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Chameleons

Erin Mc Closkey, Canada

Story photo

I had no idea really where Pilos Lagoon was. I knew it was on the west coast of the main island of Greece—that was about all. But I wanted to visit it. There was a small conservation group working there to monitor and protect a disjunct population of African chameleons (Chameleonus africanus). Their project is important because these little lizards are endangered globally, and their endemic population is in Allessandria Egypt. Why a small population exists in one tiny lagoon in Greece is a mystery, although speculation suggests that perhaps some of the animals were captured for the pet trade and escapees in Greece colonized there. One of the threats to this species in the wild is the pet trade. An adult can sell for hundreds of dollars. Of course, although the trade is illegal, it is thriving.

I donned my backpack and tent and jumped on a bus to the town of Pilos. After a bus ride that lasted 3 hours to go a mere 61km I arrived at the central square where many of locals were sitting on park benches watching the tourist go by. I asked around and was told that I should have stayed on the bus anther 3km to the campground and the Pilos hotel. There was not another bus until the next day and hitchhiking seemed impossible, so I hired a taxi, which cost 1000 drakma (just a few dollars)—almost the same as the entire bus ride from Kyparissia. I arraived late at the campground I had dinner at the little seaside restaurant and later retired to my tent and watched a centipede make his way across my roof to the rhythms of a didgeridoo played by some nearby campers. The chameleons are found at an ecological area with an interpretive trail about 4km away so I ordered a moped for the next day.

The next day I met with Marilia and Andrea and was debriefed on the project. Being a guest from Green Volunteers and not an offical volunteer, I had the liberty to investigate the area and meet with the volunteers in the field. I took my moped out to the ecological area where two volunteers were stationed in a field alongside a windbreak of trees. They were observing two chameleons through a telescope 20m away in the trees. Not good for a photo, but if you approach them they turn black in defensive colouring. At this moment they were sporting gorgeous shades of blue and green and were believed to be a breeding pair. I watched for an hour and then went back to the beach for a swim to cool off from the high heat. Walking to the sand I passed some shrubbery only to discover a few baby chameleons. There were about 4cm long and a pale grey colour. Eventually I decided to head back to camp and meet the other volunteers at the camp but my luck continued and on the way back to my moped, a very large adult chameleon crossed my path about 1m ahead of me! What a charmed day! I went back to the camp and told Andrea and Marilia about the chameleons I had seen by the beach. They said it was a really fortunate stoke of luck.

Andrea took me to excavate a recently hatched nest. This had to be done discretely because the nests are sometimes found in an archaeological zone, which has restrictions against activities such as digging. I suspect, however, that this is a bit of a ruse. The beach is still quite littered with garbage and the authorities have heartily invited the umbrella-poking, sandcastle-making tourists to freely exploit the area. Yet, Andrea has been charged several times digging these small 40cm deep holes, with his fingers in the most delicate of manners to avoid damaging an egg or a hatchling and therefore he will very unlikely do any damage to an artefact he may encounter, which he never has because these holes have obviously already been dug out by the chameleons. The reason for the government opposition is a familiar story of to many conservation projects around the world: when certain parties have interest in tourist development they fear that the area will become a protected ecological zone for the endangered chameleons instead of being built up into a tourist resort or something else deemed more lucrative. The message must become stronger that projects for endangered species can attract tourists to an area and make a place more unique and interesting for visitors.

We did excavate one nest and unearthed 43 hatched shells and two unhatched. One had a completely developed embryo that had died. The other was half-emerged and likely dead or had been struggling for at least a week since this nest was being excavated 10 days after the last hatchlings had emerged. The hatchlings emerge over the course of a couple of days therefore after 10 days it is assumed that all have left the nest.

Andrea handed me the egg while he recorded his data and told me to see if I could get the hatchling out of its shell and see if it was still alive. Only the back legs and tail were out. I delicately and nervously peeled away the leathery eggshell. Then, while holding it in my cupped hands and blowing warm air on it, it revived! Not seeing the dewclaws on its legs told us that it was a female.

Holding this little female chameleon and knowing how important her survival is—such a small population (about 200 in Pilos; the population in Allessandria Egypt is unknown) needs females to reproduce. All my training as an ecologist told me that this sort of intervention is not normally practiced, but with endangered species we often have to go beyond protocol and in this situation hope that whatever reason prevented her from hatching might not prevent her from now surviving and becoming a healthy adult chameleon and a critical member of the population. I continued blowing the warm air onto the hatchling in my cupped hands. She began to perk up and her big, independently moving, googly eyes began looking about. She started to clean and groom herself of the little grains of sand stuck to her delicate skin and wrapped her long tail around my pinky finger like a newborn would grasp. I plucked a twig from a branch and let her climb on. Her opposable digits grasped and clasped with each step and she strongly inched her way along. I let her extend her reach and climb onto a branch of a nearby bush. She sat for a few minutes among the greenery and warmed herself in a ray of sun. Then she energetically stepped further into the shrubbery and began exploring her new world.

This will truly remain with me as one of the most incredible experiences from working with these conservation projects. It is a rare opportunity to be given the chance to quite literally save an endangered species; that little chameleon hatched in my hands and before my eyes and just so happened to be a female that hopefully will live to produce healthy young of her own. It will make a difference.

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