Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Komodo Dragons

I didn't want to go to Indonesia and not see Komodo Dragons.  With only 4,000 to 5,000 komodos left in the world, living on about 4 islands in Indonesia, this is a vulnerable species.  Seeing Komodo Dragons in the zoo is depressing - a huge lizard, living alone, typically in a fairly sterile cage - once in awhile devouring a dead rabbit or some other zookeeper offering.  I wanted to see them where they belong, in the wild, living their lives on their own terms.

There are two great places to see these animals - Komodo Island and Rinca Island.  I arranged a trip with Adventure Indonesia which  involved chartering a small boat to go to these islands.  We were met at the small, new airport in Labuan Bajo and taken to a very small but comfortable boat.  Heading towards Rinca, the islands we passed looked like Dr. Suess drawings, with a few stark trees on top, like something out of The Lorax.  Although much of Indonesia is tropical, wet, lush and green, Rinca and Komodo are hot and dry.

The islands are both part of Komodo National Park.  We went to Rinca first, which personally I recommend over Komodo if you can only visit one.  As a few rangers live on each island, some of the dragons hang out near the kitchen.  Although it was nice to see these up close, they were sort of pseudo-wild - they aren't living in captivity, but they are living around humans - and even though they aren't fed, that isn't the way I wanted to see them.  It is, however, pretty much a guarantee you will see them if you visit the island.  Seeing any on the rest of the island is a matter of luck.

Close up, I noted their huge claws.

Also, I noticed they get ticks - which is kind of interesting - they look almost like swollen scales.

 Like snakes, they shed their skins periodically.

On Rinca, we chose a medium length walk, and were lucky enough to encounter a wild Komodo Dragon (female) on the path.  After a bit she got up, yawned, and ambled off into the bushes.  It was a perfect sighting.


On Rinca we also saw buffalo, deer, boar, and a variety of birds.  All in all, it is a nice island and it was a nice hike - about 2 hours.  It was hot, but not unbearable.

Komodo Island is more developed, and offered a less pleasant walk.  We did, however, find a wild dragon on the medium hike there too.

We saw smaller wild dragons as well.  For the first two years of their lives they live in trees, to avoid being eaten by other dragons.  I was really hoping we'd see one in the trees, but - wisely - they were hiding and didn't feel like coming out for a tourist.

At the end of the two hour hike on Komodo, a large male dragon was hanging out by the kitchen, but decided to wander down to the beach.  Seeing the komodo trails on the beach is interesting, like a cross between a snake and a lizard trail - the tail dragging, the claws askew.

I remember the Komodo Dragon section of the wonderful book "Last Chance to See" by Douglas Adams, where he discusses the spectacle that used to take place on Komodo.  The rangers would take a goat, kill it, and hang it for the dragons as bait.  Tourists would come to see the dragons eat it. Of course, feeding wild animals, baiting them, etc. was a terrible idea - and is supposedly done away with now.  I went to the site where it used to take place - thought about the horror of that spectacle, and Adams' great description of it.  Sadly, my guide told me it does still happen - only now just for important guests like government officials, to guarantee they can see a dragon.  Sigh.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Large Male Orangutans

After Raja Ampat, we embarked on a trip with Adventure Indonesia to see orangutans and Komodo dragons.  We flew to Pangkalan Bun, a small airport near Kumai, where we had chartered a river boat which went up a river and stopped at three orangutan sanctuaries, including Camp Leakey.

The boat was actually AWESOME.  Very comfortable, with the upper level for us, and three staff on the lower level.  The river cruising was relaxing and we were able to see proboscis  monkeys, langurs, birds, and even a wild (more likely released from one of the centers) orangutan now and then along the banks. (Photos in future posts).  This is a view of similar boats, from the back, tying up to one of the docs near one of the "research"/rehabilitation camps.

The boat, along with others, dock at the camp docks around feeding times, when rangers put out some food on platforms.  Each of the three centers you can stop at along the river has a set feeding time and of course, near that time, there are plenty of tourist boats gathered.  Released and rehabilitated orangutans can come and get supplemental food at these feeding times if they wish.  One of the interesting things is that as you walk towards the feeding platforms, it is not unusual to have an orangutan or two come up behind you.  If you wait patiently, they often pass you, coming very close indeed.

The three centers we visited this trip were in Central Kalimantan, in Indonesian Borneo, in Tanjung Puting National Park. I had targeted Camp Leakey to visit as I had read about the work of Birute Galdikas, who studied under Louis Leakey as did Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey.  Each woman of course went on to do great work with the apes they grew to love, with Diane Fossey of course meeting a tragic end.  Birute we perhaps hear the least about, but she has started OFI, Orangutan Foundation International, and was featured in an Animal Planet show called Orangutan Island, which documented how orphaned orangs are educated and released, hopefully learning to fend for themselves.

Seeing orangutans in these rehab centres has a lot of pros and cons, and is a complex issue, and that is part of why I haven't had the energy - emotionally or otherwise - to tackle it in blog posts yet, even though we have been back a few months now.  There will be many more posts to come on this.

For now, here are a few photos of orangutans I had a few moments alone with - no other tourists, as they were on the path behind us.  The orangutans kept a safe distance from us, and us from them, but would come fairly close and clearly were on their way to or from the feeding platform.


Although it is wonderful that they are not in cages or captive, it is also disturbing that such large males are still coming in for supplemental food.  And, of course, the way tourists behave around these animals was mostly depressing.  I found seeing the rehab centers in Indonesian Borneo a bit worse than in Malyasian Borneo, which will be the subject of future posts.