Sparks did not fly immediately when Bima and Yoko, our resident breeding couple, first laid eyes on each other. Initially, Yoko, a female from Japan’s Ueno Zoo, refused to have anything to do with her betrothed, a male from Libson Zoo in Portugal. It was not till a good year and a half later that she finally gave in to Bima’s charms. They mated and after a nail-biting incubation period that lasted 9 months, we welcomed our first Komodo dragon hatchling in 34 years.
Seen as one of Indonesia’s national treasures, Komodo dragons are so highly regarded that they can only be given away by the President. Locally known as ora or buaja daret, meaning ‘land crocodile’, Komodo dragons can weigh more than 100kg, grow longer than 3m and take down prey larger than themselves. Rough stone-coloured scales cover their robust bodies, from which strong limbs and a muscular tail extend. Though males tend to be bigger, it’s hard to tell the sexes apart.
As Komodos walk, they swing their heads from side-to-side. Constantly, their long, forked tongue flicks out to sample the air, much as snakes do. The tongue then touches the roof of the mouth, where the Jacobson's organ helps analyse and identify airborne molecules. If molecules from a prey animal are more concentrated on the left tongue tip than on the right, the Komodo knows to head left. When the wind is right, they can ‘smell’ carrion from as far away as 4km!
Komodo saliva teems with some 60 strains of bacteria, of which 7 or more are highly septic. Once bitten, an animal usually dies within the day or in less than a week. In addition, Komodos have a gland in their lower jaw containing venom that decreases the blood pressure of their prey and prevents the blood from clotting. Singapore Zoo contributed to research work on venom production in Komodo dragons by providing tissue samples to researchers from the University of Melbourne.
Interestingly, one Komodo’s bite will not kill another Komodo. Scientists are searching for antibodies in their blood that may protect them from the otherwise deadly venom and bacteria.
Komodos are notoriously hard to breed and we are the first in Asia outside of Indonesia to have pulled this feat off. Wild Komodos are on the decline due to a dearth of egg-laying females, poaching and human encroachment. We hope to help ensure their future survival through our breeding efforts.