On a dirt road with a forked yellow tongue spurting out of its mouth, a member of the largest species of lizard in the world lounges on an island in East Indonesia’s Komodo National Park while tourists take photos. And about 30 kilometers away on another park island that is home to Komodo dragons, trees have been removed and concrete poured for new tourist facilities, which has aroused the ire of local residents and environmental activists.
The construction is part of an ambitious Indonesian initiative that has sparked tension between a government looking to develop natural attractions for luxury tourism and conservationists who fear that the habitat for the critically endangered Komodo dragon will be irreparably damaged. United Nations officials have also raised concerns about the potential impact of tourism on this unique, wildlife-rich park.
Komodo National Park covers approximately 850 square miles of land and sea and was established in 1980 to protect the famous dragons. The Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forests estimates that around 3,000 of the reptiles live there today, along with manatee-like dugongs, sea turtles, whales and more than 1,000 species of tropical fish.
Because of its biodiversity and beauty, the park was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations for Education, Science and Culture in 1991. And it’s one of Indonesia’s crown jewels for tourism, usually attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world each year.
For years the government has been trying to figure out how to best use the park, most recently including it as part of the country’s “10 New Balis” initiative – an effort to attract more tourists, as the island of Bali did before the border restrictions the time did the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are entering a new era of nature and culture-based tourism in Indonesia that focuses on sustainability and quality tourism,” Indonesian Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy Sandiaga Uno told Associated Press.
Part of this multi-million dollar tourism development is a project on the island of Rinca, where it is estimated that more than a third of the park’s dragons live on generally hot and dry terrain. The construction includes an extended ranger station, viewing platform, boat dock, toilets and other infrastructure.
The project worries local environmental activists and residents within the park’s boundaries who say that their livelihoods as tour guides, boaters and souvenir sellers depend on the attraction of the area’s natural beauty.
“When we talk about development in the sanctuary, we have to consider whether this is a well-considered economic effect for the local people – or the environmental effect,” says Gregorius Afioma, a member of the local NGO Sun Spirit for Justice and Peace. âThe situation is now like collective suicide.
“We believe this type of business will eventually kill others’ businesses and even ourselves for destroying the environment,” Afioma said, adding that local residents are also concerned about not getting construction jobs for the luxury tourist destination, which the Indonesian government promotes.
UNESCO – the United Nations body that awards World Heritage status – has also raised concerns about the park’s development.
“The State party did not inform us as required by the operational guidelines,” said Guy Debonnet, head of the agency’s natural heritage department. âThis is definitely a worrisome project as we believe it will have an impact on Universal Value [of the park] were not rated correctly. “
During a meeting in July, UNESCO raised other concerns, such as reducing the park’s wilderness zone to a third of its previous area, adding tourism concessions within the property, the lack of an adequate environmental impact assessment, and aiming to take dramatic measures to increase visitors.
“Third-party information provided to the State party suggests that a target of 500,000 annual visitors to the property has been proposed, which is more than double the pre-COVID-19 pandemic,” a report from the meeting said. âThe question arises as to how this tourism model fits [Indonesiaâs] Vision, away from mass tourism and towards more sustainable approaches. “
At the request of UNESCO, the country provided further information on the project. But after the review, in October 2020, the UN agency urged Indonesia to “not undertake any tourism infrastructure projects that could compromise the property’s exceptional universal value until the relevant environmental impact assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature” is assessed.
The IUCN is an international non-governmental organization that provides the UNESCO World Heritage Committee with technical assessments of natural heritage sites.
After several attempts to obtain approval from government agencies, the Associated Press was unable to gain access to the site, which had been closed to the public for months. However, satellite imagery shows that construction continued after UNESCO requested that the project be suspended. The government did not respond to an email asking for comment last week.
As of December 6, UNESCO has still not received the requested revised rating, said Debonnet, the head of the world heritage department.
The Indonesian government has also issued at least two business permits in the Komodo National Park, including projects on the islands of Rinca, Komodo and Padar, government tourism efforts, according to an email from Shana Fatina, president of the Labuan Bajo Flores Tourism Authority, to the AP.
Some experts fear that the expansion of tourism in the park could disrupt the Komodo dragons’ habitat.
The predatory lizards, which can reach 10 feet in length and over 300 pounds, were recently upgraded from Endangered to Endangered status on the IUCN List of Endangered Species. The organization cited the effects of climate change and the deterioration in the dragon’s habitat – including human interference – as reasons for the change.
Without careful management, tourism projects “could have a big impact not only in the number of people disrupting dragon behavior and their prey, but how much freshwater is siphoned off,” said Bryan Fry, associate professor at the School of Biological Sciences from the University of Queensland in Australia. “That could have a dramatic effect on the very delicate balance of these islands.”
The opening date for the new facilities on Rinca Island will be announced. UNESCO’s Debonnet said it was holding talks with Indonesian officials to arrange a monitoring mission to assess the impact of ongoing development on the park and review its state of conservation.
And while World Heritage sites are usually discussed by the UNESCO committee every two years, Komodo National Park will be discussed in 2022, Debonnet said. “That is an indication that we can see that there is some urgency on this matter,” he said.