Not a few newcomers to this island, and a fair number of locals who ought to know better, shit their pants whenever they come across a water monitor stomping about monsoon drains and swimming in murky canals. Some confuse the varanids with more threatened monsters, while others survive to tell of perilous encounters with a dragon of imagined proportions. To some extent, the latter could be excused, for Varanus salvator can attain lengths that rival juvenile crocodilians and not a few regard park centres as their personal lounges, to the cheer (or chagrin) of visitors who must share the footways with lizards of excessive bulk.
Formidable predators that devour whatever they can catch and swallow or tear apart the carcasses of fellow swamp things, adult water monitors enjoy a charmed life, as long as they elude the jaws of salties or the wrath of mindless mobs. Occasional brawls offer a hint of the brutal strength and inhuman stamina of a beast whose cousins kept the dinosaurs at bay in Mesozoic seas. But for the most part, the largest of local lizards prefers to flee than fight when confronted with the shadow of a naked ape.
The fear, or fascination, accorded to garden-variety monitor lizards is probably one manifestation of a long and regularly revived nook in popular consciousness, in which individuals of morbid bent entertain dreams of being chased down and chomped by giant reptiles on a lost tropical isle. Even the Raffles Museum, an institution not given to flights of dubious fancy, once succumbed to reports of outsized varanids by sending a staff member to Langkawi to investigate the claims of airmen who might have been high in more ways than one. No known reports of success or survivors from this 1960 expedition exist, however.
A few decades earlier, Singapore was the scene of a greater frenzy, one that so gripped an American named W. Douglas Burden that he journeyed to Southeast Asia from New York. The colony was merely a stopover for supplies and expendable minions, though, as Burden was en route to an even wilder island, one that had gained worldwide notoriety as the province of the ultimate big game. In the words of a contemporary hack, Burden’s quarry was a “fierce man-eating lizard, 30 ft long when fully grown” that moved “as fast as a motor-car.” The leviathan was said to be “impervious to native weapons”, wield a “yellow tongue, nearly a yard long” and capable of making “a mouthful of a man as high up a rock or pole as the top of a motor-bus”. With all cylinders firing, the reporter concluded that “the only prudent way of going after the big ones would be in an armoured car or a tank.”
For all its size and undoubted charisma, the Komodo dragon received a belated welcome to science. The probable remnant of a tribe that once roamed the Australasian continent, Varanus komodoensis is now restricted to the islands of Komodo and Rinca and the western tip of Flores. Remote and poor in prized resources, the lizards’ homelands were little explored until the early 20th century, when Dutch administrators probed these Conradian regions and verified rumoured sightings of a ‘Buaya darat’. In 1910, one Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbroek wrote to Peter A. Ouwens, director of the zoological museum in Bogor, mentioning the existence of a giant lizard that reached seven metres in length. Ouwens later received photographs and the skin of a shot specimen, which he used to produce a report “On a large Varanus species from the island of Komodo”, published in the Bulletin du Jardin Botanique de Buitenzorg, 6, 1-3, 1912.
Whatever early enthusiasm the article, which was embedded in an obscure botanical journal but curiously (and probably fortuitously) written in English, might have generated was probably swept away by the war to end all wars. But in the years of wine and roses that followed Gallipoli and the Somme, a new generation emerged which grew fat on the dividends of peace but soon hungered for the thrill of exotic destinations and heroes who would slay the monstrous proxies of unfriendly nations.
For Burden, the son of a wealthy industrialist, the notion of living ‘dragon lizards’ in the East Indies and catching live specimens of Varanus komodoensis for display before the American public was a challenge that would prove irresistible to a hunter who had exhausted all other options for adventure. As he put it in a prelude to his Far Eastern expedition,
“A man who has once lived in tropical jungles is a prey all his life, not only to recurring fevers, but to something perhaps more insidious; namely, a desire to return, – a desire, I may say, that is difficult to deny…. So I came home one fine evening not long ago across Central Park and asked my wife how she would like to go dragon hunting.”
With the support of the American Museum of Natural History, Burden set out in 1926 to bring the beasts back, dead or alive. After a Chinese detour, his entourage reached Singapore, where he picked up F.J. Defosse, a big-game hunter whose skills in junglecraft were deemed essential to the mission. When the crew returned to New York in September that year, they brought with them 14 dragons, including two that had survived the journey across the Pacific. The duo were exhibited at the Bronx Zoo, drawing crowds of Gatsbyian scale and even the vice-president of the nation. Inadequate heating proved fatal to the intemperate lizards, however, and by 14 November, both dragons were dead, prompting Burden to remark that “Varanus komodoensis, in order to survive, demands the freedom of his rugged mountains” and mull the fate of monsters which could not endure the civilised state of twentieth century cities.
The dragons were dead, but there was no stopping a meme of greater force and eminent spectacle. Even before he had landed on Komodo, Burden had sought to draw links between his dragon lizards and the leviathans of Indo-European myth. “A fiery dragon in itself is a fascinating idea, – so, also, is the thought of a beautiful white-skinned maiden,” he remarked to a Dutch administrator. “Link these two ideas together, in some way or other, and you have a story which by its very nature would survive through untold ages.” Burden even went as far as to assert that the dragons seemed ‘tamer’ when his wife was nearby. This sensational side of Burden presents a curious counterpoint to the man's more scholarly flank, which appear to have been penned by a quite different person(ality) altogether.
With ardour and aplomb, the great white explorer turned a mere lizard into a creature of lore, a juggernaut of savage lands with a taste for blood, yet susceptible to the charms of pale dames and utterly incapable of withstanding the rigours of modern life. Burden, who pursued a minor career in ethnographic dramas, had secured the services of Lee Fai, a Singapore-based cameraman, to obtain moving pictures of his island exploits. But it was only when he met and recounted his journey to Merian C. Cooper, a movie producer of equal flamboyance and daring, that fact saw promise in fiction. After reading Burden’s account, Cooper was sufficiently inspired to pitch a jungle film involving epic battles between gorillas and Komodo dragons. Paramount was unfortunately much less enamoured with the expense of trapping and transporting apes to Indonesia, so Cooper was forced to reduce his cast in number, though not in size, to a single giant simian who would chance upon a pretty woman in its neck of the woods and meet its end in the urban jungle of Manhattan Island. At some point, the dragons gave way to anatomically incorrect (but still dramatically compelling) dinosaurs and the eighth wonder of the world was unveiled on 2 March 1933. Kong, for all his might and majesty, would fall and fall again in the decades to come, and suffer the ignominy of artificial resurrections and the tiresome adulation that plague kings of the silverback screen.