Don’t Turn Your Back on A Forked-Tongued Dragon
Guides on Komodo and Rinca Islands in Komodo National Park religiously carry a long forked stick with them when they escort tourists to see the world’s largest lizards in the wild. I wondered about this after my first scouting trip to the region in April, but had my hunch confirmed during a follow-up trip this December.
The stick serves two purposes; it allows a guide to push a “dragon’s” neck away if there is a sudden charge towards the group, and more importantly, it intimidates the giant lizards into thinking the guide is a bigger Komodo with a longer tongue.
Most tourists are likely to see their first Komodo dragon lounging in the shade of an elevated national park building when they arrive on Komodo or Rinca Islands. Looking more like harmless dogs trying to beat the midday heat than the apex predators they are, it can be a misleading first impression. Some years ago a Swiss tourist got so caught up in photographing the world’s largest lizards along a park trail that he lingered behind to take a few last shots after his party moved on.
It was not until the next check point that the guide realized he was short one person in his party. He rushed back to the site of the last Komodo sighting only to find the camera and hat of the tourist. The Komodo was gone and the body of the tourist was never found. A small memorial with the hat and camera was set up by the Komodo villagers to commemorate the tragedy.
Well camouflaged and patiently lying motionless along game paths and at watering holes, the giant Komodo lizards use a hunting tactic for their more natural prey called ‘lurk and lurch’. As soon as their prey is in range they ambush it, inflict a venomous bite and then wait for days or weeks until their quarry succumbs to death by infection. Deer are the more preferred prey as wild pigs will react as a group and attack the giant lizards, but water buffalo are also taken at watering holes and mud baths.
Powerful muscles in a Komodo’s jaws and throat allow it to swallow huge chunks of meat with astonishing speed. Several movable joints open the lower jaw unusually wide. The stomach expands easily, enabling an adult to consume up to 80 percent of its own body weight in a single meal. When threatened, Komodos can throw up the contents of their stomachs to lessen their weight in order to flee, which they can do at speeds of 20 km/hour for short distances. This largest of all lizards can reach 3.13 meters in length (10.3 ft.) and weigh in at 166 kg (366 lbs).
If you’re looking for a dramatic photo of yourself and a Komodo dragon, don’t try a ‘Selfie’ – instead let your guide use your camera to shoot the beast from the front with you in the background. He knows how to deal with a sudden charge, you don’t.