Here be dragons!
Published: Jul 19, 2018Paignton Zoo's komodo dragon arrives!
It’s not often you get to see a dragon arrive. It’s around six o’clock on a hot Saturday afternoon. We’re sitting around the back of Paignton Zoo’s Crocodile Swamp building. It’s an exhibit popular with Zoo guests - and it’s about to become even more popular.
We’ve been waiting expectantly for what seems like hours. The zoo keepers have had a last-minute briefing, so everyone knows their job. Then, suddenly, she’s here.
She rolls up in a thoroughly functional but surprisingly modest vehicle – its main attribute is that it’s air-conditioned, which means she’s doing rather better than most of us stood around wilting in the heat. Keepers gather, discuss and eventually lift the box gently and lay it on the dusty ground. Welcome to Devon.
The travel crate is carried into the enclosure and left just inside the door. The front of the crate is unfastened and then the final member of staff retreats. For a few minutes, nothing. There’s an expectant silence.
From where I’m standing, among a row of reptile keepers on the public walkway of Crocodile Swamp, I can see her front left claw. Then a flicker – it’s that long, pale tongue, described as the second most amazing tongue in the natural world after that of the giraffe. She’s tasting the air. Then she moves.
Within a few more minutes she’s out, all two metres of her. The first thing you notice is that she’s alert, looking around – looking up at us – well aware of her surroundings and responsive. She has beautiful markings, light green and mottled, and a bright look in her eye. Her tail is long and meanders elegantly across the floor of the enclosure.
An unexpected additional thrill is the sound of her feet on the dry leaves scattered all around. This is the first indoor Komodo enclosure to do away with windows – people are in the same space as the dragon. You’re safe and she’s secure, but you can hear her and she can hear you. Immediately there’s more of a connection.
She moves around, seemingly unfazed by her journey, looking, tasting, pushing her nose into the leaf litter. There’s something almost dog-like in her manner as she explores her new home. Words like “beast” and “monster” come to mind, but they really don’t do her justice. She’s magnificent. People will get a thrill from seeing her – and that’s the most important thing of all.
Luke Harding, the Curator of Lower Vertebrates & Invertebrates, is the man who has spent so long organising this move, working closely with Barcelona Zoo, the European Studbook holder and the Komodo Dragon Species Committee. Zoos don’t move animals around on a whim.
Luke’s team hang over the rail and watch with a delight that is both professional and personal; they are trained reptile keepers, but they are also, naturally, passionate animal lovers. There’s talk of Komodo dragon tattoos.
She will need time to settle into her new home in Crocodile Swamp, which is why the building will be closed to guests for a few days. The plan is to open it on Friday 20th July. Make a date with a dragon!