By Tabita Diela
JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia plans to close its eastern island of Komodo to the public next year in a bid to conserve rare Komodo dragons, the largest living species of lizard, a provincial official said on Tuesday.
The island is part of Komodo National Park, a conservation area between the islands of Sumbawa and Flores visited by more than 176,000 tourists from all over the world in 2018.
As well as the beautiful beaches and scenery, many visitors came to see the dragons, only found in the wild in eastern Indonesia.
“We have to save Komodo dragons from extinction, that’s the point,” Josef Nae Soi, deputy governor of the province of East Nusa Tenggara, told Reuters.
Even after the closure of the island, where about 1,700 of the animals are estimated to live, others in the national park that are home to Komodo dragons, such as the islands of Rinca and Padar, will stay open, he said.
Closing the island to tourists aims to avert interference and cut the risk of poaching to allow a recovery in the numbers of the animals’ preferred prey, such as deer, buffalo and wild boar.
“People come wanting to see… how (the dragons) mate, how they lay their eggs, how they hatch, and how the young Komodos fight for their life,” Soi said.
The island could reopen a year later, but it was planned to be a premium tourist destination, he said.
Media had previously suggested the province planned to charge tourists an entrance fee of $500, but Soi said no fee had been decided.
Plans to limit visitors have sparked controversy in the island’s tourism industry as well as among residents who depend on visitors for their livelihood.
Soi acknowledged some resistance, but said President Joko Widodo approved the plan and authorities were holding talks with local leaders on how best to relocate residents.
“We want Komodo island to be intended for conservation,” Widodo was quoted on the website of the cabinet secretary as saying after a visit to the nearby island of Rinca last week. “If you can’t afford it, you don’t need to go there.”
(Editing by Ed Davies)