Officials worry that the Komodo dragon population is declining because of tourism.

Reinhard Dirscherl/Alamy Stock Photo

Is tourism endangering these giant lizards?

Is tourism endangering one of the world’s most iconic lizard species? It seemed that way after the unexpected announcement that Komodo National Park in Indonesia, home of the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) may be partly closed to visitors for a full year.

But scientists are puzzled. They say the Komodo dragons in the park are doing just fine. Instead of keeping out tourists, Indonesia should do more to protect Komodo dragons outside the park, some argue.

Komodo National Park consists of a group of islands with a total land area of 407 square kilometers. The two largest ones, Komodo and Rinca, are home to Komodo dragon populations and are open to visits by tourists; some 160,000 people came in 2018, most of them foreigners. Tourism has made the Komodo dragons “tame” and less inclined to hunt, according to Viktor Laiskodat, governor of the East Nusa Tenggara province, where the park is located. In addition, rampant poaching has reduced the number of Timor deer (Cervus timorensis), the dragon’s main prey; as a result, the dragons have become smaller in size, Laiskodat recently claimed. To “manage the Komodo dragon’s habitat,” Komodo Island should be closed to visitors for a year, Laiskodat said on 18 January.

The move will have to be coordinated with the country’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, however, which may disagree. The plan has drawn sharp criticism from the tourism industry.

And there is no need for the partial shutdown, says Maria Panggur, a scientist in charge of ecosystem monitoring at the park. According to government data, the park was home to a healthy population of more than 2700 Komodo dragons in 2017, more than 1000 of them living on Komodo Island. A study by Deni Purwandana of the Komodo Survival Program (KSP) in Denpasar, Indonesia, and colleagues found that the populations on both Komodo and Rinca have remained relatively stable between 2002 and 2014. “I can say that everything is under control within the national park area,” Panggur says.

Human activity does have some effects on the population. A 2018 study by Purwandana showed that animals exposed to tourism—which get fed—were bigger, healthier, less alert, and had higher chances of survival than dragons elsewhere. But tourists can only visit about 5 square kilometers of the park; 95% of the Komodo dragons are not in contact with them, so the impact is minimal, Panggur says.

Laiskodat is right that illegal hunting of Timor deer appears to be common; In December 2018, for instance, police intercepted 100 dead deer shipped to a harbor in nearby West Nusa Tenggara. But it’s not clear how keeping tourists out would solve that problem, and “there has been no statistical proof for the decline of the [deer] population,” says Achmad Ariefiandy, lead scientist at KSP. (The latest official data recorded 3900 deer in the national park.) Authorities are trying to stop illegal hunting; there is also a deer breeding program in West Nusa Tenggara that aims to meet the local demand for deer meat without hunting.

“If the governor really wants to protect Komodo dragons, he should start looking at Flores,” the province’s main island, Panggur says. Northern Flores is home to a Komodo dragon population of unknown size that is “more sensitive to extinction,” because of its proximity to humans and the lack of conservation resources, says Tim Jessop, an integrative ecologist at Deakin University in Waurn Ponds, Australia, and a scientific adviser to KSP. There are several reports about people killing dragons because they attacked cattle.

The Flores population is considered significant because “it has been historically isolated from the western populations,” Jessop says. A 2011 mitochondrial DNA study by Evy Arida, an evolutionary biologist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in Jakarta, confirmed that they are quite different genetically from the populations on Komodo and Rinca. “Retaining this diversity is extremely important” for the species’s ability to respond to climate and habitat changes, Jessop says.