Island Magic

Asia is the continent of islands. On the islands of south east Asia, isolation has woven evolutionary magic, producing the most remarkable diversity of creatures.

Produced by NHNZ

Asia is the continent of islands: at its southern limit alone there are some 30,000 islands dashed across the watery surface of the world. On these islands, freed from the certainties of continental life and powered by the magic of islands, species multiply and diversify.

The central characters of Island Magic are the leopard, a top predator; the monitor lizard, an opportunistic scavenger which could become a top predator; and the ubiquitous fig tree.

The story begins on the island of Java which, until the thaw that ended the last ice age, was part of the Asian continent. Island life is difficult for the mammals from the continent; elephants and tigers are already extinct while the Javan rhino teeters on the verge. On Java it is the leopard that writes the rules which shape the lives of the creatures lower down the food chain. A more benevolent but no less powerful influence is that of the Fig tree – the tree of life in this part of Asia. Our animal characters gather at a fruiting fig tree; the leopard to find its favourite food – young piglets – and the monitor lizard to find what it can. Meanwhile, high in the tree, bats devour the figs.

It was fruit bats that carried fig seeds to one of Asia’s newest islands, Anak Krakatoa, which erupted from the sea some forty kilometres west of Java in l930. Anak Krakatoa, like all the islands, is populated by an eccentric cast of chance arrivals. The first monitor lizard arrived on the island within 6 years of the eruption. With the leopard left behind on Java, the monitor has become the undisputed top predator, but with only 70 years of isolation, there has been little time for island magic to weave its spell.

North of Java is the island of Sulawesi which has been isolated for 30 million years. From the handful of mammals that have managed to breach its isolation, Sulawesi has produced more than a hundred new species, making it one of the world’s most remarkable species factories.   Most extraordinary of all are the seven distinct species of macaques which Sulawesi has created from the single founding species which rafted its way from Continental Asia millions of years ago.

If the Fig is the tree of life on Java and Anak Krakatoa, on Sulawesi it is the forest of life. Here there is a greater diversity of fig trees than anywhere else on earth, and the fig has played a part in fashioning the community of exotic creatures that inhabit the island.

The monitor lizard has found its way to Sulawesi and, here too, it is the island’s top predator. But because it has always been able to come and go to other islands, has never been fully isolated and island magic has had no chance to work.

But on isolated islands at the edge of Asia – one to the east of Sulawesi and the other to the south – isolation and island magic have fashioned from the humble monitor lizard two remarkable creatures. On one, a tiny tree-living vegetarian lizard. On the other, the komodo dragon, the top predator and the “leopard” of its island. Such is the power of Island Magic.

Episodes From This Series

In the Realm of the Red Ape

52 minutes / 1998

Monsoon – India’s God of Life

1 hour / 1999

Island Magic

1 hour / 1999

Kingdoms of the Coast

1 hour / 1999

At the Edge

1 hour / 2000

A Forest for All Seasons

1 hour / 2000

Creatures of the Thaw

1 hour / 1999

Wild Asia – Between Two Worlds

1 hour / 2000

The Arid Heart

1 hour / 2000