A Komodo dragon with its tongue out

The Komodo dragon isnow listed as Endangered by the IUCN. ©Gudkov Andrey/Shutterstock

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Komodo dragon is now listed as Endangered as rising sea levels threaten its survival

The world's largest lizard, the Komodo dragon, could disappear in the next century as rising sea levels threaten to submerge its habitat.

Given there are fewer than 1,400 adult dragons left in the world, and that their range is limited range to a handful of Indonesian islands, the conservation body the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) took the decision to move the reptile from the category of Vulnerable to Endangered. Threats to its habitat from both humanity and nature have been cited as among the reasons for the change.

It joins a number of iconic species, including the tiger, basking shark and Asian elephant, on the Red List. 

Globally, 38,543 species are listed as threatened with extinction, with many more yet to be assessed for the list.

Dr Andrew Terry, Conservation Director at the Zoological Society of London, said that the reclassification of the species was a wake-up call ahead of climate negotiations set for November.

'The idea that these prehistoric animals have moved one step closer to extinction due in part to climate change is terrifying - and a further clarion call for nature to be placed at the heart of all decision making on the eve of the COP26 in Glasgow,' says Andrew.

The island of Komodo with a view of land and sea

The species is found only in the Komodo National Park and a few surrounding islands. ©Tiket2.com/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Life on the edge

The Komodo dragon is a carnivorous reptile found only on the islands of southern Indonesia. Its main population found mostly in and around the Komodo National Park, on the island of Komodo, but smaller populations can also be found on the islands of Rinca and Flores. 

The dragons prey on a variety of animals including deer, pigs and water buffalo, with a venomous bite to help take down its targets.

After maturing at around the age of six, females lay clutches of roughly 30 eggs, of which 20 are likely to hatch. However, typically only two of these hatchlings are ever likely to reach adulthood. 

Given how few young lizards make it to adulthood coupled with the population's limited range, the Komodo dragon has previously been considered a Rare species since debuting on the Red List in 1986. While this categorisation is now defunct, the lizard was redesignated as Vulnerable in 1996, where it remained for the past 25 years.

In reassessing the Komodo dragon for 2021, the IUCN considered a variety of factors relating to its lifestyle and habitat. To be classified as Endangered, a species must satisfy at least one of five criteria, such as a significant reduction in population size over the past 10 years.

Of particular relevance to the dragons is its geographic range and small population size. Occupying an area of around 809 square kilometres (just over the size of New York City) and with a 'severely fragmented population', it is expected that the population will decline in future, particularly in unprotected areas.

A Komodo dragon on Sulphurea Hill overlooking Komodo National Park

As sea levels rise, up to 71% of their suitable habitat could be lost in the next five decades. ©David Stanley/Flickr CC BY 2.0

As it's a species that lives predominantly in the low-lying savannah, one of the most significant threats to the Komodo dragon is the rapidly changing climate. 

With rising global temperatures already causing the low-lying areas of islands to slip beneath the waves, the most extreme predictions suggest that the dragons could lose up to 71% of their habitat in the next 45 years. This could result in their already low numbers being cut by a third by 2050. The species's limited ability to disperse puts them at an even greater risk of extinction.

Rising sea levels already pose a threat to species around the world, with the Bramble Cay melomys, found only on the eponymous island off the coast off Australia, declared extinct in 2016. Last seen in 2009, the rodent is believed to have been killed off by repeated flooding of the island by the sea, destroying its habitat and perhaps drowning individuals. It is often described as the first mammal to go extinct due to human-induced climate change.

But it is not only the animals such as the Komodo dragon and Bramble Cay melomys which are at threat.

Dr Jeff Streicher, the Senior Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles at the Museum, says, 'Big charismatic fauna like the Komodo dragon catch everyone's eyes, but the sad reality is that climate change is affecting to every species.

'Dozens of species are continuing to move higher in elevation to track their preferred thermal environment, and with decreasing space, there is now competition between them. 

'As well studied as the Komodo Dragon is, there are lots of organisms that inhabit Komodo, from insects down to microbes, that we know little to nothing about. The dragon's movement is related to the loss of habitat, and, sadly, to the loss of our ability to understand everything else that lives in that habitat.'

The face of a Komodo dragon

The Komodo dragon is also under threat from habitat destruction and invasive species. ©Gary Campbell-Hall/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Beyond the sea

While rising sea levels are of particular concern to conservationists, a variety of other factors threaten the Komodo dragon, too. 

While much of the species's remaining habitat is protected within the Komodo National Park, where populations are thought to be stable, unprotected populations on the nearby Flores, where over half the dragons' occupied habitat lies, are described as being at 'ongoing risk'. Human activity is having a particular impact, with island hunters often competing with the dragons for the same prey.

Meanwhile, the reptiles' preferred habitat is being destroyed as farmland encroaches into the forests and savannah, with dragons and farmers coming into conflict.

There is also a 'medium risk' for those dragons living on Flores, as individuals are being taken for the illegal trade for pets and zoos. Finally, the threat posed by invasive species including cats, dogs and toads is being investigated as another factor potentially affecting Komodo dragons on the island as these invasive species prey on young lizards.

In addition to the risk of extinction from external sources, the fragmented nature of the populations also poses a genetic risk to the species. 

Gene flow between different groups of dragons is very low, with the separate populations rapidly becoming genetically divergent from one another. A lack of genetic diversity can make populations vulnerable to disease, though there is no indication of such a threat to the species at present. 

The divergence between the two groups - the north Flores and the Komodo National Park dragons - is so large that it has even led the authors of the IUCN's report into the Komodo dragon to recommend managed the two populations separately with a view to conservation. More research is required to understand how the reptiles will fare under the effects of climate change.

While efforts to understand the impact climate change will have on the dragons continue, breeding programmes in both the national park and zoos around the world work to maintain the species. On the ground, groups such as the Komodo Survival Program work to find solutions so that humans and dragons can coexist, while the Indonesian government has moved to restrict tourism to Komodo. With the dragons now listed as Endangered, the race is on for further actions to change the species's fate.