Maen still has nightmares about that morning. About those few minutes in which he almost died. About the time he was attacked by a man-eating reptile and had to fight it off to save his life.
“I don’t like to tell my story anymore because when I tell again, when I’m sitting alone, I remember,” he says, softly and humbly. “I would like to try to forget this story.”
But Maen, the quiet-spoken middle-aged Indonesian, has agreed to tell me his tale so I can share it. He thinks it’s important for people to understand the dangers of the Komodo dragons.
I meet Maen on Rinca Island in Indonesia’s Komodo National Park, where he has been a ranger for years. The islands here have been home to Komodo dragons for about a million years and, isolated from the rest of the world with no predators, evolution largely overlooked these ancient reptiles.
The most common food for the Komodo dragon are deer, buffalo, goats, and birds. Sometimes they can attack and eat their prey whole. Other times they will bite and then wait patiently. Their saliva contains bacteria that will eventually kill another animal so they will stalk it, sometimes for as long as three weeks, until it dies and can be devoured.
One morning in 2009, it was Maen who was to be the prey for a Komodo dragon. When he went into his office, the small wooden building in the main camp looked the same as usual so he sat at the desk. It was then he looked down.
“I saw the dragon under this table and my leg was here like this,” Maen tells me as he demonstrates how his leg was near the drawers under the desk.
“I don’t use the shoes – just sandals. So, after I saw the dragon I think ‘what do I do?’. But in my feeling, I have to pull my leg away.”
At the time he wasn’t thinking about how the animal had ended up inside. As it later turned out, a cleaner had left the door open and the Komodo dragon had come in overnight looking for food. Clearly it had now found what it was looking for.
“I think that if I not pull my leg, the dragon will bite and swallow,” Maen goes on.
“So I tried to pull my leg but the dragon follow and I look and see a tail moving over there. And I think this is a problem for me. And I pull my leg too fast and it got trapped in the table and then the dragon bite.”
The dragon didn’t let go. With its mouth clenched shut, teeth ripping into his flesh, Maen had to think fast. He put his other foot onto the neck of the dragon, pinning it down slightly. Then using his hands, he grabbed the animal’s mouth and pulled it open. He managed to pull his leg free from its jaws – but one of his hands got bitten in the struggle.
During all of this he had managed to shout out for help. Other rangers came running… but so did more Komodo dragons. They have a remarkable ability to smell blood – sometimes even kilometres away – and so they had been drawn by Maen’s injurie
While some rangers tried to control these new arrivals, two others hurried into the office to rescue their injured friend and hold off the dragon inside. Although they seem quite docile when they’re conserving energy, Komodo dragons can be quite fast in attack mode. In normal situations, rangers just use a stick to push them away. Sometimes they just have to run.
“There were about seven dragons, all bigger, waiting there. One other friend pushed away all the dragons with a stick. Then they took me to a jetty and go to Flores Island and get medicine in the hospital.”
Maen was taken to hospital at Flores Island, a short boat journey away, before being flown to Bali where he had six hours of emergency treatment. He stayed in hospital there for seven days and then was flown back to Flores Island where he had six months of recovery.
Eventually he came back to work in Komodo National Park, where there are about 5000 dragons living in the wild. But he only does desk duty so he doesn’t have to deal with the animals directly. But he knows the one that attacked him is likely still out there somewhere, potentially circling the camp on any day.
“The dragon, I can’t remember which one, he’s still alive,” Maen says. “But I think now he’ll be bigger. If he had a bigger neck then, I couldn’t have held it open.”
And that could have been the difference between life and death. Let’s hope they never come face to face again.