Spike In Tourism To Indonesia's Komodo Island Has Environmentalists Worried

Mar 11, 2019
Originally published on March 11, 2019 7:41 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Indonesia has some of Southeast Asia's most beautiful and largely undiscovered tourist destinations. But the government wants to boost tourism by 20 percent this year. Its plan is to create 10 new Balis. Well, not everyone is on board with that, as Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: About an hour east of Bali by plane is one of the destinations the Indonesian government is pushing hard.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Komodo Airport Labuan Bajo.

SULLIVAN: Labuan Bajo is the gateway to Komodo National Park, a cluster of islands about an hour away by boat.

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SULLIVAN: The park sits in between the Pacific Ocean to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south, and the largest island is the one that gives the park its name. And, yes, there be dragons - Komodo dragons.

AGUS: They are carnivores, and they eat any kind of meat.

SULLIVAN: And the only place to see them in the wild in the world is here, on a handful of islands in the park. The world's largest living lizards can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh more than 150 pounds. And, says park ranger Agus, who, like many Indonesians, goes by just one name, they have a healthy appetite.

AGUS: Monkey, deer, wild pig, water buffaloes - anything, even their own kind - the young ones - the young Komodo.

SULLIVAN: The ones lounging around the ranger station on Komodo island looked like slightly bored refugees from "Jurassic Park," but don't be fooled, says another ranger, Ramli. They can move incredibly fast, and their mouths, he says, are swimming with nasty bacteria and venom.

RAMLI: One bite - that's enough because they have a bacteria in their saliva - it's around 60 types of bacterias (ph). And also, they have a poison. So that stuff will take the prey down.

SULLIVAN: So they basically bite their prey, and then they just follow them until they die.

RAMLI: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Including humans, though Ramli says the rangers aren't supposed to talk about that. Don't want to scare off the tourists, he says. But all the rangers carry a long-forked stick to fend off dodgy dragons just in case.

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SULLIVAN: But it's not just the dragons that are drawing increasing numbers of visitors to Komodo.

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SULLIVAN: More and more divers and snorkelers are coming to Komodo National Park as well, on live-aboard boats or on day trips from Labuan Bajo and elsewhere.

ALLISON PLACE: I expected it to be amazing. I don't think I expected it to be this amazing.

SULLIVAN: Divers like Allison Place, who came all the way from New Jersey.

PLACE: It's unlike anything I've ever seen before. There's more fish and coral than I've ever seen in my entire life. And the manta rays are breathtaking. They're stunning.

SULLIVAN: Her husband, Joshua Scornavacchi, says it's hands-down the best diving he's ever done.

JOSHUA SCORNAVACCHI: Whitetip reef sharks, blue-spotted stingrays, marble rays. We've seen blacktip sharks, huge cuttlefish, jellyfish. We've seen all kinds of wrasse, giant sweetlips, all types of pufferfish - just an amazing biodiversity underwater and above water.

SULLIVAN: But that biodiversity could be under threat, activists say, by the number of tourists now coming by the shipload...

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SULLIVAN: ...Including cruise ships, bringing anywhere from 500 to 1,200 visitors per boat to Komodo island. That's too many, says ranger Ramli.

RAMLI: If cruise ships bring many people like that, they won't see one Komodo. They will see nothing because dragon is getting stressed. They are afraid of people when there are too many.

SULLIVAN: The central government's plan for half a million visitors to the area this year, he says - way too many. Back in Labuan Bajo, the head of the provincial tourism office, Theresia Primadona Rasmon, agrees.

THERESIA PRIMADONA RASMON: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "I don't think it's a good idea at all," she says. "We need to figure out what the real carrying capacity of the park should be, both in terms of people coming to see the dragons and the divers," she says, "so we can protect the ecosystem."

RASMON: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "We don't want to be another Bali," she says. "Komodo is unique. It's not like any other tourist destination in Indonesia or the world." And she says we need to preserve it. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Labuan Bajo.

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