A welcome committee sat waiting for us as we stepped into the village. The skulls were licked clean and mounted on rusted nails. Curved horns of water buffalo, the thin jaws of deer and curled teeth of wild boar revealed our predator before we had set eyes on it.
As we stepped onto the jetty, we heard the engine of our boat splutter as it headed back out of the cove. We nervously eyed the long grass of the marshes as we walked down the boardwalk. The wooden houses were raised, creating dark shadows where our fears could manifest themselves.
We walked through an arid meadow where yellow stalks snapped like bones. We were careful to stay on the path, not knowing whether the infamous inhabitants of Rinca island were stalking us. We saw the silhouette of a stag seeking shade under a tree. It watched us warily as we passed.
We came to a clearing where two huts met. A long forked grey tongue flickered in the air, lingering for a second to taste us. The savage claws scraped the dirt, then stopped. The sagging skin stretched and one keen black eye considered us quietly. The hulking muscles did not fill the skin but were intimidating nonetheless. The stomach dragged across the ground and the scales rippled as it began to move towards us once again.
Another dragon emerged from the underbelly of the hut. This one was smaller but more nimble. Our guide had said that they rarely move quickly, other than to fight over scraps of meat. However, this one was making ground. Another crawled out from the darkness and came our way. Then a villager slopped out some fish from a raised doorway, with more emerging at the promise of food. Their strong jaws shredded large chunks and their saliva became thick with blood. You could sense the power behind those serrated teeth.
We left the dragons and climbed up a hill towards the summit that overlooked the cove. The island was not large, but was one of the only places where these reptiles could be found now. It was here that just a few weeks before, a Singaporean man had ignored the advice of his guide and gone exploring on his own. An opportunistic dragon ripped his calf and he needed 43 stitches. If you asked any of the locals here, they would tell you that he died. They enjoy fanning the flames of the folklore as the dragons are not as fearsome as the stories would have you believe.
That said, they have been known to eat humans. Their usual hunting method is to use stealth and power. A dragon will wait for hours whilst stalking out its prey, then launching an attack at up to speeds of around 12mph. The saliva from its bite contains bacteria and venom that slowly weaken the animal and prevent its blood from clotting. The dragon only has to follow and wait. It can take up to four days for the animal to die. The dragons then sniffs out the carcass to feed. In this way, many dragons will share a kill. In one sitting, a dragon can consume 80% of its body weight, and will eat the bones, hooves and most of the hide.
We crossed a small stream and came to an area pitted with holes. Our guide told us that mating season was coming up, which invariably made the Komodo dragons more aggressive. The females would dig large holes to lay their eggs in, then sit there, incubating the fertilised clutch for around nine months. They usually laid around 30 or so eggs. Once hatched, the young dragons, who are around 40cm in length, scramble up the nearest tree. Instinctively, they know to run as their mother is a cannibal.
As we left the island, I recalled a book I’d once read called Jamrach’s Menagerie. The story is about a ship of nineteenth-century whalers who land on the island. The crew witness the dragons chasing their shipmates up trees and devouring them whole, but cruelly capture a dragon for a celebrated importer back in England. They soon believe themselves to be cursed as bad luck befalls them on their journey home. The dragons will never invoke that level of fear since we understand them better. We also know our own savagery and standing in the food chain.