Stranded divers rescued at the weekend from a remote Indonesian island told of their horror when confronted by the world's largest lizard - a powerful predator with razor-sharp teeth. But is the Komodo dragon really as fearsome as we think? Jon Henley reports.
"They're arguably one of the most intelligent reptiles on the planet," insists Ian Stephen, assistant curator of the herpetology department at London Zoo, which has two Komodos. "They demonstrate a real capacity to play, they recognise their keepers, they can distinguish between different people's voices. I'd liken them to a big dog like a doberman, say: they are very powerful and they have the potential to be very dangerous. But like most of these things, the actual risk is wildly exaggerated."
Outside captivity, the Komodo dragon, or Varanus komodoensis, is confined to the islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang and Gili Dasami in central Indonesia, which certainly helps as far as reducing risk is concerned. These days there are probably fewer than 6,000 of them left in the wild, and they are protected by a raft of national and international laws.
The reptiles have a highly developed sense of smell, and can detect a dead animal from as far as five miles away. Komodos are ambush predators, lying in wait for prey that may include smaller dragons, birds, rats, monkeys, wild pigs, goats, deer and even horses and water buffaloes. Once the victim is close enough the reptile will pounce, going for the soft underbelly or throat of its victim and using its powerful, loosely articulated jaws to tear off big chunks of meat. Smaller prey, up to goat size, is consumed whole; Komodos have been seen charging trees with the dead in their mouths to ram it further down their throats.
"The one danger that's not exaggerated, though, is their saliva," says Stephen. "Any prey that is bitten but escapes will probably die of septicemia within three days." Even a bite from a captive Komodo, whose saliva will contain many fewer than the 70-80 deadly bacteria typically found in the mouth of a wild specimen, will necessitate an intensive course of powerful antibiotics, he warns. (It is in captivity, incidentally, that Komodos have shown themselves capable of what is known as parthenogenesis: in 2005 and 2006, two females at London and Chester zoos, Sungai and Flora, both laid clutches of viable eggs despite having had no contact with male dragons.)
But despite all the scare stories, attacks on humans are very rare.