Could overtourism kill the Komodo dragon?

Robin McKelvie
Komodo dragon - URIADNIKOV SERGEI

It is one of nature’s truly heart thudding, soul shuddering experiences. No one forgets their first sighting of a Komodo dragon in the wild. These hulking modern day dinosaurs can kill with one bite, putting man firmly in its place. Today, though, humans are the dragons’ biggest threat, with the question of whether you should cruise to see them under such fierce scrutiny that a total ban on visiting Komodo Island may soon not even leave you that option.

There is really nothing like the Komodo dragons, or oras as they are known locally, a living dinosaur no European had ever even seen until the 20th century. The world’s largest lizard is an ancient predator that has evolved little over time. It doesn’t need to. This perfect killing machine’s lethal bite has no anti venom, killing its prey with the lethal cocktail of bacteria it builds up within its saliva. Young Komodos are not safe either as adults will devour them and mothers will even steal eggs from a neighbouring nest if it’s left unguarded. 

The Unesco World Heritage listed Komodo National Park (established in 1980) is the only place in the world you can come face to face with Komodos in the wild. The experience is already strictly controlled. I recently visited both the islands of Komodo and Rinca (they are also found on Padar) and I wasn’t allowed to wander alone. I ventured everywhere in the company of a ranger, who defended us not with a gun, but with a thin stick with a pronged end. It feels like you are in a documentary narrated by David Attenborough, but one in which you can hear the dragons’ breath.

For years the visitor system was self policing as few made it to this distant archipelago almost 500 miles east of Bali in Indonesia. Now, due to the expansion of the nearby airport in Labuan Bajo, and the success of a purpose-built cruise pier on Komodo Island itself, the sustainability of visiting the Komodos has come under unprecedented scrutiny. Almost 200,000 tourists flocked here in 2018, vaulting from less than 50,000 a decade previously.

Holland America Line's Volendam anchors near Komodo Island Credit: iStock

Cruise lines have, of course, been understandably keen to satisfy customer demand to sail to the islands. Operators visiting include Holland America, Seabourn, Star Clippers, Silversea and Variety Cruises. All offer time ashore to a varying degree, most usually just allow one trip. Passengers must make sure to book an excursion in advance as they are not allowed ashore without a ranger. For a more in-depth experience True North offers a 10-night Indonesia cruise that includes walks on both Komodo and Rinca spread over three days.

The cruise market is pivotal for Indonesia as the region is the most visited part of this vast country by cruise ships. Speaking to one ranger on my solo tour, while he understood that people want to visit, he was also keenly aware of the issues. “People love our dragons, but we cannot go on like this.” he insisted. “When a cruise ship comes in there are many groups all over the place and the dragons don’t like it. People don’t always listen either, putting themselves, the rangers and the dragons in danger.”

It is not just the dragons that are under threat. The island is also a fragile tropical ecosystem that is home to swathes of pristine rainforest, sweeping white sand beaches and delicate banks of coral teeming with wildlife, from turtles to whale sharks. More cruise ships mean more anchoring, more pollution and more pressure of feet on the ground, as well as bodies bashing around in the coral reef rich waters. 

Komodo dragons are the world's largest lizard Credit: iStock

Matters came to a head last year when plans were mooted by the local authorities to close Komodo Island completely to offer the dragons and their world respite. This extreme reaction drew instant headlines around the world and in the outcry many critics missed the fact that visitors would still have been allowed to come to see Komodos on the neighbouring main national park islands of Rinca and Padar. Komodo, though, is by far the best set up for cruise ships.

Following the outcry, though, and a fear that the local economy – which now heavily relies on tourism – would be decimated and the newly extended airport be rendered a white elephant, the ban mooted for January 2020 was lifted. Now under discussion are perhaps even more controversial plans to charge visitors a steep fee for entering the national park. Local rumour in the bars of Labuan Bajo – where boat drivers and guides while away the steamy nights – has talk of it being as high as US$1,000 per person, compared to the existing US$10. Even the governor of the region, Viktor Laiskodat, has suggested a US$500 per person levy.

There are alternatives to cruising. I travelled here with UK operator Experience Travel Group, who specialise in low impact tourism that closely follows local guidance. Co-Founder Sam Clark explains: “Large numbers arriving at once from cruise ships is an issue that has rightly been taken on by the authorities.” That said, he adds, “Tourism is an important source of income for the local population and crucial for the continued existence of these magnificent creatures. Privately guided trips ensure you can rest safe in the knowledge that your trip has contributed to the solution and not the problem.”

Padar island, part of Komodo National Park Credit: iStock

The cruise industry, however, maintains ships can still visit places like Komodo in a responsible fashion. Andy Harmer, UK & Ireland director of industry body CLIA, said: “Ships that call to remote destinations tend to be smaller vessels, and port visits are always controlled and organised many months in advance to distribute cruise ship arrivals. CLIA cruise lines play a leadership role in responsible tourism and work closely with local port authorities, such as park rangers, to ensure the protection of the destinations ships visit across the globe.”

Silversea is one such cruise line visiting Komodo Island, and senior vice president, Expeditions, Tour Operating and Destination Management, Conrad Combrink says visits allow the line to foster a mutually beneficial relationship with the local comunities and the authorities: "We have very high standards when it comes to wildlife viewing. When visiting Komodo, our staff support the local guides, respecting the local regulations and ensuring our guests follow the rules. We have a very good relationship with the national park, as well as our local partners, Cruise Asia, who assist us locally in Indonesia to arrange our visits.

“The feedback from the local community and park management has always been very positive after our visits. We regularly get feedback on how impressed the guides are with our guests and how prepared they are for the visit, with information about the animals, but also about guidelines and regulations within the national park.”

Komodo National Park is also known for its coral reefs and diving opportunities Credit: iStock

However, he acknowledges that not all visitors show the same level of respect: “The guides frequently share comments on big tourist groups, who demonstrate no understanding and respect for the flora and fauna, and the locals. This has caused and continues to cause frustrations, mainly – and first of all – due to the lack of respect, which for us is the key to open and understand a destination. Without this, you may see things but won’t experience them. And that is for our guests most important – to really experience a destination.”

Telegraph Travel’s Benjamin Parker recently visited Komodo Island on a cruise and said: “I expected to arrive and be angry with the situation but I didn’t find it particularly confronting, the park didn’t seem overwhelmed and the locals could at least make some money from cruise visitors. The Indonesian government seems to be softening its stance. It just needs to be policed properly. And of course, Komodo National Park isn’t just Komodo Island. It's three larger islands and 26 smaller ones.” 

The threat of an outright ban on one or even all of the islands remains. As do myriad questions, not least would cruise companies absorb a steep visitor levy, or indeed would passengers be willing to fork out for it? Indeed should cruise ships sail to the islands at all? Those with their mind set on cruising to Komodo for now can, but there are already more sustainable alternatives.