• February 12, 2014

Close Encounters With a Komodo

Alexa Keefe

This post was originally published in February 2014. We’re resurfacing it in honor of National Reptile Awareness Day, as part of our #Throwback series—which gives more love to our favorite posts. —The Proof Team

Heading to the remote Indonesian island of Rinca to photograph a modern-day dinosaur was all Stefano Unterthiner’s idea. A zoologist as well as a photographer, he says, “I have always been fascinated by working with the Komodo dragon. [The Komodo] is full of mystery.” That mystery, coupled with the fact that the giant lizard is a threatened species, its habitat limited to a few islands in the Indonesian archipelago, “would be a perfect story for National Geographic,” Unterthiner says.

For close to seven weeks, Unterthiner photographed these giant reptiles—males can grow up to 9.9 feet and weigh over 200 pounds—in the picturesque, sparsely inhabited wilderness of Komodo National Park. “When you see the dragon at close range in that landscape, with the little hills and the high grass, forest in the background, no humans,” he says, “you have the feeling of jumping back in time.

“Even if they look a bit ugly—a bit like a monster—at a certain point they seem pretty beautiful because they are completely unusual,” he says.

Picture of an elderly lizard against the backdrop of a coming storm
An elderly lizard is photographed against the backdrop of a coming storm on Rinca island.

Although captivated by the sight of the dragon moving through its prehistoric environment, Unterthiner was nervous. He has been around his share of wild animals, but what he found disconcerting about the Komodo was not knowing what they were thinking.

“They don’t look at you, and then they look at you for a while and you don’t understand what they are doing,” Unterthiner says. They are reptiles after all, not unlike snakes. Slow-moving and “sleepy,” as Unterthiner describes them, the dragons can be unpredictably fast when triggered by sudden movements, vibrations, or the scent of blood—and they bite.

Picture of Stefano Unterthiner photographing a Komodo dragon in Loh Buaya on Rinca island
With Pà Matieus (not pictured) standing by to protect him, Unterthiner photographs a Komodo dragon in Loh Buaya on Rinca island. This photo was taken by Unterthiner’s wife, Stéphanie, who accompanied him on the shoot as his assistant.

“They really shocked me when they were feeding. Whenever they smell blood they are incredibly fast and aggressive. I photographed two dragons eating a goat … they completely gutted [it] in less than three minutes. The bones, the horns—they ate everything.”

After a week or so of tagging along with researchers studying the animals, Unterthiner slowly began to feel more comfortable. His confidence bolstered by the company of a seasoned ranger named Pà Matieus, he dared to get closer and closer until at times he was working within one to three feet of them. Unless the shot was worth it though, with either beautiful light or engaging dragon behavior, he wouldn’t risk being so close but would shoot from a distance.

Picture of a male Komodo dragon above the village of Kampung Komodo inside Komodo National Park
A male Komodo dragon is photographed above the village of Kampung Komodo, inside Komodo National Park. While encounters are inevitable, most end without injury. Unterthiner was struck by the mixture of fear and respect the villagers hold for these animals, who are the main draw for tourists coming to the island. “They are proud to show the Indonesian dragon,” Unterthiner says.

Near the end of the assignment, once he’d gotten his shots and was feeling relaxed, he took a risk without even realizing it. Photographing a dragon from a tree, he decided he wanted to get it from another angle. “When I jumped down [from the tree], my wife saw him lunge toward me, and in the exact moment I took a step back, he bit at the air where I just was. Then I just moved a few steps away and the dragon stopped. It’s rare they pursue the ‘prey.’ Usually they hunt by quick and short attacks, mostly playing with surprise.”

After that, Unterthiner put his camera down for a few minutes, and then he started shooting again.

See more pictures and read the story “Once Upon a Dragon” in the January 2014 issue of National Geographic. Follow Stefano Unterthiner on his website.

There are 35 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Jean-Michel Le Poder
    October 26, 2015

    Awesome pictures of a mystical lizard!will never forget my Komodo and Rinca experience…

  2. Shahril
    October 21, 2015

    Amazing photograph. Speechless.

  3. durgeshwar
    May 2, 2014

    hey how to get closer to them

  4. Prem Kumar
    April 2, 2014

    Amazing creature!!!! and great work. Your photographs are AMAZING!!

  5. Regina F.
    March 6, 2014

    Speechless. Great photographers take risk, and you just did that. It’s so impressive! Not to mention the photos… oh, you inspired me, sir.

  6. Alex Goodall
    March 2, 2014

    The size of these creatures always astounds me. Every time I see photos like these, I get insanely jealous I’m not there myself.

