Where have all the chameleons gone? (And how can I attract them back to my garden)
We often hear from our clients and followers:
“When I was growing up I used to see chameleons ALL the time”.
“I’ve never seen a chameleon in my own garden.”
*Photo credit: Silvia Kirkman
So, what has happened to all the chameleons in South Africa?
A quick insight into the chameleons found in South Africa reveals that there are currently 19 described species: two typical chameleons and 17 dwarf chameleon species.
They go by the wonderfully Afrikaans name Trapsuutjies.
Chameleons can be found just about anywhere in South Africa (where typical habitat still occurs) from coastal forests, grasslands, savannah, montane forests, fynbos, renosterveld, karoo scrub,
and even suburban gardens.
Many of the species are extremely rare and endangered. The Cape Dwarf Chameleon, for example, was an ever-present fixture in many gardens a few decades back, but, sadly, their numbers have dropped sharply in the last 30 years, by as much as 85%, and they are now classified as Near Threatened.
*Photo credit: Suncana Bradley
What are the main causes?
Sadly, chameleons have fallen victim to mainly habitat destruction and poisons.
Snakes and birds are their natural enemies, but in suburbia, domestic cats and electric fences also take their toll.
Illegal trade of chameleons is also a contributing factor, as well as fear and superstitions surrounding them.
When acres of natural habitat is cleared for housing development, agriculture, or road construction, these animals, if not killed in the process of earth moving (equipment or killed out of fear by the workers) attempt to flee but often have nowhere else to go.
With the clearing of natural habitat there is also the loss of prey which the chameleons need to feed on, and without adequate food sources these reptiles are forced to relocate and are forced to cross busy roads.
Pesticides and insecticides can have devastating effects on chameleons. Much like owls that feed on poisoned rats, a chameleon that unknowingly consumes insects that have been baited or sprayed with insecticides will suffer a similar fate.
Chameleons not only fall victim to poisoning by eating poisoned insects; they absorb poison through their skin. Because of their excellent camouflage abilities they are often inadvertently sprayed with poison by gardeners.
Chameleons drink by sucking up the dew or raindrops on foliage. This is another reason not to use poisons in the garden as they could easily ingest poisons sprayed on plants while drinking.
Cats, and certain species of small dogs such as terriers (pets and especially those that have been abandoned and have gone feral) are the main reason for the dramatic decline in chameleon, lizard and gecko populations in gardens and ecosystems that surround human habitations.
Domestic cats can have a crippling effect on local populations of chameleons as they make for easy prey. A single domestic cat can totally eradicate a population of chameleons in a suburban garden in a matter of months.
*Photo credit: Tyrone Ping - Exploring the Herpetofauna of Southern Africa
Suburban gardens generally made of up neatly manicured lawns, high walls and electric fences can pose as a threat to chameleons. Pristine, manicured lawns can create vast areas without trees and shrubs which chameleons rely on to move around. Without green corridors of connected trees and shrubs chameleons are then forced to descend onto the lawns and become easy prey for a variety of animals (mainly cats and dogs). In addition, high walls (without vegetation) can prove to be too high for chameleons to travel, and electric fences pose a risk of being electrocuted.
Illegal trade of chameleons is a booming market in South Africa. Large quantities of chameleons are collected from the wild and sold both locally and internationally. These indigenous chameleons are illegal to buy and when they are bought it is simply perpetuating a vicious cycle of supply and demand – so basically one is not saving or helping the species by buying chameleons from traders.
*FEAR AND SUPERSTITION:
Although not a major contributing factor to the decline of chameleons on a large scale, is still a factor. Many people (especially in African cultures) believe chameleons to be dangerous and are deadly or venomous – of course this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are also other superstitions related to chameleons causing them to be senselessly killed.
*Photo credit: Constance Kaufmann
What can you do to help?
How to create a Chameleon Friendly Garden:
Your garden = healthy ecosystem
A healthy ecosystem starts with good soil that’s well drained, and supports a large population of microbes that feed thousands of tiny worms and insects that, in turn, are fed on by chameleons.
Sun, lots of Sun
Chameleons are cold blooded which means they need plenty of sun to regulate their body temperature. Choose a sunny spot in your garden that gets 8-10hrs of sun per day to plant chameleon friendly plants.
Transform your lawn
Reduce the size of your lawn. To a chameleon, a large lawn is a giant desert. It contains no food, has no perches and no protective cover. Rather replace it with appropriate greenery.
Create the right habitat
Transform small, neglected areas by planting indigenous trees or shrubs and clearing alien vegetation, creating a habitat where chameleons can thrive.
By avoiding spraying pesticides in the garden and by encouraging insects in your garden you might be lucky enough to lure some chameleons into becoming permanent residents. The little predators eat butterflies, moths, flies, aphids, beetles, caterpillars, crickets, spiders, grasshoppers, termites and many other insects.
