Hunting, poisoning, reduction of prey species, human
ESA -- ENDANGERED
IUCN -- VULNERABLE
Up to 10 feet (3 m)
Up to 300 pounds (135 kg)
Dry savanna, woodland thickets, forest fringes
western Flores Island, and nearby islands
CITES trade restrictions; although not in immediate danger
of extinction, the small range of
that some management
Oras caught in the wild don't survive well in captivity. They don't reproduce readily, and often die from infections and parasitic diseases. But some hatchlings
born in zoos (including one born in 1992 at
the National Zoo in Washington, DC) have done well.
Young oras live in trees, feeding on insects, until they're about a year old and three feet long. Then they move permanently
to the ground. This strategy helps preserve the species; small oras
on the ground are sometimes preyed
on by adults.
The ora's yellow tongue and repulsive mouth
odor may have been the inspiration for legends
of fire-breathing dragons.
Legal protection of oras has reduced commercial hunting, but they are sometimes poisoned
by villagers to protect children and domestic animals.
W. Douglas Burden, a trustee
of the American Museum of Natural History, organized an expedition to Komodo to capture oras and bring them back to the U.S. It was he who first called them "dragons." Burden came back with two living lizards and some preserved specimens for study at the Museum. The live ones survived for only a short time at the Bronx Zoo. In the Hall of Reptiles on the third floor of the Museum, you can see some of the preserved specimens Burden brought back.
The Lizard King...
Among the thousands of small islands of Indonesia is one called Komodo -- a mountainous stretch of volcanic rock covered with grass, palms, and small pockets of jungle. This little island, 22 miles (35 km) long, along with a few others nearby, is the sole habitat of the world's largest lizard. The people of Komodo call this animal "ora." Elsewhere it is known as the Komodo Island monitor or more popularly, the Komodo dragon.
Oras can reach 10 feet in length and weigh 300 pounds or more -- particularly after a meal. They are the top predators in their habitat, feeding on wild boar, deer, water buffalo, dogs, goats, rats, snakes, birds, other oras, and -- once in a great while -- humans. They hunt by ambush, hiding in the scrub brush along trails and in the tall grass of the savannas. Despite their lumbering appearance, oras can move with alarming speed when they want to, lunging from their hiding places and sprinting toward their
startled victims. They can't sustain a long chase, but often all they need to subdue their prey is one bite. Oras carry poisonous bacteria in their mouths so even if they don't immediately catch their prey, the attack is often fatal. Using their long forked tongues (oras and other monitor lizards are closely related to snakes), they track the scent of their prey as the wounded animal slowly weakens from the infected bite -- a process that can take several days. When the victim can no longer flee, the ora moves in for the kill. Oras are voracious eaters. They devour every bit of their prey -- bones, fur, hooves -- ripping off huge chunks with their razor-sharp serrated teeth and swallowing the pieces whole. Like all predators, oras serve an important ecological function: they preserve ecological stability by ensuring that prey species (deer, for example) don't overpopulate and degrade their island habitat.
...A Crowded Kingdom
Oras are reptiles. They don't need to eat as often as big mammalian predators, such as tigers. As a result, the small island of Komodo can support quite a few of these giant monitor lizards -- their total population on the island is estimated at about 4,000 to 5,000 animals. This same amount of territory could only support a few dozen tigers. Still, these numbers don't tell the whole story. The ora population includes only about 350 breeding females. And as human populations grow, the ora's limited habitat shrinks. On some islands, the coexistence between people and giant lizards is an increasingly uneasy one. Komodo Island is now a popular ecotourist attraction. The Indonesian government is attempting to regulate this traffic so that disruption of the oras is kept to a minimum.