Up close with sharks and dragons

02 June 2016 | Education
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A Komodo dragon showing off his forked tongue on Komodo island, where these giant lizards call home

A group of 24 NUS students, led by historian Dr John van Wyhe from Tembusu College and NUS Biological Sciences, conducted an extraordinary expedition through Indonesia from 9 to 20 May to study the state of nature conservation in the wildlife-rich archipelago. One of the highlights of the trip was a much-anticipated encounter with Komodo dragons on the island of Komodo. This was the first student-initiated expedition under the Study Trips for Engagement and EnRichment (STEER) programme.

The team first met with representatives of a major paper manufacturer, the University of Indonesia and the Ministry of Forestry in Jakarta before moving on to the islands of Lombok, Bali, Flores and Komodo. On the island of Lombok they examined the remote fish market of Tanjung Luar, witnessed first-hand the sad state of shark overfishing, especially for their fins, and damaged coral reefs. In Bali, wildlife was severely threatened as well. In contrast with nearly every home and restaurant having several caged wild songbirds, Bali Barat National Park had very little wildlife. The only place it was abundant was the public bird market in Denpasar where tens of thousands of birds and other animals were crammed into cages for sale.

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Birds are stuffed into cages and sold at a public market in Denpasar

On the island of Flores, the group made a stop at Batu Cermin cave nestled in the hills of Labuan Bajo. Also known as Mirror Rock, Batu Cermin obtained its name from the fact that sunlight entering the cave reflects points of light to other parts of the cave, not unlike a mirror.

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Dr van Wyhe (right) explaining the origins of the limestones as ancient coral reefs that have been uplifted

Sailing from the island of Flores, the team swam with sharks and sea snakes, endured fish bites and the stings of jellyfish, and marvelled at the sight of a vast flock of prehistoric-looking giant fruit bats silently flying across the sky at sunset.

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Sailing from Labuan Bajo on Flores island to Komodo island

The voyage culminated on the island of Komodo, home to the Komodo dragons. The group had many very close encounters with these ancient lumbering titans, by far the largest lizards in the world. Associate Professor Timothy Barnard from NUS History joined the group on Komodo to share his expertise on the social history of the dragons.

The Komodo dragon is a rare example of a striking animal that is not threatened or endangered in the region. The dragons actually outnumber the c. 2,000 human inhabitants. The dragons might be prospering because of the success of conservation efforts. In addition to being the centre of a national park, since 1986 it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Less optimistically, the dragons may be prospering because these dry, desolate islands are no temptation for human exploitation and remain almost completely untouched.

The team stayed off the tourist-beaten track and instead endured the vagaries of local transport, trekking and cycling through myriad country lanes and rice fields. These less-trodden paths allowed them to meet and interact with many local people going about their lives in the midst of the remaining wildlife. From Sassak school children to impoverished roadside families in Lombok, to peasant bamboo farmers and plantation labourers in Bali, each group had their own story to tell.

Throughout the expedition, a team of five students, led by Year 1 Business student Ong Kah Jing, filmed and recorded events and their experiences to produce a documentary. “My biggest takeaway was how important it was to have a mindset that welcomes knowledge,” said Kah Jing. He added that the team had planned the itinerary in a manner that allowed participants to appreciate the issues surrounding nature conservation. The documentary is slated for screening on the first day of Tembusu College’s sharing week in August, where participants will recount their experiences through articles, photos, artworks and talks, among other forms of creative expression.

By Dr John van Wyhe, Fellow of Tembusu College; NUS Biological Sciences