The Komodo dragon has earned its reptile icon status.
The carnivorous lizard can grow up to 10 feet in length and is equipped with a forked tongue, serrated teeth, armored scales, and venom-laced saliva. The dragons can detect flesh from miles away as they prey on an impressive array of prey, including deer, boar, horses, water buffalo — and each other. Females have even been known to eat their own offspring.
“It has this terrifying reputation,” said Craig Hilton-Taylor, a biologist with the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “It’s like watching your storybooks come to life.”
But now the world’s largest living lizard has come one step closer to being wiped out in the wild.
Komodo dragons, previously considered a “vulnerable” species, were reclassified as “endangered” by the conservation organization last weekend.
“It’s gone through a real status change, a deterioration,” said Mr Hilton-Taylor, head of the international group’s Red List unit, which assesses and counts the conservation risk of 138,000 species. “It’s heading towards extinction.”
The new label is intended to encourage international policy makers and conservation organizations to strengthen and expand the protection of the giant lizard in its natural habitat. This may be especially necessary with a population of the dragons that live in areas that are not protected and that are more vulnerable to activities such as illegal hunting and habitat clearance.
“It raises alarm bells,” said Andrew Terry, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London. “It increases the urgency to act.”
Komodo dragons are native to Indonesia and are found in the country’s Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the island of the same name and a number of other islands. A more poorly understood population of the species also lives on Flores, a larger, neighboring island.
Although experts consider the national park’s Komodo dragon population to be stable and well-protected, the species still faces increasing obstacles to its long-term survival. Komodo dragons are particularly vulnerable to environmental changes because they inhabit a limited strip of land between the islands’ coasts and steep forested hills.
“They’re pretty tight in terms of where they can live,” said Gerardo Garcia, a conservation biologist at England’s Chester Zoo, who has worked with Komodo dragon conservation efforts in Indonesia for nearly a decade.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature warns that the Komodo dragon’s suitable habitat is expected to shrink by at least 30 percent over the next 45 years. Factors driving this habitat loss include rising temperatures and sea levels linked to climate change. But beyond the dragon park’s safe haven, urbanization and agricultural clearance are also factors. On Flores, residents also compete with the dragons for deer and boar, and view the carnivorous lizards as a threat to livestock, goats, and other livestock.
“These animals are being persecuted,” said Dr. Garcia. Despite their global charisma, he said, “they don’t have a magic shield.”
Their ranks have already experienced a sharp decline. About 25 years ago, somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 Komodo dragons roamed the Earth. Today, the IUCN estimates that there are only 1,380 adult Komodo dragons and another 2,000 young dragons left in the wild. “The real concern is what will happen in the future,” said Mr. Hilton-Taylor.
Other reptile species — many of which are also isolated on islands — are vulnerable to the same threats. “It’s a flagship for the reptile state worldwide,” said Dr. Terry.
If Komodo dragons fall past critically endangered status, they can become what’s known as “extinct in the wild” and survive only in captivity. “I think that would be a terrible charge,” he said. “Nobody who works in a zoo is happy to see a species that only exists in a zoo.”
dr. Garcia compared the recent reclassification to entering an emergency room. “If we don’t react quickly, we will have very few animals,” he said. “That means you go to the intensive care unit.”
At that point, the only hope for Komodo dragons would be precarious: a captive breeding program and attempted transplants to limited and fragmented wild habitats. But experts say it hasn’t gotten to that point yet.
“This is the last chance,” said Dr. Garcia. “We still have time.”