Why did the Komodo dragon cross the road?
That might have been the first thought that popped into the minds of Indonesia's netizens when a photo of the oversized monitor lizard made the rounds on social media over the weekend.
The image shows a Komodo dragon facing off with a pair of nervous construction workers looking on from the top of their truck, which is mired in the mud, with commenters saying it evokes the famous "Tank Man" photo from the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989.
The picture, posted with neither timestamp nor credit to a specific photographer, was first uploaded by Instagram user @gregoriusafioma and liked over 280,000 times, reaching critical mass on Instagram and Twitter.
The viral photo is thought to have been shot on Rinca Island in East Nusa Tenggara's Labuan Bajo regency, where the central government is currently building premium tourist facilities, which include, at the bare minimum, renovating the docks on the island's coastline, an elevated deck for Komodo dragon viewing, an information center, and an inn for visitors and island staff – all the makings of what some netizens are calling Indonesia's own Jurassic Park.
“That photo might actually be real because it looks to be part of the Komodo’s stomping ground, whereas the truck that is carrying construction materials just happens to be passing by,” said Wiratno, the Environment and Forestry Ministry's director general for natural resources and ecosystems.
The official was quick to point out, however, that the encounter was not necessarily dangerous for either lizard or man, as it was a common occurrence that park staff and construction workers were trained to anticipate.
Citing data from the park's rangers, Wiratno said there were some 60 Komodo dragons on this part of Rinca Island, around 15 of which come in regular contact with or are often spotted near human settlements.
“We have 10 rangers there to check in every morning each time we conduct activities. If any Komodo [goes anywhere near the construction projects], we take it away [to safety],” he told The Jakarta Post on Monday.
But as conservationists can readily attest, these activities are detrimental to the lizard colony, and the wider implications of the photo cannot be taken as a mere joke.
Despite ambitious plans to turn Labuan Bajo into one of 10 premium tourist destination that the government is billing as the "New Balis", environmental activists and local tour guides have expressed concerns that it could threaten the Komodos’ natural habitat, and even put local visitors at an economic disadvantage.
On Sunday, the head of Komodo National Park, Lukita Awang Nistyantara, issued an official announcement that the Loh Buaya resort on Rinca Island would be closed to the public to allow for the construction of new facilities on the island.
The closure would run through until June 30, 2021 and would be evaluated every two weeks by the park's management, he said in the statement.
Wiratno confirmed the contents of the letter, saying construction would be carried out by the Public Works and Housing Ministry primarily so that future visitors would not have to come in direct contact with the free-roaming lizards.
The head of the West Manggarai Tourism Rescue Society Forum, Aloysius Suhartim Karya, criticized the construction project and the closures on Rinca by the authorities, saying that they were not in line with the spirit of conserving the Komodos, as evidenced by the recent "stand-off" between lizard and truck.
“We will see more of this kind of incident, which plainly displays the destructive dimensions of governance that only thinks about the economic [benefits] of Komodo National Park,” Aloysius said.
Komodo dragons lounge about on Rinca Island in East Nusa Tenggara's Labuan Bajo regency, on March 29, 2018. (JP/Wienda Parwitasari )
He also said that closing the island off during construction would also effectively block access for local tourism businesses that operate boat trips to and guided tours on the island.
“We call on the project [on Rinca island] to be stopped as it does not fulfill existing sustainability [guidelines],” the activist said, while underlining the fact that tourists come to Labuan Bajo and Komodo National Park to witness the pristine natural beauty of the environment – not exclusive tourist attractions.
Separately, East Nusa Tenggara's Forum for the Environment (Walhi NTT) director, Umbu Wulang Tanaamahu Paranggi, said the viral photo foretold that building a premium tourist trap in the national park would likely be detrimental for the lizards.
“That sighting is proof that the Komodos are being inconvenienced by the mass-scale construction project,” Umbu said on Monday. He further explained that Komodo dragons are solitary creatures, and that construction activities that alter their natural habitat could endanger them.
Instead of turning the place into a tourist destination and running the risk of damaging the natural ecosystem, Umbu said that the central government and regional administrations should instead focus on the science and conservation of the lizards.
However, Wiratno defended the project, saying that construction was still allowed in accordance with Government Regulation No. 36/2010 on tourism in wildlife reserves, national parks, forest parks and natural tourism sites.
"Within a national park there is a core area, wildlife area and [land] use area. If someone has a permit to set up tourism facilities in the park, they may only erect buildings on 10 percent of the total area of concession," he said.
The Rinca Island project will cost around Rp 69.96 billion (US$4.76 million), a relatively small portion of the Rp 902.47 billion that the Public Works and Housing Ministry has allocated to turn Labuan Bajo into a strategic national tourism project (KSPN).
Tourism company PT Segara Komodo Lestari obtained both a natural tourism permit (IPPA) and a natural tourism facilities permit (IUPSWA) from the environment ministry back in 2015, which allows it to manage a total of 22.1 hectares – roughly 0.1 percent of Rinca Island's area of 20,721 hectares.
The Komodo dragon is a species of monitor lizard endemic to the islands in East Nusa Tenggara, and has the conservation status of "vulnerable", meaning that they are likely to become endangered unless their ecosystems and reproduction abilities improve.
According to government data, there were 3,022 Komodo dragons in the wild in 2019, compared with the 2,897 specimens found in 2018. They are mainly concentrated on Komodo Island and Rinca Island, with only seven Komodos on Padar Island, 69 on Gili Motong and 91 on Nusa Kode.