Catch a Dragon
The Burden Expedition to remote and dangerous
"I'd like to catch a dragon," is perhaps how W.
Douglas Burden broached the subject of organizing an expedition
to Komodo Island with Henry Fairfield Osborn, President
of the American Museum of Natural History. Burden, a wealthy,
young adventurer and hunter, had already lent his services to
the museum on several occasions to shoot exotic and dangerous
animals for the museum's collections. He had heard rumors that
fourteen years before in 1912, pearl divers that had braved
the treacherous waters surrounding a small south seas island
had brought back tales of a gigantic, ancient reptile dwelling
on the island's steep, rocky slopes.
He also knew that P.A. Ouwens, then director
of the Zoological Museum in Buitenzorg, Java, had sent collectors
to bring back a specimen. Ouwens gave the animal the scientific
name Varanus komodensis, but most people knew it as the
Komodo Dragon. Burden now proposed
that the museum send an expedition to investigate this strange
creature and bring back the first specimens to the West. Even
more ambitiously he wanted to capture the first live pair anywhere
for the New York Zoo.
Osborn was delighted by the idea, especially since
Burden was willing to pay the costs, and approved it as an official
museum expedition. Burden carefully chose his group for this
long and dangerous journey. He found a professional big-game
hunter with experience in the jungles of Indo-China in the person
of F.J. Defosse. He also hired Dr. E.R. Dunn,
of Smith College, as the expedition's herpetologist. Finally,
his wife rounded out the group.
Burden not only talked the Dutch Colonial Government
(which controlled Komodo at the time) into allowing him to visit
and capture up to 15 dragons, but also to provide him with the
S.S. Dog, a steamer, to carry him and his group on the
15,000 mile journey. Stopping in Singapore, Burden augmented
the expedition with a Chinese cameraman named Lee Fai and fifteen
Malay assistants. Then,after a stop at Bali, he sailed for the
remote island of Komodo.
at a Dangerous Land
As the island itself loomed into view, Burden
wrote, the expedition could see it "appeared as a vast mass
of torn and splintered mountains." Only twenty-two miles in
length, the landscape of the island rose sharply from the coast
to mountains several thousand feet high. "With its fantastic
sky line," continued Burden, "its sentinel palms, its volcanic
chimneys bared to the stars, it was a fitting abode for the
great saurians we had come so far to seek."
they could land they would have to meet the first danger of
this strange land. Because of the island's position in the Lintah
Straits, currents, driven by monsoon winds, ripped past the
island at up to thirteen knots. These treacherous currents had
discouraged other explorers from landing, but Burden was determined
to sail on through. The captain of the Dog, to his credit,
expertly ran the tidal currents and brought the ship into safe
harbor at Python Bay, located on the lee side of the island.
The next morning the expedition landed and started
a search for campsites. Because the coastal area was rocky,
it was decided the camp should be located higher up and away
from the shore. DeFosse and Dunn searched toward the north while
Burden climbed westward into the interior. As he explored, Burden
soon found hints that the expedition would not be in vain. On
the ground he discovered the print mark of a gigantic foot.
The shaped reminded him of some of the fossil dinosaur tracks
he'd seen back at the museum. Those marks had been made millions
of years ago and survived as stone. These tracks were recent.
imprinted in just the last few days in soil and mud.
While scouting out a location near a pool ,Burden
stumbled upon another track. It was an enormous cloven hoof.
He realized what it was immediately: The vicious Indian buffalo,
a longer-horned cousin of the Cape buffalo of Africa. As he
continued around the pool he heard a crashing noise coming from
behind him as if "the entire forest of heavy bamboo were being
broken into splinters." Suddenly a bull buffalo was charging
him at full speed, nose in the air and nostrils flaring. Burden
didn't have a weapon capable of stopping the creature with him
so he ran. Coming to a steep rock he scrambled up.
Suddenly the jungle was silent. Burden waited.
