Here be dragons: The many attractions of the Komodo National Park

Throughout his trip to Europe at the beginning of 2013, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was intent on promoting Indonesia as a “complete tourism destination” with a host of interesting and unique places to offer other than Bali. Komodo National Park is such a destination and one which has escaped the attention of many tourists. While more mainstream destinations retain their allure, this World Heritage site is becoming an increasingly tempting option for travellers as tour operator services expand and accessibility improves.

Indonesia received more than 8.8m tourists in 2013 at a time when the global economy was still recovering, and as prospects now look to be improving internationally, the Ministry of Tourism has set an ambitious target of 9.5m arrivals for 2014. There are high hopes that unique local attractions, such as Komodo National Park, will do much to help achieve this target.

Hilly Islands

Located in the middle of the vast archipelago, approximately 200 nautical miles east of Bali, the park is comprised of three main islands: Komodo, Padar and Rinca, along with 26 others covering a land and sea area of more than 173,000 ha. Among these volcanic islands, whose vegetation is predominantly made up of grass and woodland, Komodo is the largest. Its topography is characterised by a series of rolling hills whose gradients grow steepest at the peak of Gunung Toda Klea to the north of the island.

Like the hills which shadow them, the plentiful sandy beaches, bays and coves of the island are varied in shape and often steep in terms of relief. To the east of Komodo lies Padar, a smaller and narrower island, whose topography is similar to that of Komodo, although it only rises to around half the 500- to 600-metre elevation of that island. Further in this direction lies Rinca, the second-largest island and situated only a few kilometres west of mainland Flores.

The Park

While the national park was originally created in 1980 with the sole intention of protecting its unique population of dragons, over the time the value of this diverse ecosystem has become better understood. The declaration of the park as both a biosphere reserve in 1986 and a World Heritage site in 1991 by UNESCO has helped to attract attention to the wealth of its terrestrial and marine biodiversity.

However, appreciation has also extended to encompass consideration of the risk which threatens this unparalleled natural haven and as such, greater efforts are also being made to mitigate the ever-increasing human impact. The local human population has increased 800% over the past 60 years, and associated risks are quite rightly being taken into account as part of the park’s long-term management strategy.

Wildlife & Attractions

The giant Komodo dragon, or Varanus komodoensis, is arguably the park’s greatest attraction. They are greater in number here than anywhere else in the world, with around 4600 of them inhabiting the islands of Komodo and Padar, in addition to mainland Flores and nearby Gili Motar. The largest lizard in the world, these dragons are great in size, typically weighing up to 130 kg in the wild and growing as long as 3 metres in length. While concerns have been raised by some about the aggressiveness of the creatures towards humans, ranger stations on both Komodo and Rinca islands stipulate that visitors must have a guide whenever they leave ranger-patrolled trails to manage this risk and ensure that tourists do not come into direct contact with the lizards.

The dragons, however, are not the only terrestrial attraction as the island’s tropical deciduous forest habitat is also home to introduced species such as Javan rusa deer, wild buffalo and macaque monkeys, and 72 species of bird have been recorded as well, including the yellow-crested cockatoo, noisy friar bird and the white-breasted sea eagle. In terms of fauna, of particular note are the areas of quasi-cloud forest at altitudes of more than 500 metres; these are contain a range of flora, including many endemic species.

Under The Sea

Leaving the land behind, the surrounding seas’ richly oxygenated waters have a vibrant reef ecosystem and are home to some of the world’s best diving. With 67% of the 2321-sq-km park made up of marine area, there are almost 100 notable dive sites, 40 of which are used regularly for recreational diving. The abundance of underwater biodiversity is largely due to the consistent arrival of cold and nutrient-rich water from the Indian Ocean, which nourishes the growth of the ecosystem, particularly to the north-east of Komodo.

While many will likely be happy with the standard dive sites, there are also more challenging sites for more experienced and adventurous divers where one can swim among underwater currents. One such site is Castle Rock, also known as Taka Toko-toko, where a submerged mountain is located in the northern part of Komodo. With the open-water location exposing divers to underwater currents, under the supervision of their guides, they must quickly descend to a minimum 5-metre depth to avoid being caught. Once below the draft, divers are then often rewarded with horizontal visibility of over 15 metres. The site is well known as a location to view many different fish, including reef sharks, grouper and doctor fish. Manta rays are also common at the site and can span up to 3 metres in width. As for those in search of marine mammals, these are most common near the Gili Lawa Laut reefs, where blue whales and sperm whales have been sighted, in addition to up to 10 species of dolphin and dugong.

Conservation Efforts

In light of increasing visitor numbers at the national park, conservation has become a major priority. A 25-year management plan was completed in 2000 and acts as a roadmap to regulate appropriate usage of the park and to address threats to marine and terrestrial life, while also maximising benefits for local communities in a sustainable way. To support these goals, a conservation fund has been in place under the Komodo Collaborative Management Initiative since 2006 and all visitor contributions will be used to benefit nature conservation efforts as well as local communities.

Accessibility & Accomodation

Flights run almost daily from Denpasar, Bali to serve the airports of Bima, on the island of Sumbawa, and Lubuan Bajo, on the western side of Flores. Airlines serving these routes include Indonesia Air Transport, Trans-Nusa Airlines, Sky Aviation and Wings.

As the most popular jumping-off point for Komodo and home to the park’s visitor centre, western Flores features an increasing number of accommodation options in Labuan Bajo. While predominantly consisting of low- to mid-priced hotels, a more luxurious option can be found in the form of the Jayakarta Suites Hotel.

However, for those seeking perhaps the most authentic experience, live-aboard accommodation on fully equipped vessels is also available. Offered by a number of operators, the most popular trips generally offer two- or three-day accommodation and dive or snorkelling packages for between $200 and $450, depending on the duration and activities included.

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