Here Be Dragons, and Catholics are Trying to Keep It That Way

A group of priests and lay Catholics are working to save the endangered Komodo dragon

(photo: Mark Dumont, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

This one falls under the category of, “Surely, You Must Be Joking!” Well, I’m not joking and you should stop calling me “Shirley.”

For those fortunate individuals who’ve seen a live Komodo dragon, one is easily given to imagining where the myth of fire-breathing, damsel-kidnapping, gold-hording, St.-George-vanquishing, Tolkienesque dragons come from.

These monsters are magnificent. They run fast enough to catch deer and can kill a wild boar in less than 10 bloody and harrowing seconds. They are native to the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang and Padar.

And, as the title of this articles suggests, their future lies in the hands of Catholics.

Apparently, the Indonesian islands which the Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) call “home” have very large Catholic populations who’ve taken upon themselves to protect these wonderful and wonderous creatures.

The Indonesian government, in its total lack of perspicacity and prudence (chief among the cardinal virtues) has decided to allow massive resorts to be built on the very islands which the dragons need to survive ― environmentally sensitive lands including Komodo National Park. This is odd in the extreme since if these animals die out, what use will there be for dozens of resorts hoping to accommodate eco-tourists who’ve come to see the very animal which their presence is destroying?

Two private companies, Komodo Wildlife Ecotourism and Segara Komodo Lestari, obtained licenses in 2014 and 2015 to build resorts on Rinca, Komodo and Padar, three small islands in Komodo National Park, which was founded in 1980. Segara Komodo Lestari had started construction on Rinca Island but stopped after around 1000 activists―again, mostly Catholics―and other local people protested on Aug. 6.

Several attempts have been made over the decades to expand the animals’ range but those have failed catastrophically as those new islands didn’t offer enough large wild game upon which the dragons subsist.

In response to this massive failure to think and plan intelligently, lay Catholics and several priests have come to the forefront to save the dragons.

As part of their plan, they have insisted the Indonesian government review their bad policy of issuing building permits on the islands in the animals’ range.

The move followed a meeting on Aug. 10 between Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya and a group of Catholic environmentalists, including a Franciscan priest. The latter urged the minister to intervene and stop the development before it was too late.

The minister ― perhaps blessed with a bit of wisdom or, lacking this, the grace to listen to wisdom and take it as one’s own ― said she would form a team to investigate the situation. Nurbaya admitted that, "Conservation takes precedence over investment,” according to UCANews, an independent Catholic News outlet in Asia.

The Komodo dragon, the world's largest lizard ― growing to a maximum length of 10 feet (3 meters) and weighing up to 150 lb. (70 kilograms) ― would be seriously impacted if the resorts were built. In 2012, the national park dedicated to protecting these animals was selected as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.

Franciscan Father Peter C. Aman, who attended the Aug. 10 meeting, said the proposed resorts were in conflict with the government's conservation mission.

“On the one hand, the government wants to preserve the dragons, but at the same time it issues [building] permits that threaten their habitat,” he said.

Yosef Berty Fernandez, a local lay Catholic leader and former Indonesian ambassador to Peru and Bolivia, said resorts would damage the national park’s fragile ecosystem. “We do not reject investors but they should do business in areas outside the dragons’ habitat,” he said.

Rafael Todowela, a Catholic tour guide, pointed out that local and foreign visitors to the park also wanted it to remain natural, without being “contaminated by the presence of unnecessary buildings.”

Gregorius Afioma, from Sunspirit for Justice and Peace, a local Catholic NGO which assists local farmers and the local poor and disabled, was shocked that permits had been issued despite the protests of local communities. Building within this zone has been strictly forbidden since the 1990s. In fact, several trespassers have been killed by guards.

“Now the government is rolling out the red carpet for investors to enter the area,” Afioma opined. “It only exacerbates injustice for local people.”

Europeans, and the rest of the world, only encountered Komodo dragons for the first time in 1910.

In a strange cinematic twist, stories of the buaya darat ― “land crocodile” in the local Komodo language ― reached Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbroek of the Dutch colonial administration. The search for these creatures was the driving factor for an expedition to Komodo Island by film producer W. Douglas Burden in 1926 and it was he who coined the term “Komodo dragon.” He wrote a book entitled Dragon Lizards of Komodo in 1927.

Burden returned with 12 preserved specimens and two live ones. This expedition was the inspiration for the 1933 movie King Kong. Three of the preserved specimens are still on display in New York City American Museum of Natural History.

Interestingly, the Komodo dragons' pack hunting is unique in the reptile world and inspired the similar behavior of the raptors in the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park series, Jurassic World.

Upon seeing the small population of the dragons, the Dutch administrators of the islands took it upon themselves to outlaw sport hunting and heavily limited the number of individuals taken for scientific study.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List classifies the Komodo dragon as a vulnerable species. As of 2015, the total world population of these creatures is 3,222 specimens. As of 2009, only 53 zoos around the world outside of their native habitat conserve these creatures. Though they become immediately docile in captivity, dragons have difficultly breeding and are prone to infectious diseases which, apparently, do not cause the same problems to their relatives in the wild.

Though St. Francis of Assisi never encountered such a reptile in 13th-century Italy, I have every confidence that he would have recognized its kinship with it and called it “Brother Dragon.”

All creatures, great and small, have but one Creator Who calls upon all His creatures to praise Him (Daniel 3:52-90). Dragons included (Psalms 148:7). They cry for their food, and the Lord feeds them because even they recognize the Lord of All (Psalms 145:15-16).