To Catch a Dragon

The Burden Expedition to remote and dangerous Komodo Island

"I'd like to catch a dragon," is perhaps how W. Douglas Burden broached the subject of organizing an expedition to Komodo Island with Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History. Burden, a wealthy, young adventurer and hunter, had already lent his services to the museum on several occasions to shoot exotic and dangerous animals for the museum's collections. He had heard rumors that fourteen years before in 1912, pearl divers that had braved the treacherous waters surrounding a small south seas island had brought back tales of a gigantic, ancient reptile dwelling on the island's steep, rocky slopes.

He also knew that P.A. Ouwens, then director of the Zoological Museum in Buitenzorg, Java, had sent collectors to bring back a specimen. Ouwens gave the animal the scientific name Varanus komodensis, but most people knew it as the Komodo Dragon. Burden now proposed that the museum send an expedition to investigate this strange creature and bring back the first specimens to the West. Even more ambitiously he wanted to capture the first live pair anywhere for the New York Zoo.

Osborn was delighted by the idea, especially since Burden was willing to pay the costs, and approved it as an official museum expedition. Burden carefully chose his group for this long and dangerous journey. He found a professional big-game hunter with experience in the jungles of Indo-China in the person of F.J. Defosse. He also hired Dr. E.R. Dunn, of Smith College, as the expedition's herpetologist. Finally, his wife rounded out the group.

Burden not only talked the Dutch Colonial Government (which controlled Komodo at the time) into allowing him to visit and capture up to 15 dragons, but also to provide him with the S.S. Dog, a steamer, to carry him and his group on the 15,000 mile journey. Stopping in Singapore, Burden augmented the expedition with a Chinese cameraman named Lee Fai and fifteen Malay assistants. Then,after a stop at Bali, he sailed for the remote island of Komodo.

Arrival at a Dangerous Land

As the island itself loomed into view, Burden wrote, the expedition could see it "appeared as a vast mass of torn and splintered mountains." Only twenty-two miles in length, the landscape of the island rose sharply from the coast to mountains several thousand feet high. "With its fantastic sky line," continued Burden, "its sentinel palms, its volcanic chimneys bared to the stars, it was a fitting abode for the great saurians we had come so far to seek."

Before they could land they would have to meet the first danger of this strange land. Because of the island's position in the Lintah Straits, currents, driven by monsoon winds, ripped past the island at up to thirteen knots. These treacherous currents had discouraged other explorers from landing, but Burden was determined to sail on through. The captain of the Dog, to his credit, expertly ran the tidal currents and brought the ship into safe harbor at Python Bay, located on the lee side of the island.

The next morning the expedition landed and started a search for campsites. Because the coastal area was rocky, it was decided the camp should be located higher up and away from the shore. DeFosse and Dunn searched toward the north while Burden climbed westward into the interior. As he explored, Burden soon found hints that the expedition would not be in vain. On the ground he discovered the print mark of a gigantic foot. The shaped reminded him of some of the fossil dinosaur tracks he'd seen back at the museum. Those marks had been made millions of years ago and survived as stone. These tracks were recent. imprinted in just the last few days in soil and mud.

While scouting out a location near a pool ,Burden stumbled upon another track. It was an enormous cloven hoof. He realized what it was immediately: The vicious Indian buffalo, a longer-horned cousin of the Cape buffalo of Africa. As he continued around the pool he heard a crashing noise coming from behind him as if "the entire forest of heavy bamboo were being broken into splinters." Suddenly a bull buffalo was charging him at full speed, nose in the air and nostrils flaring. Burden didn't have a weapon capable of stopping the creature with him so he ran. Coming to a steep rock he scrambled up.

Suddenly the jungle was silent. Burden waited. The buffalo waited. Finally the latter gave up and went crashing off through the jungle. Burden had survived the second danger of Komodo.

Within a few days the expedition had established a base camp on a 2,000 foot high plateau. Some existing huts were utilized and Burden wrote, "This hut occupied by the author [Burden] and Mrs. Burden was open to the sea breeze. The roof of woven palm leaves was mellow and bearded with age, and in it contained a rich assortment of crawling life, including pit vipers, scorpions, centipedes, and spiders. Indeed, a most interesting collection could have been made from this shelter."

The expedition soon discovered that this mysterious, tiny island had an astonishing variety of strangely-mixed wildlife. Deer, wild boar and water buffalo on the ground. Yellow-crested cockatoos, pigeons of all colors and fowl of all types in the trees. And also, more ominously, a wider variety of poisonous snakes than almost anywhere else in the world. The third danger of Komodo.

Burden Spots the First Dragon

Nearby the camp was a watering hole crisscrossed with dragon tracks, but Burden hadn't actually spotted a dragon yet.

After hunting a deer to feed the camp one morning, Burden climbed into the interior taking the same route he had followed the first day off the ship. Suddenly he heard the sound of falling stones from the rocky hill above. Glancing up, he found himself seemingly looking back in time a million years...

Burden dropped to his knees and crept up the slope moving from rock to rock hoping not to be seen. In front of him stood a dragon. Its great head moved from side to side as its foot-long, yellow, forked tongue darted in and out of it wide mouth. Pulling out his field glasses, Burden studied the creature from head to tail. Its skin was wrinkled and black with many scars. It reminded Burden of woven steel armor. " looked enormous..." wrote Burden later. "He swung his grim head this way and that,obviously hunting, his sharp eyes searching for anything that moved. A primeval monster in a primeval setting."

The expedition started setting out bait for the creatures. This was accomplished by lashing a dead boar to a stake driven deep into the ground. The cameraman could then film the creature as it approached the bait and fed on it. This was a revolting spectacle as the giant lizards would clamp their jaws around a huge section of the carcass and tear off great chunks. Often the dragon would swallow half a boar in one gulp, including the bones and hooves.

