Komodo Dragons Are Lurching Toward Extinction

Komodo Dragons Are Lurching Toward Extinction
A Komodo dragon photographed in 2010. (Photo: ROMEO GACAD/AFP, Getty Images)

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has updated the status of the Komodo dragon to endangered, a worrying development for the world’s largest lizard. The dragon is just the latest animal to be threatened by a rapidly changing world.

The big threat facing Komodo dragons is sea level rise, as the lizards are known to live on just several Indonesian islands, most obviously Komodo, and their island habitats are shrinking. Rising waters are expected to reduce their range by 30% over 45 years, according to an IUCN statement discussing the latest reclassifications.

The 2021-2022 IUCN Red List assessed over 138,000 species and found nearly 40,000 to be threatened in some way. Sadly, 8,400 species were earmarked as critically endangered, and nearly 15,000 were classified as either endangered or vulnerable. To put those numbers into context, there are 10,000 more threatened species in this report than in the 2019 IUCN list. The Komodo dragon’s backslide moves the ancient monitor lizard — an animal known for its massive size, venomous bite, sensational sense of smell, and voracious appetite — a step closer to extinction.

Though the dragons are perhaps the most well-known species reclassified in the latest update, they’re not the only ones we should care about. A whopping 37% of shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction. All those animals are overfished, with about a third of them also affected by habitat degradation and about 10% harmed by climate change.

In happier news, four species of tuna are faring better than they have been in the last 10 years, shifting from the brink of extinction in some cases to “of least concern” in others.

“These Red List assessments are proof that sustainable fisheries approaches work, with enormous long-term benefits for livelihoods and biodiversity. We need to continue enforcing sustainable fishing quotas and cracking down on illegal fishing,” said Bruce Collette, chair of the IUCN’s tuna research group, in the IUCN statement.

Komodo dragons chomping on chicken. (Photo: Bay ISMOYO / AFP, Getty Images) Komodo dragons chomping on chicken. (Photo: Bay ISMOYO / AFP, Getty Images)

But you can’t compliment-sandwich a referendum on extinction. Both marine and terrestrial ecosystems are being mucked up by human activities. This conservation status change is the first Komodo dragons have received since they were assessed as a vulnerable species in 1996. The reclassification builds on research published last year in Ecology and Evolution, which warned of the effects of climate change on such a concentrated, island-dwelling population.

“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,” said Andrew Terry, the conservation director at the Zoological Society of London in the IUCN release, referring to the United Nations’ upcoming climate change conference in Scotland.

The earliest fossils of the genus Varanus — to which the dragon belongs — turn up around 40 million years ago. Though the threat facing the animals is a little harder to see than something like a starving polar bear, it is very real. And as is the case with any conservation story, it’ll take real collective effort to prevent yet another tragically preventable story from playing out.