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.
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.
“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.
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.