Sir David Attenborough comes face to face with a Komodo dragon in Natural Curiosities (Tuesday 18 February from 8pm on Watch). But what happened when he first encountered this exotic beast?
Here, in an extract from his book, the naturalist recalls a perilous attempt to catch one in 1957…
We went down to the harbour at Maumere [the main town on the island of Flores in Indonesia], but it was largely empty. Most of the praus [sailboats] were out fishing. Only one was moored by the jetty. I suppose I should have questioned why this was the case. The captain was a surly-looking man.
He said he’d take us to the island of Komodo and we negotiated a price. We loaded our gear on board and bought supplies of food from our Chinese trader. It was single-masted and only some 20ft long. The hold was filled with the stench of rotting fish and copra.
It should have been obvious to me that the few narrow gaps in the long chain of islands would inevitably be torn by tidal races. As it was, I was quite unprepared for what I saw ahead. The surface of the water was ripped and blistered by fearsome rapids. The wind was near gale-strength and right behind us. There was no going back.
We skimmed past a huge whirlpool. The sea was now roaring. We were driven towards the side of another giant eddy in the centre of which I could see sharp fangs of coral. The boat was spun sideways by the eddy and careered into a patch of boiling water, heading straight for another reef, white with breaking waves. Had it not been for the wind blowing hard behind us, we could not have made any headway and doubt- less would have been captured by one of the whirlpools. We were blown from one to another and all our energies were given to trying to fend ourselves off from the coral at their centre. It was already getting dark when at last the strait ahead began to widen. I could see the entrance to a bay. We turned into it, dropped anchor in blessedly calm water and lay down on the deck, totally exhausted. We had no idea whether we had reached Komodo or not.
We woke at dawn. I could just see a small village of thatched huts. The headman received us. Yes, it was Komodo and, yes, there were buaja darat, land crocodiles, roaming around in the hill. One had visited the village only a few nights before and had killed some of his chickens. Were they dangerous? Well, the headman said in a matter-of-fact way, one of them had killed an old man some years ago, but he didn’t really count for he was very feeble. There would be no problem in our seeing them. All we needed was the carcass of a goat, preferably one that was beginning to smell a little, which he could provide.
The next day, with men carrying a dead goat, we walked up a small bush-filled valley. We suspended the goat carcass from a tree that hung over the dry bed of a stream so that its smell, which was now satisfactorily powerful, would spread as far as possible. Up on the bank we built a small hide of branches, behind which Charles [cameraman Charles Lagus] set up his camera.
We waited, scanning the opposite bank through binoculars, anxious for the first glimpse of the extraordinary reptile for which we had come so far. There was a rustle immediately behind us. It was the dragon. It was no more than ten yards away. The camera had a long lens on it so Charles could not even film, for the dragon was too close to focus. With great deliberation it walked in a semi-circle around us, down the low bank, out on to the dry riverbed towards the bait. We had miscalculated.
The dragon was so big that as it reared up, it could just reach the lower edge of the goat carcass. It got a hold and started to pull, jerking backwards with all its strength. If it pulled the carcass down, it might make off with it. The BBC accounts department would have difficulty in approving the purchase of two rotting goats so I jumped up from behind the hide and waved my arms. The dragon let go and charged off into the bush.
Sabran [their local helper] was keen to catch one. I explained that we had no permit to take it away. On the other hand if we did trap one, we would be able to measure it. We drove stakes into the sandy floor of the riverbed, lashed the stems of saplings around them, using rope made from twisted lianas. Inside we put a hunk of the now powerfully stinking carcass. The dragon behaved perfectly. It entered the trap and the gate fell.
We filmed it at close quarters as it hissed and peered through the bars of our trap. We measured it – just over nine feet. Not a world record for the species, but satisfactorily large. And then we released it.
Three days later in the city of Surabaya Sabran helped us gather our collection of animals [captured for return to London Zoo] and loaded them onto a goods train for Jakarta. In Jakarta we transferred the animals to a cargo plane and travelled back with them to London. Three days later I started editing our film [for the fledgeling BBC series Zoo Quest].
Charlie the orangutan [purchased from the hunter who had killed its mother] proved to be the star of the programme. He also acquired considerable distinction in the history of the London Zoo. He became the father of the first orangutan to be born there and thus the founder of the zoo’s flourishing breeding colony.
As for the dragon, no one seemed to mind that it was not in fact in the London Zoo, but still where we had first seen it – on its own island. I certainly did not.