Sunspirit-2021. But in the case of a devastating fire that took place this week on an island in Indonesia’s famed Komodo National Park—home to thousands of Komodo dragons and now the site of a controversial tourism project set to turn part of the island into a “Jurassic Park” style resort—environmental groups say that they may “never truly know” what caused the fires.
Speaking to VICE World News, activists monitoring activities on the ground pointed to a series of suspicious events that followed the fire on Nov. 3, including the unexplained closure of their Instagram account, that fit into a wider pattern of cover-ups and secrecy currently surrounding development on the island.
Images and videos uploaded onto the Instagram account of Save Komodo Now (Kawan Baik Komodo), a network of activists campaigning for the Indonesian government to stop construction work and ensure conservation in the area, showed soaring fires burning in open grassy fields across Rinca island at night. In one video, shot from a distance at sea, a bright red blaze and smoke were seen rising into the night sky.
Further footage emerged of park rangers and villagers, without personal protective gear or fire-fighting equipment, trying in vain to extinguish the fires.
Lukita Awang, head of the Komodo National Park, confirmed on Thursday that Rinca island “was safe.”
“Thirty two rangers were mobilized to the location, and additional seven rangers on [Wednesday] morning,” Awang said. “The cause of the fire is still being investigated.”
But to the thousands of angry Indonesians witnessing evidence emerge online, action taken by the authorities was too slow. Comments by members of the public flooded Save Komodo Now’s posts, criticizing the Indonesian government and demanding transparency.
“Forest fires are always of great importance in our country. Why they happen is a national concern,” wrote one user on Instagram, whose comment drew hundreds of likes. “The fact that we are hearing nothing about what’s happening in Rinca island, especially since builders are already there, is infuriating. What is the government hiding?”
“The fact that we are hearing nothing about what’s happening in Rinca island, especially since builders are already there, is infuriating. What is the government hiding?”
Mere hours after posts about the fires on Rinca island were uploaded, and with criticism growing, Save Komodo Now’s Instagram account would be taken down without explanation, a member of the collective confirmed to VICE World News.
“We received pictures from volunteers on the ground who are afraid of the authorities,” said the activist, who requested anonymity due to possible government persecution given sensitivities around the project.
“The stakes are high. Our Instagram account was blocked and we are still in the process of trying to sort it out,” the activist said, adding that voices critical of the Komodo project faced intimidation which they feared could translate into real life retaliation.
“We still remain critical of the Jurassic Park project and demand that all tourism concessions be cancelled. But [going forward] we now need to be more careful.”
The group’s Instagram account still remains unavailable at the time of publishing. VICE World News has reached out to representatives at Instagram to ask why the account was taken offline, but is yet to receive a response.
Komodo National Park, made up of Komodo, Rinca and Padar islands, as well as 26 smaller ones, is today home to less than 1,400 adult Komodo dragons—the world’s largest lizard. The area was temporarily closed in 2019 in an effort to increase the island’s population of dragons following cases of smugglers stealing the endangered species to sell on the black market.
Since then, work has also started on a $6.5 million theme park revamp to the Komodo National Park on Rinca Island, where this week’s blaze occurred. Large machinery has moved in and environmentalists told VICE World News in late 2020 that the park is “no longer a safe haven for the endangered dragon.”
Activist Gregorius Afioma, a member of the Save Komodo coalition, told VICE World News that there had been four fires on the islands in the last five years. “The wildfire on Rinca island isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last,” he said, stopping short of saying there was any link between construction work and this blaze.
Satellite images of the islands provided by Gregorius and seen by VICE World News showed possible locations of the recent fire, miles from the construction sites, which have been closed off and the surrounding areas secured following protests against the multi-million dollar project.
He said human activity with regards to the latest fire was unlikely, but raised problems that have arisen since work began, like construction workers being bitten by the dragons, as well as the planned relocation of the island’s indigenous villagers to make way for the upcoming tourist attraction.
“People have been protesting against developing the area within Komodo National Park,” Gregorius said. “It is focused on investments rather than conservation work.”
While local authorities have since confirmed the latest fire had been extinguished and said they were investigating the cause, Gregorius criticized Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his government for their slow response and lack of awareness about events on the ground. He said that officials “had not been cooperative” with activist and conservation groups and only expressed anger when challenged about their plans.
“Given the small size of Rinca island, the fire would have definitely affected the entire area,” he said. “Wildfires have been frequently occurring, and there are no effective tools to prevent them from happening, as well as no transparency on the part of the authorities to properly investigate the causes, whether they are natural or caused by human activity.”
He recalled one fire which took place on the island of Lawa Darat Gili near Komodo in 2018, allegedly caused by a lit cigarette tossed by a tourist travelling on a passing ship tour. It ended up destroying
10 hectares of scrub, grass and trees on the island.
“Even though it was reported to law enforcement agencies, there was no fine or punishment for the perpetrators,” Gregorius said.