A Legendary Creature That Turned Out To Be Real

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If you want to give hope those who believe that the Loch Ness monster is actually the last surviving descendant of the ancient plesiosaurs, just mention the example of the Komodo dragon. Varanus Komodoensis, which is found today on Komodo and four other small Indonesian islands, is the largest lizard on the planet at 10 feet in length and more than 300 pounds in weight. The voracious reptilian predator, which first appeared several million years ago during the Pliocene Epoch, isn’t a scion of the dinosaurs (though komodo dragons, like other lizards and snakes, are distantly related to them).  But with the serrated, shark-like teeth, massive head and muscular tail, it certainly looks the part for some scary movie about a beast that time forgot.

It’s a creature that long has been the stuff of legend. A 2006 Jakarta Post article recounts this folk tale passed down among natives of Komodo and neighboring islands:

Once upon a time, a mystical lady called the Dragon Princess lived on a barren and remote island. She was married to a man named Najo. She conceived and gave birth to an egg she kept in a cave. A komodo dragon hatched out of the egg and was given the name Ora. A child, Gerong, was born at the same time.

As a youth, Gerong went out to hunt deer in a forest. He ran into Ora, who wanted to eat the deer being pursued. Gerong became enraged and was on the verge of killing Ora. The princess appeared at the last moment to remind them that they were twins. Gerong calmed down and behaved kindly toward Ora..

…The cave where Ora is said to have hatched is called Loang Atawini, on southern Komodo Island. There, the grave of Najo is also highly venerated. The Dragon Princess herself has no burial place, because locals feel certain that she is immortal and comes back when necessary to protect the island.

Eventually, the Dutch colonists who came to Indonesia heard about the legendary creature as well. In 1910, a Dutch colonial official, J.K.H. Van Steyn Hensbroek, was intrigued when he heard native Indonesians talking about an island that was a “land of crocodiles.” When sailors from a passing ship confirmed that they, too, had caught sight of a giant reptile on Komodo, the Dutch official went for a look. Sure enough, he not only saw several Komodo dragons but was able to kill a man-sized specimen, whose skin he gave to a zoologist in West Java. That was proof that the legend was inspired by a real animal.

As word spread about the Komodo dragon, some speculated that it might even have been the inspiration for fantasy dragons in other cultures as well. When W. Burden Douglas, a scientist for the American Museum of Natural History, decided to pay a visit to Komodo in 1926, a colonial official asked him why he was so interested in the big lizards. As he recounted in his book,  Dragon Lizards of Komodo:

I told him of the importance of the dragon in the mythology of almost every country in the world. This mythical saurian has figured in frequently in the folklore of peoples in every quarter of the globe. Moreover, it is interesting to not that the various descriptions of the beast have a striking resemblance to each other, and much so, that it seems quite incredible that they could have risen independently out of thin air. Dragon stories must originally have been founded on fact, that is, on some beast that actually live, a giant carnivorous lizard, perhaps, whose size and strength and voracious habits were such as properly to impress the mind of primitive man. So strong was the belief in dragons, even in comparatively recent times, that many pictures have been painted of mail-clad princes mounted on some trusty stallion dashing gallantly to the rescue of a beautiful white-skinned maiden who was about to be torn to pieces.

Native people from the Komodo vicinity might have been puzzled by Douglas’ description of evil dragons in European legend. Traditionally, they viewed Komodo dragons as benign creatures, descended from a princess. As the Jakarta Post notes:

Remembering this myth, islanders treat the lizards they call Ora humanely. They feed aged komodos who are no longer capable of stalking prey, while the youngsters are free to chase deer and other animals in the forest.

All the same, people still regard the Komodo dragon with apprehension. The creatures subsist mostly on deer and smaller animals, they do on rare occasions attack humans—there have been  eightinstances on Komodo island since 1980, according to the Komodo National Park’s official web site.  From the Guardian, a UK newspaper, here’s an account of a February attack upon a park ranger:

Marcelinus Subanghadir was outside his hut on Komodo island yesterday when the two metre-long (7ft) reptile grabbed his right foot, the Komodo National Park chief, Tamen Sitorus, said.

The dragon clamped Subanghadir’s foot in its shark-like teeth until fellow rangers heard his screams and drove it away using wooden clubs.

Subanghadir, 34, suffered deep cuts and was recovering at a hospital on nearby Bali.

Those relatively isolated incidents have morphed over time into an entire genre of apocryphal tales. As a correspondent from the Jakarta Globe recalled in a travelogue, virtually from the moment of his arrival in the area, he began hearing the stories: 

Many repeated the oft-told tale of a Swiss tourist, Baron Randolph von Reding, who got separated from his group and was never seen again, although his camera and a few other belongings were later found.

Less well-known is the story of Japanese female tourist who went to one of the islands in Komodo National Park wearing red trousers and a red shirt. A pack of komodos started following her every move, first with their eyes, and then with their heads. Suddenly the largest dragon made a move in her direction and the park rangers yelled for her to get back in the boat while they covered her escape, fending off the komodos with long sticks.

The journalist’s tour guide, however, topped those yarns, with his own claim that he once had awakened from a nap to discover a Komodo dragon lying next to him:

[The guide] didn’t hear the sound of claws on the wooden floor, and wasn’t aware when a dragon crept up to his bench. At that very moment, perhaps because of a dream, his hand fell from his chest and dropped right next to the nose of the reptile.

The predator’s head snapped and he bit reflexively, and [the guide] woke up screaming.

Death by Dragon airs Monday July 27 at 10P et/pt on Nat Geo Wild.


  1. Ayman
    July 31, 2012, 2:19 pm

    Awesome sketches David. Love the exposseirn on the close-up dragon. Looks like he’s drooling over a nice piece of beefy cow. Komodo dragons are so unique in the way they kill their pray. Their mouth is so foul and bacteria infested, that they simply bite their prey once and wait around patiently until the poor victim dies from infection. I wonder if they’re the source for the term “dragon breath”??-Hans