Dragons — fabled and in real life


I MUST admit that I have been a fan of the TV series ‘Merlin’, which involves a young sorcerer visiting a wise dragon by the name of ‘Kilgarrak’ when in need of its wisdom. These pseudo historical characters were created by Geoffrey Duke of Monmouth in the 12th century in his works entitled, ‘History of the Kings of Britain’.

Such tales appear in Welsh, Cornish, and Breton Celtic literature. It is thought that King Arthur’s court was at Camelot nowadays seen at Cadbury castle between the villages of West and East Camel in Somerset where I live in Southwest England.

Fabled dragons are known as Wyverns (from the Old French ‘wyvre’, meaning serpent or viper) which appear frequently on heraldic coats of arms. A wyvern has legs with sharp talons, two pointed wings, and a pointed barbed tail, which is alleged to be venomous. A scarlet wyvern appears on the Welsh national flag and again in Somerset County Council’s coat of arms with a wyvern holding a mace.

The coat of arms for Somerset Council features a wyvern.

Welsh literature from the 600 AD abounds with stories of evil dragons and even in Christianity the patron saint of England, St George, is alleged to have killed an evil dragon!

In Chinese and other Eastern literature, a dragon is not perceived to be an evil spirit but rather as one of wisdom and prosperity and strength. Here, in Kuching, the strength of the oarsmen is tested in the October annual dragon boat races held along the Waterfront. The pulling power of the longboat racers receive vociferous support from the crowds lining the riverbank!

Year of the Green Wood Dragon

With Chinese New Year celebrations but a few days away, in the Chinese Zodiac, those born in the year of this dragon are said to be strong willed and independent yet yearn for love and support. Whilst they are wise and adventurous, they sometimes can be temperamental but are full of energy and the movers and shakers of our world — all the qualities of potential politicians and entrepreneurs!

Real dragons in our world

Apart from ‘human dragons’ such as people to be feared in life, there are real life dragons in the natural world. I shall exclude fish and insect species and concentrate on two types of animal dragon, each with distinctive characteristics and found in the Malay Archipelago.

Komodo dragon

This endangered dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is found on the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, and Gili Motang and is a member of the monitor lizard family. Weighing an average of 70kg, it is an apex predator and extremely dangerous when cornered. Whilst feeding mainly on carrion it has been known to eat human corpses!

Komodo dragons can be found on the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, and Gili Motang. — Photo by Fajar Setiawan/Pexels

Its tail is as long as its lengthy body, which is covered in thick bony scales almost like chain mail. Like many reptiles, it relies on its tongue to detect, smell, and taste its prey. Mostly active by day and by swinging its long neck as it moves, it can run at a rate of up to 20km per hour and as a reptile can dive to depths up to 4.5 metres.


Feeding on wild pigs, deer, and goats, which they attack on the underside of their prey’s throats, they can devour these creatures whole. Their bites are venomous because of the red saliva in their mouths, and which is of a very complex formation, but it is suggested that shock and blood loss contribute significantly to the death of their prey.


Monogamous creatures, breeding is confined to the May to August months with the female laying about 20 eggs, which are incubated for seven to eight months. The hatchlings break out of their eggs using an egg tooth and remain defenceless and subject to cannibalism by other Komodo dragons. The hatchlings take to trees to avoid such a fate. Whilst taking eight to nine years to reach maturity, their lifespan is up to 30 years.

Threats and conservation

Various reserves have been established on these islands, including the Komodo National Park which opened in 1980 with the specific purpose of preserving these unique animals. Whilst loss of habitat through tourism, poaching, and volcanic activity are threatening this reptile, it is likely that climate change with increasing aridity and rising sea levels pose greater threats to their continued existence.

Flying dragon or Draco

The word ‘Draco’ is derived from Greek/Latin meaning dragon and this lizard of which there are 10 gliding species is mainly found in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, and India. Mainly feeding on an insect diet of ants and termites, its ability to glide up to distances of 60 metres is due to membranes that are extended to create wings, which are created by an enlarged set of ribs. These ribs form a semicircle on either side of its body and when stationary these ribs act like a folding fan.

The wing colours of this lizard are like the fallen leaves of the area in which they are found  and their bodies resemble tree bark in colouration. They glide not only to escape would-be predators but also in search of food with their tails whipping around acting like rudders.

A specimen of Draco volans is seen in the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe in Germany. — Photo by H Zell/Wikimedia Commons

Whilst in flight, their wings remain parallel to the ground below and they land on another tree fore feet first followed by their hind feet. With a brightly coloured dewlap, they are easily recognisable lizards.

Interestingly, the female returns to the forest floor where she digs a hole laying a cluster of two to five eggs before filling the hole and remains a guardian of the nest for 24 hours before climbing up a nearby tree.

Whilst I have yet to see a Komodo dragon (unlike Ray Hale who often contributes to this column) I have seen a draco whilst floating on an inflated inner tube in 2000 along the Danum River in Sabah. That is yet another tale for another time! May I wish all readers every happiness and good health for this impending Chinese New Year but beware of human dragons who may spout fire!