Sunday, May 27, 2012

Early 20th Century Attempts to Conserve Komodo Dragons

The idea of conservation can be found in early religious and philosophical writings. There are examples in many ancient religions. In ancient Greece Plato lamented the degradation of pasture land. In the bible, God commanded Mosses to let the land rest from cultivation every seventh year. Prior to 18th century European cultures frequently considered admiration of nature to be a pagan view, wilderness was denigrated while agriculture was praised. By the mid-19th century conservation became popular as ecological knowledge spread. 

In 1912, Dutch scientists announced the existence of large lizards on Komodo Island in the Dutch East Indies. In September 1926, the Burden expedition from the American Museum of Natural History, returned from the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) with two huge, live monitor lizards that became known as Komodo dragons. Burden's specimens were placed on display at the Bronx Zoo where they drew large crowds - 38,000 visitors on 12 September. But, the lizards survived only a few short months in New York City, both were dead by mid-November. However, the publicity and crowds generated during their  short stay at the zoo turned them into a “celebrity species.” 

Timothy Barnard at the National University of Singapore has written an article that focuses on Dutch attempts to limit access to the dragons. The profits and publicity generated by Burden's Komodo dragons in scientific institutions could not be ignored. Dutch officials now had to deal with numerous requests for Komodo dragons. The applications for collecting dragons were submitted to a colonial administrative system that aspired to rationalize Dutch rule over vast areas of the archipelago and to make the Netherlands East Indies a center of scientific research and conservation.

Dutch officials’ reacted to requests, with a number of regulations to deal with the developing circumstances. The resulting rules and procedures became part of larger global trends related to emerging environmental consciousness, while also reflecting understandings of how to create a system of control over distant lands and nature. Foreigners seeking a Komodo dragon would usually be directed to the Department of Agriculture, located in Buitenzorg. Barnard chronicles the early history of Varanus komodoensis in western zoos, but perhaps of more interest are the rules and regulations the Dutch instituted, rules and regulations that placed the colonly Dutch at odds with the indigenous people. The Ordinance to Protect Certain Mammals and Birds covered all wild animals, except those designated by the governor-general and those considered to be pests. The exclusion of pests weakened the ordinance, because pests included all monkeys, the orangutan, and a number of other species traditionally hunted throughout the archipelago. The ordinance was also weakened because it was only applicable in Java and a few other scattered parts of the Dutch colony, hunting rights in the rest of the archipelago was left up to 280 indigenous rulers, including the Sultan of Bima in eastern Sumbawa, who had traditional rights over Komodo and Rinca. later the law was altered and applied so that it could protect the dragons and increased tensions between the colonial government and the local peoples. Eventually the regulations were changed to protect a relatively few species, and the dragon was given added protection by the establishment of a reserve.

Barnard discusses several scientific expeditions intent on collecting dragons, including the thwarted attempt of the Crane Expedition that included Karl P. Schmidt from the Field Museum, and the competing Chancellor-Stuart Expedition that was eventually successful in obtaining two of the lizards for FMNH using a cooperation and diplomacy.

Barnard, T.P. 2011. Protecting the Dragon: Dutch Attempts at limiting Access to Komodo Lizards in the 1920s and 1930s. Indonesia 92:97-124.

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