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Varanus komodoensis Print E-mail

The popular perception of Komodo dragons is of scavengers that congregate around dead animals. This is due largely to the fact that dragons can be easily attracted to carrion, where they provide an excellent show by carving the carcasses up and swallowing it in enormous chunks. A 42kg animal is recorded as having eaten an entire 30kg boar in 17 minutes. How important carrion is in the diet of animals undisturbed by man remains uncertain. During times of seismic and volcanic upheaval they may encounter many corpses but usually only animals killed by other Komodo dragons may be available as carrion. They are certainly adept at eating large animals and never leave more than 13% of a corpse (intestines, fur and horns are usually ignored). All of the large animals eaten by modern day Komodo dragons have been introduced by man. Diamond (1987) suggested that a few thousand years ago pygmy elephants probably formed an important part of their diet. Green et al (1991) report that the metabolic rates of young Komodo dragons do not differ notably from those of other monitor lizards. Body temperatures of individuals drop as low as 20oC at night and can reach above 40oC during the day.

Many keepers (e.g. Lederer 1942) have commented on the intelligence of the dragons and in particular their ability to recognise individual people. Collins (1956) trained young specimens to jump through hoop and perform other dextrous acts to obtain food. The temperament of individual dragons varies enormously. Proctor (1929)  published a picture of an infant playing with an unrestrained adult dragon at the London Zoo and stated "She would tear a pig to pieces but can be trusted with children". In later years Ms. Proctor was confined to an invalid chair and was accompanied on her excursions through the zoological gardens by a dragon (presumably the same specimen) who "could not be restrained from snapping at the bedded-out flowers" (Anon 1968). However some Komodo dragons have a naturally belligerent nature. Auffenberg records that one wild individual was well known for its aggressive behaviour towards people and would follow human footprints on the beach and invade tents, making off with articles of clothing. Not surprisingly the Komodo dragon is attributed with responsibility for many human deaths. Journalists like to blame the lizards for any unexplained deaths or disappearances, and more than one old soldier has been known to supplement his meagre income by displaying his war wounds to interested foreigners and describing them as the result of a dragon attack. Baron Rudolf Von Reding Biberegg is said to be the first European victim of the dragons. He disappeared in July 1974,  and only his hat, camera and a single bloodstained shoe were ever found (Blair & Blair 1988).

The Komodo dragon is heavily protected and all commercial trade in the species is outlawed. Its skin is unsuitable for the leather trade and its only therapeutic use is as some kind of dubious "swimming medicine" (Auffenberg 1981). However they are still sought after by some animal collectors and their is little doubt that an illicit trade in the animals exists. Breeding at zoos in Surabaya and Jakarta, Java, has been reported many times (de Jong 1944, Busono 1974, Horn & Visser 1989, Soebakir, pers comm, Linus, pers comm) but elsewhere the lizards had never reproduced successfully until the U.S. National Zoo in Washington DC produced 55 baby dragons from 3 clutches of eggs (Walsh et al 1993, Jaffrey 1995). They maintain a pair of dragons in a 58m2 enclosure with a soil substrate, at ambient temperatures of  about 31oC which drop to 17oC at night. Basking areas of over 49oC are provided and the animals are fed several large rats each per week. Eggs are laid in a warmed nest area and hatch after about 237- 280 days incubation at 27.5-29oC in vermiculite and water. The youngsters are housed apart, given UV light and reach a weight of about 300g after six months (Walsh et al 1993). Housed outside in Indonesia captive-bred dragons can reach lengths of 2m and weights of 20kg (females) or 30kg (males) after four years (Linus, pers comm).

As a result of the success of the American breeding programme a further four adult dragons have been exported to the US. All the youngsters produced in the US to date have the same mother, and the breeding project will only ensure that no more dragons are removed from the wild  if other females can be made to co-operate. There is evidence that, on Komodo at least,  female dragons are outnumbered at least 3:1 by males (Darevsky & Kardarsan 1964, Auffenberg 1981) which makes the problems of finding a compatible pair particularly formidable. Nevertheless the work of the zoo has greatly raised awareness of the plight of the Komodo dragon in the USA, generated a great deal of research into the reproductive biology of the species and, most importantly, promises funding for further field studies and direct conservation action within Indonesia. The young dragons bred at the National Zoo are now housed in a total of 25 zoos worldwide (Walsh, pers.comm).

Further accounts of the care of Komodo dragons in captivity can be found in Brongersma (1932), Tanzer & Van Heurn (1938), Lederer (1942), Oesman (1967),  Galstaun (1973) & Lange (1989). Up to date information on the Komodo dragon breeding project can be found in the newsletter Dragon Doings, published by the National Zoo in Washington DC.



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Varanus bitatawa

Varanus bitatawa is the third species of  monitor lizard to be recognised by science that belongs to the "Pandan Biawak" group,  all of which are of at least as great a conservation concern as the Komodo dragon, but receive virtually none of the attention. Pandan Biawak occur only in lowland dipterocarp forest. The first species (Varanus olivaceus or Butaan) was discovered in 1845 and not seen alive by a scientist until the late 1970s. The next species (Varanus mabitang or Mabitang) was discovered in 2001 and in 2010 Varanus bitatawa (Butikaw or Bitatawa) was described. Other species of frugivorous monitor lizards may remain undescribed, but many may have  gone extinct without ever having been recognised.




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