reverse years of damage. Islands and beaches in Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia are often the kinds of bucket list destinations that vacationers overseas dream about. But few places are able to cope with the impacts of adding thousands—or millions—of new arrivals to a place with shoddy infrastructure and little environmental planning or protections.
It creates a situation where the same natural wonders that draw tourists to these locations are then slowly destroyed by the same people. The residents who live nearby the national park only have to look at Gili Lawa, a tiny island nearby that was completely burned to the ground earlier this year by (allegedly) a cigarette ember.