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Komodo National Park in Indonesia. Photo: Handout

Can Indonesia’s Komodo dragons survive Chinese tourists?

The famed apex predators are able to kill anyone who gets near, but may themselves fall prey to Indonesia’s tourism ambitions

The Komodo dragon can smell blood up to 4km away – and Agus, a forest ranger and guide at Komodo National Park, the only place in the world where this ancient lizard can be observed in the wild, can testify to their lethality.

Recently, a village carpenter had to have his leg sawed off after being bitten by one. And last year, a Singaporean tourist was attacked while trying to take a photo.

The reptiles have more than a dozen types of venom in their saliva that can prevent blood clotting.

“They don’t really think,” Agus says of the near-endangered animal, which feeds on local deer, water buffalo and wild pigs and can grow up to three metres long. “They act on basic instinct and are opportunistic carnivores. They need meat. Any meat.”

Komodo dragons devour a wild deer on Komodo island. Photo: AFP

On this mild spring day, five adult Komodos are lazing in the shade by the rangers’ mess on Rinca, one of the three main islands in the protected park’s 26-isle archipelago, drawn in by the smell of food.

One of them flicks a pale forked tongue out to sample the air before making a slow stride to another spot in the shade. A small group of tourists snap pictures from a distance. None of them are speaking Chinese.

It is unusually tranquil for a Unesco World Heritage Site and one that, since 2011, has been called one of the world’s “seven new wonders of nature”. But foreign visitor numbers to one of Indonesia’s oldest national parks have been soaring in recent years – and a new influx of mainland Chinese visitors is expected in May.

Until 2011, few foreign visitors, barring the occasional diving enthusiast – the park is home to 50 world-class dive sites – or photographer, stepped foot on this less-travelled part of eastern Indonesia. It is a one-hour speedboat ride from the fishing town of Labuan Bajo, which itself is a one-hour flight east of the popular resort island of Bali.

Padar Island, one of 26 islands in Komodo National Park, Indonesia. Photo: Ernest Kao
Created in 1980, the park is nestled in Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands between East Nusa Tenggara and West Nusa Tenggara. The relative isolation of Rinca, home to about a fifth of the park’s 5,000 Komodo dragons, and the park’s other islands such as Komodo and Padar, has largely helped insulate its delicate ecosystem from development for decades.
Komodo dragons on Rinca island, part of the protected area of Komodo National Park. Photo: AFP

The lizards’ large size is put down to a phenomenon known as “island gigantism”, a phenomenon caused by the absence of other carnivorous animals on an isolated land mass. The park topography itself seems to come straight out of Jurassic Park. Its rocky outcrops of volcanic origin sprout from the seas and are covered in lush green during the rainy season; its jagged mountain ranges, punctuated by open savannahs, are inhabited by prehistoric reptiles.

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Buffered by mangroves, reefs, pink sand beaches and the azure waters of the Flores Sea, the park’s marine protected area is home to more than 1,000 species of fish, including manta rays, and 385 coral.

Around 278,000 tourists visited Labuan Bajo last year and of this figure, less than one per cent were from China, the country’s biggest source of inbound tourists. By contrast, the more well-known Bali received more than 5 million tourists, the bulk from China and Australia.

Pink Beach in Komodo National Park, Indonesia, gets its colour from microscopic animals called Foraminifera, which produce a red pigment on the coral reefs. Photo: Ernest Kao
But fortunes could change for Labuan Bajo come May, when the park will receive its first large tour groups from China. Between then and the end of next year, 100 Chinese tourists are expected to arrive on the park’s shores every day, according to officials. That compares to an average of just 50 Chinese tourists a month since 2016 and even fewer before that.

Fifteen cruise ships are expected to make Komodo island a regular port of call, each carrying hundreds of passengers. The influx of cruises and Chinese tourists is expected to provide a significant boost to the 70,000 park visitors it received in 2017, mostly locals from Jakarta and the rest Europeans and Americans.

The expected increase mirrors a surge in Chinese tourists to Southeast Asia in general. Chinese tourist arrivals to the region have soared from around 4 million a year in 2006 to more than 20 million in 2016.

Divers explore a coral reef near Komodo island, Indonesia. Southeast Asia's biologically diverse coral reefs will disappear by the end of this century, wiping out coastal economies and sparking civil unrest if climate change isn't addressed, conservation group WWF has warned. Photo: Reuters

Agus looks to the coming surge with anxiety. While rangers depend on tourist revenues for income, the unspoilt environment is what appeals to the 500 to 1,000 daily visitors who already visit the park for trekking, snorkelling, diving, sunbathing or to see the dragons.

“This is the last natural habitat for the Komodo dragon,” he says. “Too much tourism will not be good for the local marine life or [the park]. We need to balance tourism [with conservation] of the ecosystem.”

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More tourists means more noise, litter, sewage, waste and possibly, more limbs ripped off from overexcited visitors. More rangers, guest houses, toilets and amenities will be needed as well as a bigger water supply and waste disposal infrastructure. More signs explaining the rules of the park will have to be put up in Chinese.

