| Dragons are creatures of legend,
but in a world as fantastic as Indonesia, myths become reality. On a small,
22 mile long island among the thousands of Indonesian isles lives the planet's
only living dragon -- the Komodo (Varanus komodoensis).
Named after the island on which it was discovered, the Komodo Dragon has gripped the popular imagination since it was brought to the attention of the world in 1910. Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbroek, a member of the occupying Dutch colonials, learned rumors of a "land crocodile," a creature purportedly over 20 feet long. In time, van Hensbroek caught and killed a six foot Komodo. Then, in 1926, American W. Douglas Burden went on an expedition to research the creatures, and named them "dragons."
Today, the Komodo Dragon still has many names. Locals call it the ora, others the biawak raksasa, which means "giant monitor." Whatever one calls it, the Komodo is one of the more remarkable and unusual predators found on Earth. It is a reptile, a not-to-distant relative of the snake; both animals share a forked tongue. Dragons can reach 10 feet in length, and weigh as much as 300 pounds. Though it resembles one, the Komodo is not a direct descendant of the dinosaurs. They do, however, share a common ancestor from some 300 million years ago.
On Komodo, the dragon is king. It eats any and all of the other large animals on the island, including wild boar, deer, water buffalo, dogs and goats. If hungry, a Komodo will eat snakes, birds, and even smaller Komodos. Over short distances, the Dragon is capable of pursuit speeds of nearly 20 miles an hour. But for the most part, they hunt with a combination of stealth and power. Concealed in brush, a Komodo will wait until prey -- such as a wild boar -- walks past. Then in a sudden aggressive move, the Dragon will burst from its hiding place.
Like most predators, Komodos' attacks are nearly all failures, but when a Dragon succeeds, it lives up to its legend. Its mouth is filled with serrated teeth, which are rife with bacteria laden, flayed bits of meat from previous meals. These remnants make the Komodo's mouths reek from rotting meat -- perhaps a source of legends about fire-breathing dragons. Because of the bacteria, a Komodo's saliva is poisonous. An animal bitten by a Dragon, even if it escapes, will likely die from the poison alone, and become a meal for other Komodos. A victim of a direct Komodo hit has no chance of survival, nor does its carcass. Dragons leave nothing on their plates, devouring bones, fur and even hooves.
As great as their legend is, Komodo Dragons are shockingly few in number. In fact, on its natural habitat of Komodo, Flores Island, and nearby islands, the Dragon species totals only 4,000 to 5,000 members. Loss of habitat caused by the encroachment of locals and tourists threatens to decrease the Komodo population even further. In addition, poachers have killed many deer in the Komodo's habitat, one of its staple foods. The Indonesia government is making an effort to protect the species.
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