The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, July 22, 2005



The few Australians who venture east of Kuta and enter Wallacea – the Indonesian islands crunched between Kalimantan, New Guinea and Australia – often find the terrain curiously familiar.

The people, language, culture and lifestyle are all strikingly different but in many areas the landform, savannah and some of the wildlife are just like parts of Northern Australia.

Wallacea (named after the famous 19th century English naturalist Alfred Wallace) is hot and dry. Vegetation is often sparse; rivers which run in the wet season die in summer. Rainfall is shrinking. Fresh water is getting scarce.

The topography has been tortured by great upheavals in the past. The distinctive ochre hue that paints the arid landscape of the Great South Land - and thought by many to be unique to that continent – also tints this part of Nusa Tenggara.

For eco-tourists the centrepiece of this fascinating transition zone between Asia and Australia is the sea and land Komodo National Park, five main islands and a splash of islets between Flores and Sumbawa. The biggest is Komodo and its major attraction is the internationally famous ‘dragon’. (See sidebar).

Before the economic crisis, terrorist bombings and travel warnings scared away the tourists, Komodo National Park attracted 30,000 outsiders a year, mainly from North America and Europe. That number has now been cut by half.

The 1,817 square kilometre park was created in 1980. Despite its protected status the area and its wildlife are under constant threat from poachers, according to a new series of guidebooks published by The Nature Conservancy’s Indonesia Coastal and Marine Program. They’re titled A Natural History Guide to Komodo National Park.

Three volumes cover the land mass, the marine areas, and park management. Written in English and Indonesian, the pages enhanced by fine line drawings by Donald Bason, the books should satisfy the most curious of tourists and add significantly to the pleasure of any visit.

In the past factual information has been hard to assemble. It’s all there for anyone with a fast Internet connection or access to a good marine science library, but it’s all over the place.

In my experience the rangers on Komodo have been as dormant as the dragons when it comes to presenting facts. That’s understandable; it takes a real effort to keep smiling in the face of a barrage of questions from bule who have come half way round the world to see this marvel, and are not going to leave until they’ve sucked the sap out of the experience, whatever the heat.

Issues which fascinate the visitor may be ho-hum to the ranger who just hopes to find a placid reptile, make sure no-one goes home limbless, and then retreat to the shade of a lontar palm. Conservation, asset maintenance and promotion are awkward partners.

So this guide is not just useful – it’s indispensable reading before you brave the washing-machine turbulence between the islands and after you hopefully make it to land. (Hint: Wrap the books in plastic – getting saturated is just one of the lesser hazards of negotiating the park.)

More than welcome is the plain English text, particularly useful to those who don’t have the international language as their mother tongue. Too many science writers seem to believe their credibility depends on producing unintelligible polysyllable-choked sentences the length of a long yawn.

The author, US ‘seacologist’ Arnaz Mehta Erdmann, has chosen a question and answer format. In the hands of government publicists this style patronises and frequently frustrates; the queries authorities pose are not those you usually want to ask. But in this case the questions assume intelligence and the answers genuinely meet the need.

Volume Two records the park’s marine life. The pictures and descriptions should be enough to help check anything you’re likely to encounter among the 1,000 plus species of fish. If you want more help there’s a good bibliography. (The author is no amateur. With her husband, marine biologist Dr Mark Erdmann, she won international fame in the late 1990s for identifying the lobe-finned coelacanth, the so-called ‘fossil fish’, in North Sulawesi.)

More than 3,000 people live in the park. Most are the descendants of recent settlers. They make their living mainly by fishing for squid and shrimp, and from assisting the infrastructure of tourism, with the monster lizards being the box-office stars.

This industry is fragile; dragons have recently become extinct on Padar island. This happened after poachers killed off the Timor deer, the reptiles’ main food source.

The park’s 70 rangers have a tough job. They must persuade the poorly-educated locals (including 16,000 others from the islands of Flores and Sape who also fish the rich waters) that bombing and poisoning the reef may fill the scuppers today but will surely result in destruction of their livelihood as the coral dies. Firing the savannah may produce a venison steak barbecue, but regular burning and felling will change the habitat and destroy some of the 254 plant species.

If these go, so will many of the 277 animal species. Because most are dependant on each other for food, shelter, fertiliser and other essentials, upsetting the balance has some unpleasant effects. Extinction is forever.

The Komodo National Park is not just an extraordinary eco-system. It’s an international treasure which Indonesia has to husband on behalf of the world. That tricky task can be made easier if rich visitors wanting to gape, and poor locals struggling to survive can understand what’s happening and why they should care. These books explain all, succinctly and well.



Komodo lizards may well have been the source for the myth of Chinese dragons. Ancient seafarers heard stories of these weird monsters even if seldom encountered.

The first description was published following a 1910 Dutch expedition to the area which shot and skinned two beasts.

Komodo dragons (known locally as ora) are monitor lizards and the largest left on earth. This family has members weighing just 20 grams that you’d welcome in your garden, up to the Nusa Tenggara monsters. You’d never want to encounter these among the flower pots; they can check in up to 150 kilograms.

The carnivorous reptiles are sun worshippers; if they get too cold the meat in their gut starts to rot and that could be fatal. So all that lounging has purpose. No wonder they can live for up to 50 years.

In the past rangers would shoot a goat and bait the big beasts so tourists would get a guaranteed sighting. This policy has now been dropped because lazy lizards were becoming dependant on humans for their food.

Dragon-spotters now have to peer in the branches or creep close to their burrows. The stench of rotting flesh is usually a good guide to a dragon’s lair and a splendid reason to carry a telephoto lens. A nimble ranger with a stout stick to deter any grumpy old man dragon is essential. It also helps if you can sprint faster than 10 km an hour.

On Komodo island reptile viewing has become so organised that some Westerners prefer the more natural situation on Rinca. There are a few dragons left on the west coast of Flores. Aeons ago when the sea was much lower and they could swim short distances between islands the dragons had a much larger range; they may even have lived in Australia.

There are probably about 2,000 animals left in the wild. Numbers seem to be decreasing. Apart from pressures on their environment the creatures suffer an acute gender imbalance. For every female there are three males which must create a lot of domestic dragon dramas.

The females lay one clutch of about 18 eggs every year, then hang around for a while waiting for the hatchings nine months later. After that the little ones are on their own in the big cruel world.

Slow or trusting dragonettes are unlikely to be snapped by tourists. They’ll be snapped up by dad, uncle, elder brother, feral dogs or wild boars and never get a chance to feature in anyone’s photo album.

In the cauldron of Komodo animal kin ties count for naught and conservation is a luxury for the well-fed. The national park may be an international treasure but these hazard isles are no place for the sluggish creature or squeamish human. Nonetheless go soon; this place is special.

(Published in The Jakarta Post 7 June 05)

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