Lunch, as it turned out, was not a chicken. It wasn't a chicken because the dragon had eaten it. How the kitchen was able to determine that the chicken the dragon had eaten was the precise one that they were otherwise going to do for lunch was not clear to us, but apparently that was the reason we were having plain noodles, and we were grateful for it.
We talked about how easy it was to make the mistake of anthropomorphising animals, and projecting our own feelings and perceptions on to them, where they were inappropriate and didn't fit. We simply had no idea what it was like being an extremely large lizard, and neither for that matter did the lizard, because it was not self-conscious about being an extremely large lizard, it just got on with the business of being one. To react with revulsion to its behaviour was to make the mistake of applying criteria that are only appropriate to the business of being human. We each make our own accommodation with the world and learn to survive in it in different ways. What works as successful behaviour for us does not work for lizards, and vice versa.
"For instance," said Mark, "we don't eat our own babies if they happen to be within reach when we're feeling a little peckish."
"What?" said Gaynor, putting down her knife and fork.
"A baby dragon is just food as far as an adult is concerned," Mark continued. "It moves about and has got a bit of meat on it. It's food. If they ate them all, of course, the species would die out, so that wouldn't work very well. Most animals survive because the adults have acquired an instinct not to eat their babies. The dragons survive because the baby dragons have acquired an instinct to climb trees. The adults are too big to do it, so the babies just sit up in trees till they're big enough to look after themselves. Some babies get caught, though, which works fine. It sees them through times when food is scarce and helps to keep the population within sustainable levels. Sometimes they just eat them anyway."
"How many of these things are there left?" I asked, quietly.
"About five thousand."
"And how many did there used to be?"
"About five thousand. As far as anyone can tell that's roughly how many there have always been."
"So they're not particularly endangered?"
"Well, they are, because only three hundred and fifty of them are breeding females. We don't know if that's a typical number or not, but it seems pretty low. Furthermore, if an animal has a low population and lives in a very restricted area, like just a few small islands in the case of the dragons, it's particularly vulnerable to changes in its habitat, and wherever human beings arrive, habitats start changing pretty quickly."
"So we shouldn't be here."
"It's arguable," said Mark. "If no one was here taking an interest the chances are very strong that something could go wrong. Just one forest fire, or a disease in the deer population could wipe out the dragons. And there's also the worry that the growing human population on the islands would start to feel that they could very well live without them. They are very dangerous animals. There's not merely the danger of being eaten by one. If you just get bitten you are in very serious trouble. You see, when a dragon attacks a horse or a buffalo, it doesn't necessarily expect to kill it there and then. If it gets involved in a fight it might get injured, and there's no benefit in that, so sometimes the dragon will just bite it and walk away. But the bacteria that live in a dragon's saliva are so virulent that the wounds will not heal and the animal will usually die in a few days of septicaemia, whereupon the dragon can eat it at leisure. Or another dragon can eat it if it happens to find it first they're not really fussed. It's good for the species that there is a regular supply of badly injured and dying animals about the place.
"There was a well-known case of a Frenchman who was bitten by a dragon and eventually died in Paris two years later. The wound festered and would just never heal. Unfortunately there were no dragons in Paris to take advantage of it so the strategy broke down on that occasion, but generally it works well. The point is that these things are buggers to have living on your doorstep, and though the villagers on Komodo and Rinca have been pretty tolerant, there has been a history of attacks and deaths and it's possible that as the human population grows there will be a greater conflict of interest and rather less patience with the idea of not being able to go off for a wander without running the risk of having your leg bitten off and your entrails ripped out by a passing dragon.
"So, as we've discovered, Komodo is now a protected national park. We've got to the point where it takes active and deliberate intervention to save rare species, and that's usually sustained by public interest. And public interest is sustained by public access. If it's carefully controlled and disruption is kept to a minimum then it works well and is fine. I think. I won't pretend that I don't feel uneasy about it."
"I feel very uneasy about the whole place," said Gaynor with a shudder. "There's a kind of creeping malignancy about it."
"Just your imagination," said Mark. "For a naturalist it's paradise."
There was suddenly a slithering noise on the roof of the terrace, and a large snake fell past us to the ground. Instantly a couple of park guards rushed out and chased the thing off into the bush.
"That wasn't my imagination," said Gaynor.
"I know," said Mark, enthusiastically. "This is wonderful."