Baby Boom in Indonesia

Hatchlings courtesy of The Bangkok Post

An announcement recently came out of Indonesia that a clutch of artificially incubated Komodo dragons hatched at a zoo, and the story popped up on news sites all over the internet last week. What amazed me, as I read through the articles published worldwide, was the huge disparity of “facts” that each story listed about Komodos. If you didn’t see any of these stories, here’s what you missed…

What they agree on:

  1. Seven dragons hatched at the Surabaya zoo.
  2. Komodo dragons can grow up to 10 feet long.
  3. The zoo is starting to microchip the animals for better tracking! Yes, savvy reader. The Dragon Keeper predicted this zoology trend.

What they disagree on:

  1. A Komodo dragon’s maximum adult weight. Every story listed where the dragons top out the scales, because–let’s face it–their size is one of the primary reasons we’re fascinated with the species, but each seemed to get their “facts” somewhere completely different. The Bangkok Post was the low bidder, stating the maximum weight was 154 pounds (sounds precise!) and Science World Report put them at a whopping 330 pounds. What is their actual maximum weight, you ask? According to Komodo Dragons; Biology and Conservation, the largest dragon measured in their studies was 250 pounds. It’s important to note that Komodos can consume up to 80% of their body weight in one meal, so perhaps the 330 pound giant from Science World Report had just enjoyed a healthy dinner.
  2. How many dragons exist in the world. The figure in the reports ranged anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000, with the International Science Times adding confidently that there were only 350 breeding females in the entire population. They must have taken a census. As with any wild species, the actual population can only be estimated, but 4,000 seems to be the generally accepted figure.

These repeated discrepancies highlight how little we really understand the Komodo dragon. Of course, most of the articles had to mention at least one Komodo attack on a human, which is our other point of fixation with the dragons. The stories largely referred to the two recent incidents, although one piece went as far back as the 2007 fatal attack of an 8-year-old boy, and two of them brought up the bite that Sharon Stone’s ex-husband took to the leg (except one of those mentions placed the bite in 2011 instead of rightly in 2001).

Each story’s focus was basically consistent–that these births brought hope for the survival of the species, but–and this is the silence that disturbed me the most–no one mentioned that this hope is coming from one of the most notorious zoos in the world.

Antara news agency has said that Surabaya Zoo is a death camp for animals. One zoo officer reportedly stated that some 500 animals died there between 2010 and 2011. A year ago the zoo’s last giraffe was found dead in its enclosure with a 20 kilogram ball of plastic in its stomach.

Surabaya reports that with the births of these seven dragons, their total Komodo population is now 63, but it should be 69. Three dragons died in recent years from unknown causes and another three juvenile dragons disappeared from the zoo altogether. It is believed that they were sold into the exotic pet trade.

Even if you can somehow look past the rampant death and disease, there are extreme space issues at Surabaya. According to the city’s website, the zoo keeps 351 species on 37 acres of land. Compare that to zoos in these parts. The Minnesota Zoo has 504 species in 485 acres and even the Como Zoo, which has sometimes been criticized for exhibit constraints, only houses 66 species on its 17 acre plot–an average of 250% more room per species than Surabaya!

When I checked the city of Surabaya’s website, here’s what they had to say about the zoo’s local standing.

KBS (the zoo) was the member of PKBSI that is the Association of all the Indonesian Zoo. According to results of the meeting agreement was severed the zoo only was the place of the development of the fauna, so as eventually available attractions in the zoo gradually will be eliminated because of being the exploitation action of the fauna.

After allowing a wide margin of error for translation issues, it’s still obvious that Surabaya Zoo is a deeply troubled place.

I would love to read these stories with the same spirit of hope in which they were written, but it’s a difficult proposition, knowing the reputation of this zoo. I can only wish that the zoo staff are earnest in their desire to protect and care for these newborn Komodo dragons. The future of a species may be in their hands.

Take a minute to check out the hatchlings here–they’re pretty gosh darn cute–and send some good vibes their way.