Intrepidresearchers try to conserve Komodo dragon population.
BangkokPost, 4 February 2003
ByBijal P. Trivedi
To catch a Komodo dragon in the forests of Indonesia’s Flores Island, biologist Claudio Ciofi and his colleagues set a “10-foot [three-metre] mousetrap” with a freshly killed goat as bait. Then they wait. The Komodo dragon, Varanus komodoensis, is the world’s largest lizard, sometimes growing up to almost three metres long. Powerful as the dragon seems, man’s intrusion threatens it. Ciofi’s research stands to boost the species’ population in the wild and in the world’s zoos. “These are charismatic beasts and not that much is known about them,” says Ciofi, a research fellow at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “Their habitat is shrinking fast, particularly on Flores, where the human population is growing rapidly and where there are few protected areas.” The Komodo dragon qualifies as “vulnerable” to extinction, according to the UN-affiliated International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The fearsome lizards, considered mythic by Westerners until expeditions in the early 20th century, now live on five small islands, 483 kilometres east of Bali: Flores, Gili Dasami, Gili Motang, Komodo and Rinca. The lizards also inhabited the island of Padar until about 1980, when they seem to have vanished. Ciofi estimates the total population in the islands hovers around 3,000, protected partly by reserves. During his visits to the islands over the past 10 years, Ciofi has had a hand in tagging and examining 250 of the animals. The goat that Ciofi uses as bait is a favourite meal of the lizard, which can pick up the smell of carrion from five kilometres away. Once a Komodo dragon enters the trap, the researchers restrain it with ropes, then take measurements and draw blood for genetic studies. They implant a small microchip essentially an ID tag underneath the skin behind the right hind leg and harness the creature with a radio transmitter. Each island has a distinct genetic population of Komodo dragons. To create a family tree for the species, Ciofi wants to take blood samples from lizards in all the islands to determine the relationships between the populations. Eventually the researchers may repopulate the island of Padar. The genetic data gathered on the other islands will help choose the right lizards to colonise Padar. “Claudio is a superb biologist and a major player in genetic and captive-breeding research,” says James Murphy, former curator of herpetology at Dallas Zoo and now a research associate at Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC. “But Claudio’s main contribution is that he has alerted people, in particular the Indonesian government, to the threats facing each population of Komodo dragons.” The lizards may once have ranged throughout the entire island of Flores, Ciofi believes. But the human population, now 1.5 million, has crowded them into the northern and western coasts. On both coasts man is destroying lizard habitat. In the west, deer poachers set fire to the savanna to flush out their prey. In the north, farmers use slash-and-burn agriculture. “Human development must be sustainable, balancing the needs of the local community and the dragons,” Ciofi says. Preserving the lizards, he points out, also helps preserve tourist revenue. Strengthening the Komodo dragon’s genetic legacy has other local benefits. The dragon serves as “an umbrella species”, Ciofi says, which helps protect other less charismatic creatures on the distant islands. Ciofi is collaborating on his research with Prof Putra Sastrawan of Udayana University in Bali, local villagers and the Indonesian government. Plans include a field-research station on the west coast of Flores that will serve as a training centre for rangers and a storage facility for blood samples. Komodo-dragon breeding programmes around the world depend on this from-the-field genetic data to maintain their populations. About 300 Komodo dragons live in captivity about 60 of which have been born and bred in the US. Since November, seven baby Komodo dragons have hatched at Denver Zoo in Colorado. “I never dreamed that some day I would be raising seven little dragons,” says Rick Haeffner, curator of reptiles and fishes at Denver Zoo.