  7. Fernando Santos
    February 24, 2014

    Great photos of great creature

  8. Rodolfo Kintanar
    February 23, 2014

    From my perspective: “Bayawak” in the Philippines are monitor lizards…pygmies compared to Komodos. And they are food to the Negritos…indigenous migrant travellers in the Philippines. Original Filipinos.
    When I was 8 years old I sometimes go with them to learn about their way of life and views. Also eat the food they share with a curious little boy who likes to listen to their stories and adventures.
    And yes the Bayawak meat roasted and dipped into coconut vinegar seasoned with salt and birds eye chili tastes like like chicken! And they said the meat is good medicine for asthma.
    I did not have the chance to validate the claim since none in our family had asthma. My grandmother, a traditional healer, used her massage skills and vast knowledge of herbal medicine to keep us healthy and free from health problems like asthma.

  9. Somnath Kundu
    February 23, 2014

    I have seen this majestic reptiles from very close while my 4 years stay at Indonesia. But your pictures and the recent article is fantastic. We just enjoyed. Best wishes

  10. yusuf bozok
    February 23, 2014

    yayınlarınızı ve resimlerinizi ilgi ile takip ediyorum başarıla…

  11. Protap Pal
    February 20, 2014

    Countless thanks for Glorious achievement.Selection of photographs are highly praiseworthy.

    February 20, 2014


  13. Ivonne Covarrubias – Mexico
    February 19, 2014

    Spectacular work!! Congratulations and give us more of this!!

  14. Carmel Metcalf
    February 17, 2014

    A huge lizard, a true survivor. Loved your pictures.

  15. Srinivasan Murali
    February 15, 2014

    It is sad to know that they are of a endangered species. What can we do to protect it and keep them out of danger?

  16. fernan v. roxas
    February 14, 2014

    God created each of His creation with a different and cute talents
    Praise God for he made us with a very special touch of His mighty hands.:-)

  17. Brandi Quasius
    February 14, 2014

    Amazing creatures and fascinating. Your work and effort is also. Thank you. Thouro

    February 13, 2014


  19. gustavo a gonzalez arnedo
    February 13, 2014

    wonderful picture

  20. mum taloh
    February 13, 2014

    amazing.its a wonder.thank u that your encounters reach people and know more about komodo.

  21. bob henry
    February 13, 2014

    I liked this story a lot. I also like komodo dragons too.

  22. Natasza Rollo
    February 13, 2014

    Every time I start to doubt the humane aspect of our species and its various self-expressions, National Geographic’s photographers remind me what it is to be both human and creative. Art itself is a reminder that being masterful does not mean having mastery over the earth. Thank you for the artistic and moral lessons.

  23. Hreinn
    February 13, 2014

    I’m gonna kill one of those to earn the status “Dragon-Slayer”. You will see me cruising around on the remote Indonesian island of Rinca chasing with sword and shield, chasing dragons. It will be glorious!

  24. Carmine Gaidasz
    February 13, 2014

    Lucky your Wife was there! I regard the Komodo as the last true remnants
    Of the Dinosaurs. They were probably eyeing you much as a snake eyes a mouse: food.

  25. Derek Thomley
    February 13, 2014

    Many thanks NGeo,very good article!fascinating creatures and a little scary.

  26. silas meredzi
    February 12, 2014


  27. Waltayr Dantas Filho
    February 12, 2014

    worth a lot your work with so good shots … the apparent calm of dragon means how dangerous is to do such a photos … my greetings

  28. Barbara de Costa
    February 12, 2014

    Amazing pictures of this wonderful dragon in its natural environment.

  29. Rosangela Gomes
    February 12, 2014

    muito boa e atrativa reportagem dos dragões de komodo.

  30. Tunca Nalbant
    February 12, 2014

    What a courage stay that much close to a Komodo Dragon. They are scary but wonderful creatures…

  31. butsch portento
    February 12, 2014

    . . try going to the provinces in the philippines . . there are some provinces in philippines that they catch these dragons or what is locally called “bayawak”, skin them & cook as “beer/ liquor partner” or pulutan . . a lot swore they tasted like chicken, only better . .

  32. Cat
    February 12, 2014

    so beautiful and amazing

  33. Christopher Lewis
    February 12, 2014

    What an engaging piece of photojournalism. A truly rich collaboration between the photographer and Ms Keefe. I was completely drawn in, and yet it all came to me through my laptop. PROOF is an ingenious way for this sort of magic to happen, and I am looking forward to more from Ms. Keefe

  34. juca
    February 12, 2014

    amaaaaazing! what a great story –great courage, and unforgettable photographs; the idea of PROOF is really wonderful — to bring all kinds of different , compelling stories and photos to reach so many people.
    thank you, PROOF! am addicted to this site.

  35. George Britton
    February 12, 2014

    – Amazing. I wonder how many more species of animals existed before that could amaze us as well.

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