Komodo Dragons Threatened by Climate Change

The giant lizards already face increased habitat loss.

Komodo dragon
The komodo dragon is a vulnerable species. Richard McManus / Getty Images

The world’s largest lizard, the komodo dragon, could be driven to extinction by the effects of climate change unless better interventions aren't implemented, according to a new international study.

“Climate change is likely to cause a sharp decline in the availability of habitat for Komodo dragons, severely reducing their abundance in a matter of decades,” said lead author Alice Jones from the University of Adelaide’s School of Biological Sciences, in a statement.

“Our models predict local extinction on three of the five island habitats where Komodo dragons are found today.”

The new study finds that the impact of global warming and sea level rise threatens Komodo dragons which already are faced with dwindling habitats.

The Komodo dragon, Varanus komodoensis, is classified as a vulnerable species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. There are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Komodo dragons in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund

They are endemic to five islands in southeast Indonesia: Komodo, Rinca, Nusa Kode, and Gili Motang which are part of Komodo National Park, and Flores, which is home to three nature reserves. Komodo National Park was established in 1980 to protect the massive lizards and their habitat, but researchers say more needs to be done.

“Current-day conservation strategies are not enough to avoid species decline in the face of climate change. This is because climate change will compound the negative effects of already small, isolated populations,” Jones said.

“Interventions such as establishing new reserves in areas that are predicted to sustain high-quality habitats in the future, despite global warming, could work to lessen the effects of climate change on Komodo dragons.”

Staving Off Extinction

For the study, researchers used Komodo dragon monitoring data, along with climate, and sea‐level change projections, to create demographic models that would project the lizard’s future range and species abundance in various climate change scenarios. They ran more than one million simulations.

Depending on the climate and greenhouse gas emission trajectories, the models predicted a decrease in habitat of anywhere from 8% to 87% by 2050.

Under the most optimistic climate scenario, range‐wide metapopulation abundance decreased by 15%–45% by 2050. (A metapopulation is a set of local populations of the same species.) Under the most pessimistic climate scenario, the range‐wide metapopulation abundance decreased by 95%–99% by 2050. Unless there’s a substantial global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the “most likely” future climate scenario the researchers tested would result in an 89%–94% decrease in range‐wide metapopulation abundance.

The models predict that the lizards on Komodo and Rinca — the larger islands in Komodo National Park — have a higher chance of surviving through 2050 than those on the smaller protected islands, Montag and Kode, or the largest, but less protected island of Flores.

The results were published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

“Using this data and knowledge in conservation models has provided a rare opportunity to understand climate change impacts on Indonesia’s exceptional but highly vulnerable biodiversity,” said co-author Tim Jessop of the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia.

Researchers worked with the Komodo National Park and the Eastern Lesser Sunda Cen­tral Bureau for Conservation of Natural Resources. They point out that using climate change research should be an important part of all conservation practices.

“Conservation managers in coming decades may need to consider translocating animals to sites where Komodo dragons have not been found for many decades. This scenario can be tested easily using our approach,” says Associate Professor Damien Fordham from the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute.

“Our research shows that without taking immediate action to mitigate climatic change, we risk committing many range restricted species like Komodo dragons to extinction.”