Do not feed the dragons

January 18, 2002

Moves to stop goats being fed to wild komodo dragons for the entertainment of tourists have caused hardship to local people.

Research by Matthew Walpole, a research associate at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent at Canterbury, suggests that the practice did the giant reptiles no harm.

His study, published in the journal Animal Conservation , goes on to show that it did benefit the islanders who provided the goats for the gory feasts.

The entire 3,000-5,000 komodo population is found on just three Indonesian islands. It is designated a vulnerable species.

The dragons have no predators and have never been hunted by humankind, though poachers have targeted the deer that they sometimes eat.

The formation of the Komodo National Park has offered them some protection. Dr Walpole's research focuses on conservation concerns raised by changes in activities in the park. Visitors would come to watch the dragons tear up and eat freshly killed goats, which were hung from trees in the same area, several times a week.

It provided the tourists with a rare opportunity to see the creatures.

But some found the practice disturbing, and conservationists at the park decided it must cease as it was felt to be unnatural.

Dr Walpole found that the dragons' health was unaffected by the practice and that the population was not permanently distorted by the presence of the food. But local people could no longer sell goats as they had before. "Tourism is not having a negative effect," Dr Walpole said.

He felt it unlikely the feeding would resume but said a compromise could be found. "Solutions lie in finding less intrusive means for tourists to view dragons and in enabling local people to become involved in tourism through training, recruitment and development of alternative markets," he said. Dr Walpole added that the study showed conservation policies should not be based on environmental concerns alone.

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