Tourists to Indonesia will likely be barred from the popular Komodo Island in January 2020 — a decision seemingly impelled by recent reports of Komodo dragons being stolen and smuggled overseas, potentially for dubious medicinal purposes, according to local media.
The temporary shutdown, announced Friday, is expected to give officials in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia’s southernmost province, an opportunity to increase the Komodo dragon population and preserve their habitats, according to Tempo newspaper. Discussions about closing the island date back to at least January, when officials said it could close for a full year.
Komodo Island is one of the three larger land masses that make up Komodo National Park. The other two islands, one of which also features the animals, are expected to remain open.
The decision to close the island came just days after nine men were arrested on suspicion of selling more than 40 Komodo dragons for about $35,000 each, local police told Tempo. Officials said the reptiles, which are the largest known species of lizard in existence and only found in the wild in East Indonesia, are “usually” sold to Asian buyers.
Authorities also seized other animals originating from eastern Indonesia, including wildcats, cockatoos and other birds, according to Tempo. Those purchasing the dragons, however, may seek to use them to create an antibiotic, police said.
Komodo dragons have been around for hundreds of thousands of years but were only discovered in the early 20th century. As The Washington Post has previously reported, Komodo dragons have outlived other species in part because of their highly venomous bite, which is so toxic that even a nip can be fatal. But the animals also possess another unique trait: Their blood is packed with antimicrobial peptides, a built-in defense against infections produced by all living creatures. This makes Komodo dragons immune to the bites of other Komodos.
Some scientists believe these peptides could be harnessed into antibiotics to protect humans. But Bryan Fry, an associate professor for the University of Queensland’s school of biological sciences, told The Post that this process is more complicated and less plausible than it sounds.
Not enough is known about the chemical compounds that Komodo dragons utilize to fight off infection, and using their blood directly would not be useful in treating human infection, Fry explained in an email. Purifying the compounds within their blood would be difficult — and even then, “the likelihood of a violent allergic reaction would be very high.”
“Turning this into a pharmaceutical product would require many years of laboratory research to generate small-sized, synthetic analogues,” Fry said. “The natural compounds are large and would light up our immune system like a Christmas tree, providing a violent allergic response after repeated use.”
He continued, “If this is in fact what is fueling the trade, it is in the same destructive fantasy land as the Asian appetite for Rhino horns as aphrodisiacs.”
According to Tempo, local officials hope that curtailing tourist exposure to the island will give the government time to bolster protections for the dragons, whose population was last determined to be “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, which measures the world’s biodiversity.
Crawford Allan, a senior director and expert on wildlife trafficking with the World Wildlife Fund, said Komodo dragons have historically been sought after by affluent collectors who target “unique, rare and special animals.” He cited a 2002 case in which Komodo dragons were purchased and sold for about $30,000 — about the same rate reported by Indonesian police this year.
“People have money to pay organized crime networks to work through stealing and smuggling dangerous animals, and getting them to market,” Allan said in an interview., “My suspicion is this has a high degree of organized criminality involved, and also a bit of corruption as well.”
Some reports indicate there are about 6,000 of the dragons left in existence, Allan said, and fewer than 500 of those are females capable of breeding. Selling animals for trade can have a “major and sudden impact” on their populations, especially if reproductive females are among them.
“If there were a new demand for medicinal use, we’d probably be very concerned this could really push them to extinction very quickly, because that medicinal demand can certainly surge,” he said.
Shutting down Komodo Island to protect the dragons could be a wise idea, Allan said. But he and Fry both expressed concern over the one-year loss of tourism funding and how that could impact the local economy — notably people whose incomes are dependent on the island’s visitors. The Smithsonian estimates that around 18,000 people travel to Indonesian islands each year intent on seeing the animals.
And it’s quite possible that closing the island, even for one year, would not be enough to deter those intent on stealing the dragons, Allan added.
“If there are organized crime groups suddenly making a lot of money from Komodo dragons, they’ll find a way to get there and to get those animals,” he said. “I think [closing the island] is just something that will just book up the price, and the higher the price, the more likely poaching is to take place.”
Adam Popescu contributed to this report.