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Komodo dragons hatched at zoo marks a big win for the endangered species

“It’s like a dream to have 10 little babies running around,” said Tim Morrow, the president and CEO of the San Antonio Zoo. “It’s another step forward in sustaining the Komodo dragon’s survival."

Baby Komodo dragons explore their enclosure at the San Antonio Zoo. MUST CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Jacob Downing
Baby Komodo dragons explore their enclosure at the San Antonio Zoo. MUST CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Jacob DowningRead more

Herpetologist Craig Pelke has been beaming like a proud new father since October, when the first of 10 baby Komodo dragons broke through their eggshells at the San Antonio Zoo.

When the last of the rare lizards hatched 10 days after the first, Pelke, who is a reptile specialist and director of ectotherms for the zoo, said he and his team felt an enormous sense of relief.

“They’re active and curious and growing really fast,” he said. “We’re all feeling the magic around here.”

Komodo dragons are the largest of 4,675 lizard species, growing to weigh around 150 pounds. Their status changed last year from vulnerable to endangered, meaning they are on the brink of extinction.

“It’s like a dream to have 10 little babies running around,” said Tim Morrow, the president and CEO of the San Antonio Zoo. “It’s another important step forward in sustaining the Komodo dragon’s survival.”

Morrow said he was awestruck when he visited the dragons’ nursery enclosure in the reptile house shortly after the first few eggs hatched.

“They’re really beautiful — I was surprised at how green and bright and vibrant they are,” he said, noting that the baby lizards’ scales will darken as they grow.

Less than 1,400 mature Komodo dragons are estimated to exist on a handful of Indonesian islands — their only natural habitat — and in zoos, he said, making the arrival of last month’s hatchlings even more monumental.

Rising ocean waters, loss of habitat and climate change have threatened their numbers, said Pelke, 53.

The newest brood, the last of which was born Oct. 27, includes four females and two males (tested for gender while in incubation) and four with genders that could not yet be determined, said Pelke, adding that they’ll all be sent to other zoos when they’re older.

Komodo dragons are generally solitary creatures and require their own enclosures, he explained. They have been known to cannibalize one another, with the young being more vulnerable.

“This has been an exciting time for us — but then every day is exciting when you get to work with what I call living dinosaurs,” he said, noting that fossils show the dragons share a common ancestor with dinosaurs from 100 million years ago, and are related to a large species of lizards that evolved in Australia.

The San Antonio Zoo has a history of supporting Komodo dragon conservation and working with the Species Survival Plan Program, said Morrow.

“We’re breeding Komodo dragons in the hope that we’ll be able to release them in the wild someday,” he said. “It’s a great win for the species that we were able to get 10 baby dragons.”

He said he was in awe as he watched them run and scamper about.

“You feel like you’re going back in time when you watch them,” Morrow said.

The young dragons are the first at the zoo since 2018 when four babies were successfully hatched, he said.

The new brood is not yet ready for public viewing, but the new hatchlings have helped to make up for some past losses, Pelke said.

In 2013, an adult female Komodo dragon and five other reptiles were killed when an electrical fire broke out in the zoo’s two-story reptile house. Then in 2016, a dragon on loan from the zoo to the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center was euthanized after complications following an illness.

“The fire happened shortly after I started working here,” Pelke said. “It was devastating.”

When he was 4, Pelke said he came across photos of Komodo dragons while paging through his parents’ encyclopedias and has been enamored since.

“As I grew older, it became my dream to work with them,” he said. “It’s a joy to see them now every day when I come to work.”

At the San Antonio Zoo, Pelke leads the care of two adult Komodo dragons — Bubba, a 27-year-old male, and Kristika, an 11-year-old female. Bubba has arthritis and is retired from breeding, so the zoo brought in a male named Boga from the Houston Zoo last December for some “speed dating” with Kristika, he said.

“I chaperoned for the first few visits in case things didn’t go well,” he said.

He soon realized there was no need to worry. The short dragon dating sessions went so well that weeks later Kristika and Boga could be together in the same enclosure 24/7, Pelke said.

“Boga was gaga over her and she was receptive to having a male for breeding,” he said.

When Kristika grew larger in February, and it was obvious that she was carrying eggs, there were a few minor scuffles between the two and the pair were no longer interested in each other, Pelke added.

“The romance was over, so we gave Houston a call in February and told them we were bringing Boga home,” he said.

On March 8, another caretaker noticed a flash of white while Kristika was digging a hole — something she had done for months in preparation for laying her eggs, Pelke said.

“She laid all her eggs along the wall of the enclosure, about two feet down, then covered them up,” he said. He and his team distracted Kristika so they could retrieve the eggs and put them in an 85-degree incubator behind the scenes in the reptile house.

“Each egg was about five inches long and three inches wide,” Pelke said. “There were 22 of them. Not all of them made it, but 10 is a good number. We kept checking them for viability every step of the way.”

He said it took 223 days for the first dragon to cut through its leathery shell using its “egg tooth” — a sharp tooth that falls off after the baby lizard breaks free.

“Each one was about 12 inches long,” said Pelke, adding that the lizards were microchipped so they can be distinguished from one another.

“A few of them are already very outgoing and will crawl on you to check you out, and others will run and hide when we come to their enclosure,” he said.

The baby dragons are on a diet of mealworms, roaches and crickets, and as they grow they’ll graduate to large rats, chicken and fish, Pelke said. Adult dragons are generally eight to 10 feet long.

The giant lizards have a mild venom, extremely sharp teeth and a strong bite. He and other caretakers always work in teams so one person can watch the Komodo dragon while the other takes care of duties in the enclosure, Pelke said.

“Kristika doesn’t let us get very close, but Bubba loves a full-body rubdown,” he said. “We’re always careful to respect their individual personalities.”

Before they hatched, there were 123 Komodo dragons in North American zoos, Pelke said.

“We’re really excited to add another 10 to that group,” he said. “It’s wonderful to take their numbers in the other direction.”