Cats are one of the biggest threats to chameleons, birds and microfauna in the garden. Keep pets, especially cats, in at night – it’s as much for their own safety as for the cute critters in your garden.
The best way to attract chameleons to your garden is to make sure that the soil is covered in a thick mulch of compost, decaying autumn leaves and woodchips. This rich forest floor environment will attract an entire microcosm of insect life, and chameleons will arrive.
Make your own compost
Compost heaps are not only an environmentally-friendly way to recycle your food waste (and adds nutrients into your soil), but they also help with attracting scores of insect life.
Develop a compost heap in a quiet corner of the garden with the precise purpose of breeding insects. Baby chameleons will relish the tiny flies, grubs, beetles and gnats that thrive around a compost heap.
Build an insect hotel
Insect hotels are artistic columns or cubes of plant material that are glued or wired together. A hotel could include a mixture of pinecones, hollow bamboo stems, or even old pieces of wood with holes of different sizes drilled into the stem.
*Photo credit: Tyrone James Ping
Plant flowering shrubs
Chameleons thrive in a garden that has a complete ecosystem of small, medium and large flowering shrubs which are constantly attracting insect activity.
Smaller flowering shrubs covered in flowers are particularly loved by insects and are regarded as food table bridges between large twiggy shrubs. Many of the honeybee-friendly plants, such as euryops daisies, ribbon bushes, sage, gazania and vygies will attract a variety of insects.
(See more plant options underneath)
Plant large shrub trees
Adult chameleons thrive in the higher perches found in large shrubs or small trees such as the dune crowberry,
pompon trees, sweet thorn acacias and wild olive.
Chameleons drink the dew and rain droplets from the leaves of plants. During dry spells, spray the plants with a fine mist to ensure your little friends have something to drink.
Get your neighbours on board
The most important fact about chameleons is they need a fairly large area in which to roam. Gardeners are being encouraged to link up chameleon-friendly gardens in a single neighbourhood. It is hoped that these gardens will merge to create corridors of chameleon habitat which will make it possible for populations of chameleon to flourish.
Chameleon Friendly Plants:
Get the balance right
Garden in layers, with tall canopy trees, then smaller trees, and below these shrubs and plants and then some kind of ground-cover vegetation.
Chameleons require vegetation in order to thrive – preferably with foliage they can easily grasp with their small claws, and perch on.
Plant shrubs and trees with relatively thin twigs and fine foliage – these are perfect for climbing.
A chameleon-friendly garden needs a miscellany of large bushes / small trees and small shrubs that can be used as perches and for protection.
Heaven for chameleons is a garden filled with a dense under-storey of shrubs with a range of perch sizes for juveniles and adults.
Plant flowers, preferably indigenous, that will attract butterflies, bees and other insects to your garden, because these sustain geckos, lizards and chameleons – and also, incidentally, birds.
*Photo credit: Phomolo Travel
What to plant:
A chameleon-friendly garden is as much about the structure of the vegetation as it is about the plants (as mentioned and explained above).
Here is a short list of chameleon-friendly plants Cape Garden stock:
Try gazania, bulbine, dwarf agapanthus, or Felicia
Shade-loving shrubs under trees:
Try Plectranthus spp., asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus), ribbon bush, and arum lily.
Low-growing shrubs with thin branches:
Confetti bush, euryops daisy, tea bush, azaleas, daisy bushes, Leonotis sp.
Larger shrubs with thin branches:
sage bush (Buddleja salviifolia), Dodonaea spp., polygala, plumbago, Cape honeysuckle or dune crowberry (Searsia crenata).
Favoured trees are those which provide low and accessible foliage, such as:
Virgilia, karee trees (Searsia spp.), Willows (Salix spp.)
Many species of lizards eat garden pests, such as slugs and harmful insects, goggas and pests so they contribute significantly to creating and maintaining a healthy garden.
But they also serve as a barometer of environmental health, because they are vulnerable to pollutants, so their mere existence in the garden indicates low levels of pesticides and heavy metals. It follows that food grown in such a garden will also have low levels of these substances.
So, in a somewhat circular argument, create a healthy garden in which these lovely critters can live, and they will reward you by keeping the garden healthy, and advertising the fact by their presence.
So, we think most will agree: we need to plant/create more chameleon friendly spaces, especially here in Cape Town - where the Cape Dwarf Chameleon is dwindling in numbers in suburban areas.
Not only will we be doing our bit to encourage the chameleon population, we will also be inviting a highly beneficial predator into our gardens.
*Photo credit: Steve Trimby
And there are anyway few things as rewarding as watching a healthy natural mini biome unfold in your own garden!
You will know when your garden has transformed into a healthy ecosystem when birds roost and nest in the trees, when chameleons are once again seen perching regally in shrubby growth, when you find a skink basking happily on a rock you provided, and when the geckos come out to wage war on the mozzies at sundown.
It’s a win-win!
Sources and credit:
https://africageographic.com/ Tyrone Ping