The buffalo waited. Finally the latter gave up and went crashing
off through the jungle. Burden had survived the second danger
Within a few days the expedition had established
a base camp on a 2,000 foot high plateau. Some existing huts
were utilized and Burden wrote, "This hut occupied by the author
[Burden] and Mrs. Burden was open to the sea breeze. The roof
of woven palm leaves was mellow and bearded with age, and in
it contained a rich assortment of crawling life, including pit
vipers, scorpions, centipedes, and spiders. Indeed, a most interesting
collection could have been made from this shelter."
The expedition soon discovered that this mysterious,
tiny island had an astonishing variety of strangely-mixed wildlife.
Deer, wild boar and water buffalo on the ground. Yellow-crested
cockatoos, pigeons of all colors and fowl of all types in the
trees. And also, more ominously, a wider variety of poisonous
snakes than almost anywhere else in the world. The third danger
Spots the First Dragon
Nearby the camp was a watering hole crisscrossed
with dragon tracks, but Burden hadn't actually spotted a dragon
After hunting a deer to feed the camp one morning,
Burden climbed into the interior taking the same route he had
followed the first day off the ship. Suddenly he heard the sound
of falling stones from the rocky hill above. Glancing up, he
found himself seemingly looking back in time a million years...
Burden dropped to his knees and crept up the slope
moving from rock to rock hoping not to be seen. In front of
him stood a dragon. Its great head moved from side to side as
its foot-long, yellow, forked tongue darted in and out of it
wide mouth. Pulling out his field glasses, Burden studied the
creature from head to tail. Its skin was wrinkled and black
with many scars. It reminded Burden of woven steel armor. "...it
looked enormous..." wrote Burden later. "He swung his grim head
this way and that,obviously hunting, his sharp eyes searching
for anything that moved. A primeval monster in a primeval setting."
The expedition started setting out bait for the
creatures. This was accomplished by lashing a dead boar to a
stake driven deep into the ground. The cameraman could then
film the creature as it approached the bait and fed on it. This
was a revolting spectacle as the giant lizards would clamp their
jaws around a huge section of the carcass and tear off great
chunks. Often the dragon would swallow half a boar in one gulp,
including the bones and hooves.
Mrs. Burden has a Close Call
Mrs. Burden almost met the fate of the unfortunate
bait one morning while exploring with DeFosse. They went out
to check on a dragon trap and discovered that half the bait
had been taken, but the trap had not sprung. Defosse and Mrs.
Burden split up to search for the dragon, but she made the mistake
of not taking her gun with her. Suddenly the monster appeared
and Mrs. Burden hid in some deep grass. As the animal lumbered
forward, she realized that she was standing between what was
left of the bait and the advancing dragon. She was torn between
running and trying to continue to hide in the grass.
he came and nearer, this shaggy creature," wrote Mrs. Burden,
"with grim head swinging heavily from side to side. I remembered
all the fantastic stories we had heard of these monsters attacking
men and horses. Now listening to the short hissing that came
like a gust of evil wind, and observing the action of that darting,
snake-like tongue, that seemed to sense the very fear that held
me, I was affected in a manner not easy to relate."
"The creature was less than five yards away, and
the subtle reptilian smell was in my nostrils. Too late now
to leap from hiding, I closed my eyes and waited..." Seconds
later Defosse returned, saw what was about to happen, and sent
a bullet from his rifle into the great creature's neck, saving
Mrs. Burden from death at the jaws of the monster.
The party shot several dragons and preserved their
bodies for study. The more difficult trick, though, turned out
to be bringing some back alive. Traps were built by driving
heavy stakes into the ground in a circle, leaving only a large
opening on one side. The stakes were then lashed together to
form a fence and camouflaged. A nearby tree was stripped of
its branches and a rope tied to its top. Fifteen men pulled
on the rope to bend the tree over the trap. One part of the
rope was fastened to a trigger so that when released the tree
would be free to spring back up. The other portion of the rope
became a noose that encircled the opening in the stakes. Finally,
a nice, ripe, dead boar was placed in the center of the trap
Normally in a trap like this the bait would be
tied to the trigger so that when the animal disturbed the bait,
the trap would spring. Burden decided he only wanted to capture
the biggest dragons so instead he rigged the trap so he could
set it off by pulling a rope from a boma, or blind where
he was hiding watching the trap.
