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.