Reo is a 17-year-old Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), a mature example of the species as they normally live about 20 years. He was born in captivity in Reptilandia, in the Canary Islands, but since 2006 his home has been the Bioparc in Fuengirola. Two years ago, his carers noticed that his sight was getting worse and specialist Fidel Causse discovered that he had cataracts.
“We knew something was wrong because his behaviour was changing. He is tame and normally very calm, but since his sight began to fail he had been reacting aggressively, lashing out with his tail and biting” says Jesús Recuerdo, a vet at the Bioparc.
Apart from the effect on the animal, there was another problem: Bioparc is one of the few centres authorised to breed this species, which is in serious danger of extinction, but this wouldn’t be possible if Reo couldn’t recognise his female partner. She is called Ora, is 12 years old, weighs 20 kilos (Reo weighs 45, as males are much heavier), and was born in Prague zoo. “Reproduction is delicate; Komodo dragons are very territorial, they attack if they don’t recognise each other,” says Recuerdo.
The experts decided to operate, but this was only the second time this type of surgery has been carried out on a Komodo dragon anywhere in the world, and the first in Europe. It was successful: Reo has made a full recovery and has stopped behaving aggressively. However, it was a complicated procedure.
Fidel Causse, a specialist in animal ophthalmology who runs the Animalvisión clinic, contacted the centre in Cincinatti, USA, which carried out the first cataract operation on a Komodo dragon, for advice. “The anaesthesia is very complicated, and you don’t know what you’re going to find because their eyes are very different to those of mammals. It’s even difficult to fit them onto the operating table because they’re so long,” he says.
The operation itself only took 15 minutes, although several hours were needed for the anaesthesia and recovery. By the next day Reo could see again and was responding well to stimuli. Now, the team at Bioparc are hoping the pair will breed. The females lay between 10 and 20 eggs, which incubate for five to six months. “It’s not easy because the females aren’t in season for very long and if they’re not receptive the males attack them. We have to monitor them very closely,” says Recuerdo.
Fidel Causse now plans to give presentations about the operation in future veterinary conferences. “People need to know how important zoos like the Bioparc are for preserving species which are in danger of extinction and helping them to repopulate,” he says.