Mrs. Burden has a Close Call

Mrs. Burden almost met the fate of the unfortunate bait one morning while exploring with DeFosse. They went out to check on a dragon trap and discovered that half the bait had been taken, but the trap had not sprung. Defosse and Mrs. Burden split up to search for the dragon, but she made the mistake of not taking her gun with her. Suddenly the monster appeared and Mrs. Burden hid in some deep grass. As the animal lumbered forward, she realized that she was standing between what was left of the bait and the advancing dragon. She was torn between running and trying to continue to hide in the grass.

"Nearer he came and nearer, this shaggy creature," wrote Mrs. Burden, "with grim head swinging heavily from side to side. I remembered all the fantastic stories we had heard of these monsters attacking men and horses. Now listening to the short hissing that came like a gust of evil wind, and observing the action of that darting, snake-like tongue, that seemed to sense the very fear that held me, I was affected in a manner not easy to relate."

"The creature was less than five yards away, and the subtle reptilian smell was in my nostrils. Too late now to leap from hiding, I closed my eyes and waited..." Seconds later Defosse returned, saw what was about to happen, and sent a bullet from his rifle into the great creature's neck, saving Mrs. Burden from death at the jaws of the monster.

The Dragon Trap

The party shot several dragons and preserved their bodies for study. The more difficult trick, though, turned out to be bringing some back alive. Traps were built by driving heavy stakes into the ground in a circle, leaving only a large opening on one side. The stakes were then lashed together to form a fence and camouflaged. A nearby tree was stripped of its branches and a rope tied to its top. Fifteen men pulled on the rope to bend the tree over the trap. One part of the rope was fastened to a trigger so that when released the tree would be free to spring back up. The other portion of the rope became a noose that encircled the opening in the stakes. Finally, a nice, ripe, dead boar was placed in the center of the trap as bait.

Normally in a trap like this the bait would be tied to the trigger so that when the animal disturbed the bait, the trap would spring. Burden decided he only wanted to capture the biggest dragons so instead he rigged the trap so he could set it off by pulling a rope from a boma, or blind where he was hiding watching the trap.

Waiting in a small, camouflaged hut in Komodo's jungle was no easy task. The boma was invaded regularly by poisonous foot-long centipedes and stinging scorpions. The men often found themselves thrashing around trying to ward off the creatures.

Fortunately the noise didn't seem to disturb the dragons. After a few hours a small lizard arrived, but didn't go into the trap. Then a medium-sized dragon entered the trap and tried to drag the dead boar off, but it had been securely staked to the ground. Burden decided he could do better and waited. Suddenly the medium-sized dragon stopped pulling on the bait, lowered his head and raced off into the jungle "as if the devil himself was after him" and the party realized that a much bigger lizard was on the way.

The Big One that Got Away

The dragon that entered the clearing was an old giant over ten feet long. "Here at last was a real monster..." wrote Burden, "He looked as black as ink. His bony armor was scarred and blistered. His eyes, deep in their sockets, looked out on the world from beneath hanging brows..."

The monster stood still for a half an hour watching the boma, practically looking Burden in the eye. Then he made up his mind and charged into the trap grabbing the bait in his jaws. Excitedly Burden released the trigger.

"Immediately the dragon found himself sailing through the air," recollected Burden. "A moment later there was a terrible cracking, for, as the beast fell again, the rope tightened and under his weight the spring pole broke..."

The hunters had not counted on the great weight of the monstrous lizard and the tree to which the noose had been tied snapped off. The animal, now on the ground and held only by the rope looped around his mid-section, was lashing himself into a rage trying to escape. The Malay assistants refused to approach the monster which was vomiting and emitting an unbelievable stench.

DeFosse stepped forward carrying a loop of rope. He'd been practicing using a lasso with just such an occasion in mind. Carefully approaching the dragon to avoid the slashing tail and hooked claws, he tossed the rope an attempt to put a line around the great head. He missed. Calmly recoiling the lasso, DeFosse tried again. It took several tries, but the hunter managed to put a line around the creature's neck. After that line was secured to a tree, another line was thrown over the tail.

With three lines on the creature they were able to get the beast under control. They quickly lashed the animal to a thick pole and carried the 300-pound dragon back to camp. There he was released in a cage composed of heavy timber and steel mesh. The animal, once it was freed inside the cage, worked itself into another round of lashing and clawing. The creature vomited and produced such a stench that Burden had the cage moved a quarter-mile downwind for the night.

Going to bed they were sure that by morning the creature would have exhausted itself, making it easier to photograph and measure him. The next day they awoke to an unpleasant surprise. The mesh at the top of the cage was torn and the creature gone. The great, black scarred dragon had shown that he was not yet beaten by man.

Though the expedition left Komodo with 12 preserved dragon bodies and two live dragons, Burden was never able to capture an enormous old giant like "that one that got away." Still, what the expedition brought back to the museum in New York allowed scientists to study the characteristics of the creature like size, shape and color, and this added immensely to the scientific understanding of this unusual lizard. The two living dragons found a home in the Bronx Zoo. while two of the skins obtained by Burden were mounted and can still be seen today in the American Museum of Natural History's Hall of Amphibians and Reptiles.

If this tale about an expedition by steamer to a remote, rocky island to find a giant prehistoric creature and return it to New York City sounds familiar, it maybe because it inspired a Hollywood motion picture. After returning to the states Burden told the strange story of his trip to Komodo Island to Merian C. Cooper, the motion-picture producer. Cooper changed the objective from a giant lizard to a giant ape, and added a beautiful heroine, in the person of Fay Wray to produce the classic 1933 film King Kong.

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Copyright Lee Krystek 1998. All Rights Reserved.


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