Education: Stories from the Field

Komodo dragon research: an interview with Dr. Tim Jessop

1. What is your current research agenda in regards to Komodo dragons?

At the moment we are conducting research to understand the population biology of Komodo dragons in Komodo National Park. Population biology is the study of how animal populations work with respect to births, death, survival, and growth. By studying these parts of the Komodo dragon’s biology we hope to learn many important things that will enable us to better conserve and manage these animals within the wild. In addition, we conduct many other types of research to understand how things such as prey availability and rainfall influence the biology of the different dragon populations across Komodo National Park.

2. Describe a typical day for you in the field.

Most days are long, hot, and sweaty as Komodo National Park is situated just south of the equator and the temperature remains hot year-round. A typical day’s work consists of waking early, usually at about 5 a.m., and then getting dressed for work. Because we do a lot of walking through the forest and savanna grassland, we need to wear clothing that will protect us from thorns, sticks, and the hot sun: long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and wide-brimmed hats. Most importantly, we wear good hiking shoes to enable us to walk over hills and across rough terrain. Because it is so hot and we tend to walk up to 12 miles (19 kilometers) a day, we must carry enough water to last the day out. We also carry backpacks full of equipment including measuring tapes, weigh scales, syringes and needles for taking blood samples, and many other things which we will use to conduct our research during the day. Before we set off it's very important we begin the day fully charged, so we eat a typical Indonesian breakfast of rice, noodles, fish, eggs, and fruit like bananas, pineapple, and watermelon. Although I’m not a big fan of hot drinks, my Indonesian colleagues also like to have a hot drink of either very sweet and strong coffee or tea; I usually try to drink about 3 to 4 glasses of water.

After breakfast I, along with research officers, local villagers from Komodo Island, and national park rangers, will head off on foot into the forest to check our traps which we have set up to catch Komodo dragons. We use about 8 10-foot (3-meter) long aluminum traps that break down into 3 sections so they can be carried on our backs into the forest. Each trap is set up under shade. To bring the dragons into the traps we use bait made of goat meat. This bait, especially after one or two days of hanging in the tropical heat, has a very strong and stinky smell that dragons can’t resist; eventually, one or more dragons will come in close to the trap and try to find the bait. Dragons do not use their nose to smell but instead use their forked tongue, which they stick out of their mouths and then place back inside a special place in their mouth to taste the air. Eventually the dragon will find the bait and begin to eat it.

To make the dragon go all the way into the trap we place small pieces of bait along the floor of the trap; at the end of the trap is a final piece of bait which is attached to a wire cable that, when pulled as the dragon swallows the bait, pulls the pin holding up the front door to the trap. Once pulled, the pin will release the front door with a distinct slamming noise as it closes the trap with the Komodo locked inside. At this point we go over to the trap and by looking into a small window at the top of the trap, we can see what size dragon is inside. Sometimes they are small and may weigh about 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms) while at the other extreme big males can weigh up to 176 pounds (80 kilograms).

The most important thing at this point is to secure the Komodo dragon to prevent it from hurting both itself and us; to do this we slip a rope over its neck so that the head is restrained, then we start at the back of the dragon and tie up its hind legs and then move onto the front legs, which we also tie with soft ropes. Once the feet are restrained, we move up and hold the head so that we can place tape around the snout of the dragon to make sure it cannot open its mouth and bite us. After this is done it is safe to conduct our research. First we check the dragon for its tag number or personal identification number. As most dragons look similar (at least to me) and do not answer to their own name, we use a small electronic device called a PIT tag, which is about the size of a grain of rice. If we have already captured the animal before it will have one of these small tags located under the skin on the hind leg. To read the tag we use a scanner, which will beep if the animal has a tag. During this time we also measure the animal for its length and mass to record growth and we collect blood samples so that we can undertake genetic analyses. Once we have finished with the Komodo we release it, re-bait the trap, and continue on to check the other traps we have spread throughout the forest. Every day we are trapping we check the traps twice a day, so we usually do not return to camp until about 5 p.m.

3. What interesting information have you found about Komodo dragons from your studies? How do you believe this contributes to the conservation of this species and its habitat?

Before we started this project many basic pieces of information that are needed to manage and conserve Komodo dragons were unknown, including how many Komodo dragons live on each island, how different are the populations among the islands, and do dragons move much among islands? Over the last three years we have been able to provide answers to some of these questions. For example, we now know that the dragons that live on small islands are dwarfs and only grow up to about 44 pounds (20 kilograms) compared to the big island dragons, which grow to about 176 pounds (80 kilograms).

Despite living across several islands, dragons do not like to swim to other islands and thus seem to be homebodies. Similarly, females will often nest is the same nest year after year. We have some initial information that suggests that to become a very big male it may take as much as 20 years of growth, while for females 8 to10 years seems to be when they are reach maturity. Most of the research we are conducting is geared towards big questions which will take us 5 to 10 years to answer, so we still have a lot of work to do.

4. Do you interact with the human communities living near or in Komodo dragon habitat? If so, what kind of lifestyle do they live? Are there any interesting cultural points or traditions that you can share about these people?

