Responsible tourism in Komodo

On Komodo Island, centerpiece of Komodo National Park, they no longer feed live goats to the lizards to entertain the tourists, instead leaving the gargantuan Komodo dragon to hunt its own prey. But can the small-scale, sustainable tourism that this real-life ‘Jurassic Park’ has managed to date continue indefinitely? Or, as some suggest, should Komodo Island, where almost all of the lizards are found, be closed off to all but the most deep-pocketed of tourists?

Komodo dragons are threatened by their own exclusivity – found in the wild nowhere else in the world other than this cluster of Indonesian islands in the Sape Strait. They’re vulnerable to human activity, with island communities sharing and sometimes encroaching on their habitat. They’re also threatened by the species’ own tendency towards cannibalism: young Komodos will judiciously spend their first few years hiding up trees to avoid being eaten by adults. A constant stream of curious visitors brings employment and income, supporting conservation and jobs here, but at some point that stream may become a river and wash away everything that is special about this place.

In October 2019 Indonesian authorities cancelled plans to close Komodo Island (the only island in the park with any human population) for the entirety of 2020 and potentially beyond, declaring tourists posed no threat to the lizards. But that begs the questions: how many tourists would constitute a threat, and does tourism management here need to be improved?

Should Komodo Island be closed to tourists?

Closing Komodo Island entirely, or at least dramatically limiting the flow of tourists, had been mooted for some time by Indonesian authorities prior the October 2019 decision. The debate was spurred by an attempt to smuggle 41 of the lizards abroad, possibly to be killed for traditional medicines, a depressingly familiar story. The argument goes that closure would allow officials to focus on conservation, breeding, and increasing the lizards’ food supply such as deer, as well as growth of endemic vegetation.

But to close the island would have dramatic consequences for its 4,000-strong human population, many of whom either rely on, or supplement their income with, work in tourism. There is naturally a concern that if tourism to Komodo Island was to be cancelled or limited then it would have adverse consequences for the economy here, and could lead many villagers to return to destructive blast and cyanide fishing practises.
Another likely reason for the cancellation of this plan is rooted in the major upgrade to Labuan Bajo’s airport. The town, on the island of Flores, is the major launching point for cruises into Komodo National Park. Previously it could handle some 150,000 passengers annually; that has now been increased to 1.5 million, and the vast majority of them will be heading to see the Komodo dragons.

The Indonesian Tourism Ministry has a plan to create ’10 more Balis’ of which Labuan Bajo is intended to be one – good news for Labuan Bajo, Flores, and the villagers of Komodo Island, enabling people to stay where they live rather than move to larger islands such as Bali for work. But this plan would also bring with it substantial threats to the lizards that draw the tourists in the first place, not to mention the wider environment.

More tourism means a need for more infrastructure. Currently only 10 percent of Komodo National Park is open to the public, allowing the lizards plenty of freedom to roam away from people if they prefer (their normal home ranges are tiny however). If such a large-scale expansion were to come to fruition, it may result in lower prey species due to poaching, and eat into the lizards’ habitat, bringing them into greater contact, and conflict, with human residents. And let’s be honest, you don’t want to find a Komodo dragon in your hotel pool.
The only way to get to Komodo National Park is by water, either on day boat trips from Flores or by staying aboard a cruise ship. The number and size of cruise vessels has been increasing in recent years, some discharging up to 1,500 people in one go. Some Komodo rangers express worries that such crowds will have an overbearing effect on the lizards, scaring them away. And of course it goes without saying that large cruise ships pose an environmental hazard too, from pollution to damaging coral – the diving in Komodo National Park is exquisite but these ecosystems are fragile, and ramping up the numbers of vessels and divers could cause irreversible damage to them.

At the heart of this debate is whether the needs of the tourism industry should be put ahead of the needs of the animals, the environment and local communities. Is Komodo National Park to remain a place of sanctuary for these unique, deadly but fascinating lizards, or is it to become more of a wildlife park? A sustainable tourism management plan is due by 2020 – with luck it will put the wellbeing of the Komodo dragons before maximising profit.

A more ‘exclusive’ tourism

One theory behind the 1933 horror epic, King Kong, is that it was at least in part inspired by Komodo Island. At that time the island and its massive scaly inhabitants had only recently been discovered by westerners. The film’s idea of explorers encountering a terrifying, outsized specimen, allowed to evolve and grow in peace in a remote location has obvious parallels.

From lizards to apes, and back again – a possible solution to Komodo Island tourism can be found in the iconic mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda. In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and Volcanoes National Park alike visitor numbers are closely controlled using an expensive permit system, which serves the purposes of a) raising conservation funds, b) minimising the stress and risk of human contact with the gorillas and of course c) making it one of the most exclusive wildlife experiences in the world, creating a constant demand.

Currently, a visit to Komodo National Park costs less than £20, with a small charge applicable to hire a local guide on top of that. Given the undeniable appeal of the lizards, that seems like a tiny amount to have to pay.

What can you do?

In places such as Komodo National Park, where local communities and conservation initiatives benefit substantially from tourism income, a little goes a long way. But booking your tour through a responsible operator ensures that what you spend stays in the local economy through the use of guides drawn from the area, and locally owned accommodations and restaurants, and means that people are less likely to move away in search of employment.

As the majority of tours through Komodo National Park are by cruise, using a responsible operator means that you will be traveling aboard a small ship, minimising the environmental impact, and minimising the disturbance to the wildlife too – far better to be part of a small group of 16 or so others than a massive pack. Larger cruise vessels tend to operate on fixed schedules and offer little benefits to the park, whereas responsible operators might support Indonesian communities through organisations such as the Sumba Foundation or by funding improvements to schools. They will use well-trained guides who, as well as ensuring you and the lizards are a safe distance apart at all times, will also make sure there is no damage caused to vegetation by your trekking.
If you fancy something even more environmentally friendly and more exciting than your average cruise, then you can embark on a sea kayaking expedition around the park. This is a much more intimate way to travel, allowing you to stop at deserted beaches and stilt villages that cruise ships simply cannot reach.

Another way to help your money go further here is to explore further afield. Labuan Bajo is seen by many as merely the gateway to Komodo National Park but wider Flores has much to offer the intrepid traveler including visits to unique tribal villages and volcano trekking. The accommodation is basic as tourism on the island is relatively undeveloped, but don’t let that stop you from seeing a side to the region that many people miss, and spreading the financial benefits of your visit as well.

Lastly, let’s talk about dragon dos and don’ts. Your guide will make very sure that you’re aware of the potential dangers in walking around Komodo Island. It’s not a zoo, there are no walls or barriers between you and these deadly lizards, and so you’ll need to follow your guide’s instructions to the letter. If they bring out the big stick, don’t get in the way. But the Komodo dragons pose very little risk to sensible tourists. We are the threat, so minimise that by never attempting to feed them (with fruit, for example, not yourself of course) and choose a responsible operator that sees them as animals to be cherished and conserved rather than just a spectacle for entertainment.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Poppet Maulding] [Labuan Bajo’s airport: Tracy Hunter] [Cruise ships: Balou46] [Sea kayaking: dimitrisvetsikas1969]