Nature & Conservation / Southeast Asia

Could Komodo Island’s dragons survive without tourism?

by Naomi Clark-Shen
Length 8 min

Komodo National Park is located in Central Indonesia but is a world of its own. Its islands are volcanic in origin, and its dragons—which are found nowhere else on Earth—are the star attraction for millions of tourists. Authorities have been indecisive over how to manage the park and protect the dragons from the stresses caused by a constant influx of tourists.  After a tumultuous year, they appear to have made a final decision, but is it the right one?

Komodo National Park is made up of three large islands and over 20 smaller ones. There are no official figures for the Komodo dragons population, but there are estimated to be around 3,000. They are distributed between five islands: Rinca, Nusa Kode, Gili Motang, Flores, and Komodo Island, which has the highest number of dragons.

The distribution of Komodo dragons in Indonesia.

June and August 2018

The turmoil started with two fires in Komodo National Park—on Komodo Island and Gili Lawa Darat—which were blamed on careless tourists tossing their cigarettes. No people or wildlife fatalities were reported, but authorities swiftly banned visitors from lighting cigarettes in the park.

Following further investigation by Denpasar Police’s Forensic Laboratory Centre (Labfor) in Bali, the Komodo Island fire was reportedly found to be a natural phenomenon prompted by the dry season, and not a cigarette. Regardless, authorities began thinking of ways to limit tourism to Komodo National Park to protect the ecosystem.

 

A view of Komodo National Park.

Komodo National Park.

November 2018

A few months after the fires, the governor of East Nusa Tenggara announced plans to raise the entrance fee to Komodo National Park from USD$11-18 per person to at least US$500 per person. The governor said, “[Komodo dragons] are highly unique, but sadly they come cheap….only people with deep pockets [should be] allowed to [see the Komodo dragons]. Those who don’t have the money shouldn’t visit the park since it specifically caters to extraordinary people.”

The high influx of tourists to Komodo National Park—encouraged by the cheap entrance fee—has reportedly caused environmental problems. One such issue is pollution. Around 30 percent of waste produced on Labuan Bajo in Flores—which tourists use as a base to visit Komodo National Park—is plastic produced by the tourism sector.

Despite the questionable phrasing used by East Nusa Tenggara’s government, the proposal to raise the entrance fee to the park is rational. The government of Bhutan has adopted a similar ‘high value, low volume’ policy for tourism by making each tourist pay US$200-US$250 for each day spent in the country. This tourist fee acts as a deterrent to the vast majority. By reducing the number of tourists, the adverse effects of “overtourism”—such as unmanageable pollution and habitat clearance for infrastructure—are avoided, while ensuring money and livelihood opportunities are still generated for the local community. Similarly in Rwanda, a tour to see mountain gorillas costs US$1,500 per person with groups restricted to just eight people. This arrangement has protected the gorillas and their habitat from overtourism, while giving the community and government enough economic incentive to protect them.

 

March 2019

The higher entrance fee to the park was never finalised, and a few months later, Indonesian authorities seized six baby Komodo dragons that were being illegally sold on Facebook. This led to the arrest of seven suspects who had sold at least 40 Komodo dragons for US$35,000 each on social media platforms to buyers across Southeast Asia.

An Environment Ministry Official claimed that it was the first time he had heard of the trafficking of Komodo dragons. The reason for trafficking the animals was claimed to be for traditional medicine by one source, and for the exotic pet trade by another.

A few days after the seizure of the baby dragons, the government announced the closure of Komodo Island from 2020 for one year. Other islands in the park such as Rinca would remain open to visitors. This decision was confusing considering the Komodo dragons were stolen from Flores and not Komodo Island, and were not poached by foreign tourists which comprise the majority of visitors.

However, the government had reportedly been planning this closure for a while, citing a number of reasons: tourists were disrupting the Komodo dragons’ mating habits; making them docile with food handouts; and local people were poaching deer, the Komodo dragons’ main prey, and using destructive fishing methods around the park.

The economic value of Komodo National Park was calculated to be around US$427 million in 2017. Considering this, the decision to put conservation ahead of tourism and close one of the main islands was admirable. Thailand acted similarly by closing Maya Bay, which hosted around 5,000 tourists each day, to allow the environment to recover. Coral was propagated in the bay, and a few months later, it was estimated to house the highest density of sharks in the entire Thai sea.

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Maya Bay has been closed to tourism (left), and the environment is recovering with the help of coral propagation (right) photo credit: Oceanquest1.

But not all cases will have the same success as Maya Bay. Many wild animals must prove to be worth more alive than dead to deter illegal poaching. In Rwanda, the tours to see mountain gorillas have helped to reduce poaching by 60 percent because local people finally see the economic value of protecting them and their habitat. The population of mountain gorillas has risen from just over 800 in 2010 to over 1,000 in 2016, highlighting the crucial role that tourism plays in protecting this species.

In stark contrast, the Indonesian government’s plan to close Komodo Island involved relocating 2,000 villagers from the island. Many of these people work in the tourism sector, and the closure not only displaces them, but will force them to find new livelihoods. A lack of livelihood opportunities can drive people to engage in unsustainable fishing and logging, and even illegal work such as the trade in people or wildlife. While it is impossible to predict the consequences, without economic worth, the dragons on Komodo Island might be more vulnerable to poaching. An Environmental Minister previously claimed that the poaching of Komodo dragons was typically unheard of—a feat likely achieved, at least in part, because the local community had a vested interest in keeping them alive.

Local people in Komodo National Park depend on tourism for their livelihoods. This local man is selling wooden Komodo dragons.

A local man selling wooden Komodo dragons. Many local people in the area depend on tourism for their livelihoods.

October 2019

A few months after the announcement that Komodo Island will be closed, the government changed their mind again and announced the latest, and seemingly final plan: people can become premium members and pay USD$1,000 to enter Komodo Island for one year, while non-premium members can visit other islands in Komodo National Park for a cheaper, but as-yet unspecified amount.

The villagers on Komodo Island will be allowed to stay, but the growth of their community will be restricted so their population “does not become too big and threaten conservation efforts.” There will also be education programmes to ensure that they are involved in Komodo dragon conservation.

After a tumultuous year, a sensible solution seems to have been reached. Echoing Rwanda’s successful mountain gorilla tourism strategy, premium prices will deter overtourism while still supporting local communities.

But there is one worrying question: will Komodo Island’s premium fee limit the number of tourists to the park, or simply redirect them to the other islands? Also home to dragons, these islands may now face a sudden spike in tourists, which will ultimately be harmful for biodiversity, and for the Komodo dragons that Indonesia wishes to protect.