Waiting in a small, camouflaged hut in Komodo's
jungle was no easy task. The boma was invaded regularly by poisonous
foot-long centipedes and stinging scorpions. The men often found
themselves thrashing around trying to ward off the creatures.
Fortunately the noise didn't seem to disturb the
dragons. After a few hours a small lizard arrived, but didn't
go into the trap. Then a medium-sized dragon entered the trap
and tried to drag the dead boar off, but it had been securely
staked to the ground. Burden decided he could do better and
waited. Suddenly the medium-sized dragon stopped pulling on
the bait, lowered his head and raced off into the jungle "as
if the devil himself was after him" and the party realized that
a much bigger lizard was on the way.
Big One that Got Away
The dragon that entered the clearing was an old
giant over ten feet long. "Here at last was a real monster..."
wrote Burden, "He looked as black as ink. His bony armor was
scarred and blistered. His eyes, deep in their sockets, looked
out on the world from beneath hanging brows..."
The monster stood still for a half an hour watching
the boma, practically looking Burden in the eye. Then he made
up his mind and charged into the trap grabbing the bait in his
jaws. Excitedly Burden released the trigger.
"Immediately the dragon found himself sailing
through the air," recollected Burden. "A moment later there
was a terrible cracking, for, as the beast fell again, the rope
tightened and under his weight the spring pole broke..."
The hunters had not counted on the great weight
of the monstrous lizard and the tree to which the noose had
been tied snapped off. The animal, now on the ground and held
only by the rope looped around his mid-section, was lashing
himself into a rage trying to escape. The Malay assistants refused
to approach the monster which was vomiting and emitting an unbelievable
DeFosse stepped forward carrying a loop of rope.
He'd been practicing using a lasso with just such an occasion
in mind. Carefully approaching the dragon to avoid the slashing
tail and hooked claws, he tossed the rope an attempt to put
a line around the great head. He missed. Calmly recoiling the
lasso, DeFosse tried again. It took several tries, but the hunter
managed to put a line around the creature's neck. After that
line was secured to a tree, another line was thrown over the
With three lines on the creature they were able
to get the beast under control. They quickly lashed the animal
to a thick pole and carried the 300-pound dragon back to camp.
There he was released in a cage composed of heavy timber and
steel mesh. The animal, once it was freed inside the cage, worked
itself into another round of lashing and clawing. The creature
vomited and produced such a stench that Burden had the cage
moved a quarter-mile downwind for the night.
Going to bed they were sure that by morning the
creature would have exhausted itself, making it easier to photograph
and measure him. The next day they awoke to an unpleasant surprise.
The mesh at the top of the cage was torn and the creature gone.
The great, black scarred dragon had shown that he was not yet
beaten by man.
Though the expedition left Komodo with 12 preserved
dragon bodies and two live dragons, Burden was never able to
capture an enormous old giant like "that one that got away."
Still, what the expedition brought back to the museum in New
York allowed scientists to study the characteristics of the
creature like size, shape and color, and this added immensely
to the scientific understanding of this unusual lizard. The
two living dragons found a home in the Bronx Zoo. while two
of the skins obtained by Burden were mounted and can still be
seen today in the American Museum of Natural History's Hall
of Amphibians and Reptiles.
If this tale about an expedition by steamer to
a remote, rocky island to find a giant prehistoric creature
and return it to New York City sounds familiar, it maybe because
it inspired a Hollywood motion picture. After returning to the
states Burden told the strange story of his trip to Komodo Island
to Merian C. Cooper, the motion-picture producer. Cooper changed
the objective from a giant lizard to a giant ape, and added
a beautiful heroine, in the person of Fay Wray to produce the
classic 1933 film King Kong.
to Virtual Exploration Society
Copyright Lee Krystek
1998. All Rights Reserved.