A Komodo dragon opens wide at Komodo Island in Indonesia. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Concerned about the impact of tourism on the environment, local governments in Bali and the neighboring East Nusa Tenggara island chain have separately imposed blanket bans on single-use plastics and initiated a year-long closure of Komodo Island, home of the world’s only flesh-eating dragons.

Bali’s ban on plastics and styrofoam, which may well be extended to nearby islands, is already in force in most supermarkets and stores and will be fully enforced across the island by June, with officials saying they hope to reduce plastic bag usage by 70% within the next year.

The Bali government is also planning a US$10 tax on foreign tourists to pay for the upkeep of traditional villages, but it seems bereft of ideas on how to upgrade the narrow, traffic-choked coastal road connecting the tourist belt to northern Bali’s Java ferry crossing.

Traffic congestion has become one of the worst threats to Bali’s tourist industry, which topped six million foreign visitors for the first time last year. So have road accidents with an average of 1,500 a year and 450 deaths, most of them motorcyclists.

The plastics ban is a direct response to a “Bye Bye Plastic Bag” campaign spearheaded by two teenage sisters who have won global recognition for their work in a country which has earned a reputation as the world’s second-biggest marine plastic polluter.

Friends say when the girls showed up at the office of former governor I Made Mangku Pastika to push their case two or three years ago, he appeared to pay only passing attention until they produced a petition of 350,000 signatures. After that, the campaign began to gain momentum.

A black plastic bag floats above a coral reef off shore of Bali, Indonesia in an April 2015 file photo. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Further to the east, local authorities have apparently persuaded the Forestry and Environment Ministry to close Komodo, the largest of 29 islands forming the region’s national park, to improve the natural habitat and help boost the wildlife population.

It would be similar to the drastic action taken by the Philippine government last year in closing the popular holiday island of Boracay, in the central Visayan region, which has now re-opened but only for a limited number of tourists for the next 12 months.

East Nusa Tenggara governor Victor Laiskodat, who has already imposed a moratorium on mining, announced last month he was considering closing the entire Komodo National Park for a year, but that was before he learned that only the ministry has the authority to do so.

Instead, Forestry and Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar, who like Laiskodat belongs to the National Democrat Party (Nasdem), one of the six parties in President Joko Widodo’s ruling coalition, has reportedly agreed to a plan under which tourists will only be allowed to observe the dragons from boats.

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The East Nusa Tenggara administration has set aside 100 billion rupiah ($7 million) in its 2019 budget to restore the island’s habitat and facilities, which have fallen into disrepair since The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a US environmental organization, was shown the door in 2010.

TNC and the World Bank both funded a program undertaken by Putri Naga Komodo, a private group, aimed at regulating both tourism and fishing in the park. But its permit was withdrawn after only five years of operation.

“The reasons for the failure lie generally in the difficulty of managing complex social-ecological systems, and especially in the narrow design of the initiative,” Leeds Beckett University researcher Janet Cochrane wrote in a 2015 critique.

But she also blamed the ”political ecology of the Indonesian civil service, which despite anti-corruption efforts retains high levels of venality and weak environmental awareness.”

Laiskodat, the senior partner in a Jakarta law firm, has also suggested charging tourists $500, fifty times more than the current entrance fee, for a close-up look at the oversized lizards, which can grow to three meters long and weigh 70 kilograms.

An aerial view of Komodo National Park on eastern Indonesia's Padar Island. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
An aerial view of Komodo National Park on eastern Indonesia’s Padar Island. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

“This is a rare place, only for people with money,” the governor told Kompas newspaper last November in a comment that would not have endeared him to most tourists. “Those who don’t have the money shouldn’t come because this place is only for extraordinary people.”

That, he said, could eventually mean charging $50,000 for the 20 or more cruise ships to drop anchor in the 1,800 square kilometer UNESCO World Heritage Site each year, and also limit visitors to 5,000 a month, about half the number who visit now, using on-line registration.

Tourism Minister Arief Yahya opposes the ban, saying that without a level of certainty required by travel agents and operators, blocked access and escalating charges could destroy the tourist industry in the region, which has become an extension of the Bali experience.

Sightseers are not the only problem. Park rangers have become increasingly concerned at a sharp increase in illegal poaching on the rugged 390 square kilometer Komodo island, much of which is roadless and covered in savannah and stunted forest.

A Komodo dragon strolls on the beach with a a large international cruise ship docked off Komodo Island. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Authorities say they are worried about a significant decline in the number of wild deer, water buffalo and goats, which are the main source of food for the carnivorous dragons, and that if nothing is done soon the animals may begin to prey on their own to survive.

Last month, a military patrol seized nine deer carcasses, the head of a buffalo and two modified rifles equipped with laser sights from poachers who had landed by motor boat on the adjacent island of Sumbawa after a shooting expedition on Komodo.

The Komodo park was initially established in 1980 to help conserve the remaining 2,500 dragons on Komodo and the two other large volcanic islands of Padar and Rincan, eventually earning World Heritage status in 1991. Then, in 1995, the government expanded protection to the surrounding sea as well.

A cornerstone of the so-called Coral Triangle, Komodo boasts one of the world’s richest marine environments, with reefs, mangroves and sea-grass beds harboring more than 1,000 species of fish and 260 species of reef-building corals.


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