Several of the field staff that work on the project live in Komodo, a small village of about 1,500 people on Komodo Island. These people spend most of their time fishing for squid, fish, and other amazing marine life. The village of Komodo is located in a small sheltered bay. With many tall coconut trees here, the people live in wooden stilt houses painted brightly in shades of yellow, light green, and blue. As there are no cars on this island, everyone has to use a boat to move between places. There are many boats, from small canoes carved out of whole tree trunks to brightly colored fishing boats with big outriggers to even bigger wooden boats that are used to ferry people and supplies among the many islands. As these villagers also live within the national park they are not allowed to hunt animals such as deer and especially Komodo dragons. Further, because Komodo National Park also has some of the most amazing and diverse coral reefs on Earth, villagers are not able to fish everywhere they could, thus ensuring that sections of the reef, and particularly the fish, remain healthy and abundant. Not surprisingly, as these people are fisherfolk, they are very skilled sailors and know how to navigate without the help of radar or GPS. Even on the darkest nights these villagers can sail safely through the many reefs and strong currents that are common in Komodo National Park. The village women are also involved in fishing, but a different type from the men in their boats. During neap tides when the sea is at its lowest level for the month, much of the fringing reef close to shore is exposed and this enables the women and their children to walk out to the edge of the now dry reef where they can search among the colorful corals, sponges, and other marine life to collect many types of shellfish including clams, abalone, and trochus shells which they will later cook and eat.

Even though these people live inside a national park, villagers are still able to collect certain things from the forest, including fruit, such as the strange-looking custard apples, which are bountiful at the end of the rainy season in April. This is a fun time for everyone, and many villagers will go out into the forest to collect as much of the lovely sweet fruit as possible and then bring it back to their village where they can enjoy it with everyone. Another thing I find amazing about the villagers on Komodo is how they collect wild honey. Basically they go into the forest and look for big honeybee hives, which can be located very high on the branches of tall trees. Without ropes, the Komodo men will shimmy to the top of the tree and lie on the branch right next to the bees' hive. Instead of using smoke to clear the bees away from the hive, Komodo men will very slowly use a leaf-covered branch to brush off all the bees. Once the bees are brushed off the hive, the man will use his parang (a big knife) to scrape the wax off the top of the hive until he reaches the gooey sweet honey. Using a bucket, he collects the honey from the hive and once the bucket is full he lowers it to the ground to his friends. I’m really amazed by how these men only rarely get stung by the bees, which are still buzzing angrily around their heads as they collect the honey.

A more recent tradition in Komodo village is that several men have learned to carve wood into amazing figurines of Komodo dragons and other wild animals that live within Komodo National Park. These carvings often show, in great detail, different types of behavior that Komodo dragons exhibit, including the amazing wrestling and fighting that takes place between two big males. The villagers then sell these carvings to tourists and for many village people this business represents an important way to make money.

Overall, I think the life of most villagers on Komodo Island is probably much more physically hard than the lives of people who live in cities or your hometown, as every day they have to go out and catch their food, wash their clothes by hand, and collect water from the spring. However, in many ways their life is also simpler than ours, as there is not the range of choices that goes along with everyday life in big cities. For example, in Komodo village, children do not spend time deciding which snack to choose from the refrigerator, as they have no refrigerators, nor do they decide which DVD or computer game is best to play, as these people do not have enough money to purchase such items. However, when I see all of the village children running around on the beach playing soccer or jumping into the sea laughing, then I think in many ways how very lucky they are to enjoy the life they have. It reminds me to think that whoever you are or whatever your circumstances there is always something to be thankful for in your life, even if it is something as simple as laughing out loud after hearing a funny joke, or running to the top of the hill with your brother and sister to watch a beautiful sunset.

5. How do you believe children and their families here can help conserve Komodo dragons and their habitat?

In a general sense conservation for Komodo dragons and their habitat is basically similar to providing conservation for any other animal, plant, or habitat threatened by human activities: it starts with you and it starts in your home. Every day children and their families have to make many choices that will also have an affect on the conservation of animals (including people), plants, and habitats both close and far way from where you live. Say, for example, your family decides to buy food from a supermarket. If you use reusable shopping bags you can reduce the amount of forest that has been chopped down to make paper bags or limit the amount of fossil fuels used to make plastic bags. If you buy whole fresh foods rather than packaged foods you can again reduce the amount of resources that have come from forests and the amount of energy that has gone into producing the food. Try and buy products from companies that are conservation aware; if they import products from overseas, make sure they exhibit a fair trading policy for the producers and that these companies exhibit a sustainable ethic. Remember, fresh water is precious and many places in the world do not have enough. Look at ways you can reduce water use in your house. When you’re at home one weekend, why not plant local native plants in your garden. These local plants will make new habitat and attract insects and animals into your neighborhood. Better still, get together with your neighbors and see if they will do the same at their houses, thereby making a greenbelt. These are but a few things you and your family could do to increase both local and global conservation.

In specific regard to conserving Komodo dragons and their habitat within Komodo National Park, one way you could help is by giving donations to conservation organizations so that they can set up projects that work on the conservation of ecosystems and at the same time examine ways for how local people can more efficiently manage and utilize resources in their local area. Today’s conservation strategies, particularly in developing countries like Indonesia, are as much about helping local people to develop sustainable livelihoods as they are about protecting animals, plants, and habitats. Finding a balance between people’s needs and maintaining biodiversity is the key to unlocking benefits for both the environment and the people who live within it and even for us who admire the splendor of amazing animals such as Komodo dragons from so far away.