Jakarta, Indonesia – In the centre of the vast Indonesian archipelago – hundreds of giant lizards roam Rinca Island.
The Komodo dragon – or Komodo monitor – is the world’s largest and heaviest lizard. Fossils indicate they have ancient origins dating back millions of years.
A recent study found the lizard might have actually evolved in Australia, but today the vulnerable animal can only be found in the wild in Indonesia – a source of pride for the locals who live alongside them.
The majority of the dragons live in the Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site spread across three Indonesian islands that was first established in 1980.
The islands are mostly undeveloped, but Indonesia’s government has an ambitious plan to transform the area into a tourist destination.
The park on Rinca Island is closed for now, but Al Jazeera was able to gain access to the area and film construction.
The early stages of building are under way and local park guides have been called in to keep curious dragons away from the builders.
Construction under way
About 1,300 Komodo dragons live on Rinca Island.
They can grow as long as three metres (10 feet) and weigh as much as 166kg (366 pounds), living off a diet of almost anything – from small rodents to water buffalo. The islands’ top predator, the dragons have curved, serrated teeth – like a shark – and venom that incapacitates any prey that might manage to escape their jaws.
Construction on the project is already under way [Eliazar Ballo/Al Jazeera]
Subardja, who works at the park as a guide, said some of the lizards appear bothered by the noise of the construction.
“There have been some changes here, so us guides have been assigned to protect the workers. The Komodos might feel like their space is a bit limited,” he said.
“They are not used to heavy equipment, so when they get too close, we try to keep them away.”
An artist’s impression video – set to the music from the Hollywood science fiction film series Jurassic Park – reveals what the final project is supposed to look like.
The government plans to construct a new “Y-shaped” dock for tourist boats – a reference to the dragon’s forked tongue – and a large circular concrete structure will be built for visitors to walk around the park and view the dragons from an elevated dock.
It is a far cry from what the park looks like now, and the government officials leading the project told Al Jazeera they believed it will change how the national park is seen around the world.
“We want to go into the premium, world-class tourism category. The Komodo dragon is like the panda – highly respected – and this is the only location in the world that has them,” said Inung Wiratno from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
“We are not damaging anything, we are improving the facilities and visitor management.”
Indonesia is building a ‘Y-shaped’ jetty (to mimic the dragon’s distinctive tongue) and other tourist infrastructure in the dragons’ habitat raising questions about conservation [Eliazar Ballo/Al Jazeera]
The Head of the Komodo National Park Kita Awang Nistyantara said the local authorities have studied the behaviour of the Komodo dragons for years, and they are confident the development will not disturb the animals or disrupt their habitat.
“The construction is being done very carefully – we haven’t even cut down a single tree,” he said.
“We always go with the workers to make sure the wildlife are not disturbed.”
The Komodo National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
The Paris-based cultural organisation told Al Jazeera that in light of the developments at the national park, it has reminded the Indonesian government of its obligations.
UNESCO has “requested information from the Government of Indonesia concerning these new development plans” and has reminded them “of the need for impact assessments to be submitted before plans are taken forward”, it said.
Those comments were made in late October, but by that stage, construction was already under way.
The government denied that it did not give notice prior to construction.
“We already sent a letter to UNESCO; we told them that we will build. The documents for environmental observation were already fulfilled and we considered the sensitivity of the area,” said Wiranto from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
“UNESCO in Paris has not given an answer yet – but we did tell them.”
People on Rinca told Al Jazeera they are afraid the government is ruining the national park.
“This is a conservation area – that is the basis of our objection … you can see the heavy equipment and vehicles, tearing the place down, ruining the nature,” said Venansius Harianto, who lives in a town nearby.
Komodo dragons are the world’s biggest lizard and fearsome predators but confined to a few Indonesian islands they are considered vulnerable [Eliazar Ballo/Al Jazeera]
He feared the effect of the development across the islands in Indonesia’s east.
“We want the government not to close their eyes and ears. It is obvious that the construction will have a bad ecological impact.”
But some are hopeful the project will give the economy a boost – and create opportunities for the community.
“Long before construction started, they told us how it would benefit us. We hope they will employ more people from here,” said Sarifuddin, a local who lives close to the park.
“Many of our children have finished school and don’t have jobs yet. Maybe after the project is finished, they will get jobs there.”
Rinca Island is part of the government’s plan to create 10 “new” tourist destinations around the country; places across the archipelago that can rival Bali in its popularity and broad appeal.
The government envisages Rinca Island as an ecotourism destination, but environmental groups have questioned that motivation.
“We see other national parks around the world – they don’t change the landscape. People who really come for eco-tourism expect to come to a place where the ecosystem hasn’t been changed,” said Wahyu Perdana from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI).
“We cannot treat all places the same as Bali.”
‘Sorry’. Construction in the park has already begun, but will not be discussed at UNESCO until next year [Eliazar Ballo/Al Jazeera]
The development in the national park will be discussed at the next UNESCO World Heritage meeting in June next year.
By that time the construction is likely to be finished, and some fear what that could mean for the future of this island – and its dragons.