Abdul Rahman, an official at Komodo National Park. Photo: Ernest Kao
“[More traffic] won’t just affect the Komodo dragon. It will disturb other animals like deer and wild pigs that the dragons feed on,” says Abdul Rahman, a Komodo National Park official and former ranger.

“Komodos depend on them for food. They are cannibalistic, if they don’t get enough food, they will start to eat each other.”

It will be hard for rangers to just say no. While the park is managed by the national government, rangers are not salaried officials. Each ranger gets about 40,000 Indonesian rupiah (HK$23) for every forest walk they conduct as well as a cut of the revenues from the refreshment stands and gift shops they run.

A Komodo dragon in the Komodo Island National Park in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Komodo island has been named among the world’s new seven wonders of nature. Photo: EPA

They will benefit from tourism more than any other stakeholder. Park revenues, Rahman says, are expected to see “70 to 80 per cent growth” after May.

“For money, it’s good, yeah. But for the park, I think not so good,” he says. “We need to set a maximum number of visitors that come every day. I think 3,000 per month is a reasonable number.”

Meanwhile, Labuan Bajo, the capital of West Manggarai Regency, is pouring resources into developing its tourism industry in line with the national target of attracting 500,000 foreign tourists – the final number is still under consultation – to the Flores region by next year.

A Komodo dragon in West Java, Indonesia. Photo: AP

Augustinus Christofer Dula, regent of West Manggarai, one of the eight regencies that divide the island Flores, admits that the government has been rather nervous about hard-selling the region’s tourism potential given the lack of capacity to absorb a sudden influx of visitors.

But with the region listed as one of 10 “potential Balis” by the national government, his hope is that Labuan Bajo will one day offer just as much.

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Things are moving in the right direction. Labuan Bajo’s tiny airport has recently been refurbished with a shiny new terminal now plastered with Komodo dragon motifs and billboards. There are aspirations for it to become an international airport. New ports and marinas are in the pipeline. An international hospital catering to foreigners opened its doors in 2015.

Hotels are being built or expanded with new wings, some with jetties that provide speedboat services straight to Komodo National Park.

The aim, understandably, is to draw in the Chinese tourist dollar. “Chinese people believe in dragon myths,” Dula says. “Hopefully more of them will want to come and see the living dragons here.”

Dula says that in 2016-17, only 101 Chinese tourists came to Labuan Bajo. “We want more,” he says. “Our hope is that by inviting more Chinese tourists, we can develop our economy. When tourism grows, the economy will too.”

A Komodo dragon rests in the shade. Photo: Handout

But how many tourists are enough? Over the years, concerns have been raised over Komodo National Park’s managerial and environmental issues, from land disputes, waste management and freshwater security issues to the impact of destructive fishing, oil spills, coral damage and conflicts between the fisheries and tourism sectors, according to WWF Indonesia.

Studies on Komodo National Park’s master plan and its maximum carrying capacity by the group last year found that it had huge potential for development as a prime tourism destination, but concluded the ecosystem was “very sensitive to irresponsible tourism”.

“The waste generated in Labuan Bajo [amounts to] 12.8 million tonnes per day,” said WWF Indonesia marine tourism coordinator Indarwati Aminuddin.

“Labuan Bajo is also lacking in clean water, followed by energy, food … its natural resources are also under pressure from fishing and other activities. From both studies, it is estimated that tourism carrying capacity is below 300,000 individuals per year.

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There is a real concern that pristine areas of Indonesia such as Labuan Bajo could go the way of Bali.

In recent years, a Bali overrun by tourists has been besieged by concerns of pollution, waste management and freshwater scarcity.

A recent report by the Bali Water Protection Programme, for example, suggested that the island’s water table had dropped more than 50 metres in some areas in less than 10 years.

Rinca Island Komodo sanctuary, Indonesia. Photo: Ernest Kao
“In terms of environmental issues, the costs impacted by mass tourism … are only realised on a disaster basis,” says Satrio Wicaksono, forests and landscape manager at the World Resources Institute Indonesia, an environmental research organisation.

Protected parks aside, resort towns all over Southeast Asia have been under similar threats. The Philippine government recently announced the six-month closure of Boracay island, which the country’s president Rodrigo Duterte described as a “cesspool”, to recuperate its overwhelmed infrastructure.

“Since the area is very sensitive, Komodo National Park management needs to implement immediate action to manage the number of visitors in every tourism location in a national park area so that they can have impact monitoring in the areas,” Aminuddin added.

Back in Labuan Bajo, Dula understands the risks of giving into the trappings of mass market, commercial tourism as well as the potential impact it will have on sustainability.

He says a visitor quota to the parks should be implemented and hopes the national Ministry of Forestry and Environment that manages national parks can delegate more authority to the local government to run Komodo and control tourist flows. “Tourism will be nothing if the Komodo dragon goes extinct,” he says.