Tue, 09 Nov 1999

Komodo dragon lures tourists, conservation

By James Astill

KOMODO ISLAND, East Nusa Tenggara (JP): The Komodo dragon, a 3 meter-long, occasionally man-eating lizard seems an unlikely savior of coral reefs. But the reptile's ability to draw the crowds may be the last hope for some of eastern Indonesia's most precious marine environment.

Komodo National Park was established in 1980 to protect the dragon, which is found only on three dusty islands between Sumbawa and Flores. It also, incidentally, encloses some extraordinary seas.

Sustained by rushing currents where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet, the park is home to a staggering marine biodiversity. To the north, coral reefs sparkle. To the south, manta rays and filter-feeding whales glide through choppy, nutrient-rich waters.

But until the U.S.-based non-governmental organization (NGO) The Nature Conservancy (TNC) got involved in 1995, the park's status was precious little shield against illegal dynamite and cyanide fishing, or plain over-fishing.

Despite the best efforts of the park authorities, the majority of the reefs had been blasted or bleached and pelagic fish populations had slumped.

TNC put the brakes on this devastation with the help of the police and armed forces by instituting the first park patrols. Later, it lobbied successfully for a ban on crude hookah compressors -- which allow divers to breath through a hose to a depths of 40 meters inside the park's bounds. As a result, blast fishing has decreased by 80 percent over the past year.

But TNC knows well that unless it can offer local communities solid financial alternatives, it might as well try swimming against the park's treacherous currents.

"Tourism is crucial. The National Parks will live or die on the strength of their management's ability to woo visitors," says Rili Djohani, director of its Coastal and Marine Program.

The tourist dollar has been sought for conservation in so many ways, and with such varying degrees of success, that the word "ecotourism" has become worn with misuse. Only if revenues from nature-based holidays are pumped directly back into the environment does the industry warrant its "eco" prefix.

But TNC is convinced it can pull this off in Komodo.

Its surveys consistently show that the dragon's pulling power is quite sufficient to protect its island habitat and the surrounding seas.

Throw in some of the best diving in the world, wild horses on the island of Rinca and the harsh, parched beauty of a hundred uninhabited islands, and it makes quite a package.

But any development must be carefully paced to check its impact on the local communities and their natural resources. Exploitation of local labor and dried-up wells have no place in ecotourism.

To that end, TNC is brokering agreements between investors, the Nusa Tenggara State Government and the national parks administration to ensure a responsible development of the adjoining coastline.

From a small field office in Labuan Bajo, on the neighboring coast of Flores, TNC maintains detailed monitoring of the park's flora and fauna - both terrestrial and marine.

Largely in recognition of this capacity, the navy signed a pioneering agreement to cooperate with the NGO on enforcing the law against destructive fishing.

TNC will provide information on reef damage, and the navy has pledged the muscle to bring offenders to book.

In addition, TNC has recently begun to survey the area's whale and dolphin populations. With 13 species already positively identified, it seems that the potential for commercial whale- watching could well be another asset.

It is also working with local communities to develop sound "sustainable" alternatives to the fast buck earned by destructive fishing. Mariculture is central to this effort.

For the past two years, TNC has been collecting a brood stock of those species, especially groupers, most sought after for the live reef fish trade.

Next, it will build a hatchery to supply local villagers with fry, which they can rear in holding nets of their own and sell on. And if foreign buyers can be enticed directly into the area by a regular supply of high quality fish, the villagers could miss out the middlemen and see their prices rise.

At present, fishermen are paid a princely Rp 120,000 per kilogram for live mouse groupers which can sell for up to $150 per kilogram in the restaurants of Hong Kong.

Most of TNC's target species have already been farmed successfully in Taiwan and to a lesser degree in Bali. Very simply, it is trying to replace one simple, effective and potentially devastating piece of technology, the "hookah" compressor, with a simple, effective and blissfully sustainable alternative.

But even as TNC battles to secure funding for the project's next phase, a local fish trader apes its best efforts. No more than 20 meters from the brood stock pens is a smaller but identical array of nets floated by large, plastic drums.

These pens hold fish bound directly for Hong Kong. Most will have been caught by cyanide fishermen who first squirt poison into the reef, then rip away its coral fronds to retrieve their stunned, half-dead quarry.

It is estimated that for every capture a square meter of coral reef is destroyed.

In the village of Seraya, just north of the park, another cottage industry is burgeoning: fish processing.

Abdullah shows how low-grade tuna can be dried and preserved into a sort of fish bouilli which quadruples its value. He is praying that TNC can develop markets to keep track of the supply.

Although he is only 30, his painfully swollen joints -- the lasting effect of diving for too long with a hookah compressor -- make it difficult for him even to cast nets. He is afraid that a return to diving might kill him.

To the local communities, these fledgling enterprises make sense of TNC's involvement in the park.

"Of course we knew that blast fishing was wrong," said a fisherman of Komodo village. "But until very recently, we saw no other way."

TNC's groundwork is just beginning to bear fruit. It is devoutly wished that the new government's focus on Indonesia's marine resources, for so long robbed and abused, can help it flourish.

With little care, the inhabitants of the Komodo area have lived alongside an aggressive, predatory lizard for centuries. Their primitive wisdom may yet be the saving of a beleaguered but precious area of land and sea.