A much-loved reptile: chameleons of KZN


Text and photographs Nick Evans

Chameleons are truly amazing animals, and a favourite in terms of reptiles for many people. The majority of people find them cute and interesting-and they are!

Fortunately for us, we live in a province that can be considered species-rich in terms of chameleons. Eight described species occur in the province, as well as at least one undescribed species. Seven of those eight are endemic to KwaZulu-Natal. So yes, we are very fortunate.

KwaZulu-Natal’s chameleons

The majority of the species occur in Northern KZN, some occurring in just a few, select forests. Take the Ngome Dwarf Chameleon for example, found in the far north-western part of the province, in the Ngome Forest. It doesn’t occur anywhere else. So if that forest gets destroyed, we lose this species.

Ngome Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion ngomense)

It’s not just the northern parts of the province that has chameleons, you can even see a chameleon high up in the Drakensberg! The Drakensberg Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion dracomontanum) occurs at high altitudes.

Drakensberg Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion dracomontanum)

A few years ago, some friends and I made it our mission to find every chameleon occurring in the province. It was a great experience, set over a few months, which meant we got to see some interesting parts of the province. I’d say my favourite two were the Ngome Dwarf Chameleon (maybe also because it was such a mission to get to the forest!), and the Emerald Dwarf Chameleon, an undescribed species found in the southern Drakensberg. Goodness me is it pretty! Just look at these colours!

Emerald Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion spp)

Kloof’s chameleons

In Kloof, and in the Greater Durban Area, two species can be found.

The KwaZulu Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion melanocephalum) is a rather elusive species in the Kloof area. They are far more common in areas such as Westville, Bluff, and Durban North. But they do occur in Kloof, and further inland. There’s a population as far inland as Pietermaritzburg, although there’s a possibility that those could be a subspecies.

They’re listed as Vulnerable, due to the same threat as pretty much all wildlife: habitat destruction.

KwaZulu Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion melanocephalum)

Admittedly, out of all the KZN chameleon species, the KwaZulu Dwarf is probably the most plain-coloured one. However, one can find some variation. Unfortunately, if you do find one and are hoping that you can spice up its colours by putting on different coloured clothes etc. you will be disappointed. Despite popular belief, chameleons can’t really do that. The KwaZulu Dwarf generally will go really dark when stressed, almost black. At night, when they’re sleeping, they go a very pale shade of brown, almost appearing white. They look like a dead leaf in the foliage from a distance!

The KwaZulu Dwarf Chameleon can be found in both grasslands and forests.

Like other species of its genus, it gives birth to live young. The newborns don’t hang around their mother too long, as they can be prone to be preyed on by the adult!

New-born Dwarf Chameleon

The most widespread chameleon in the country, and the other species occurring in Kloof, is the Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis).

Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis)

This green beauty is considerably larger than the KwaZulu Dwarf, growing to lengths of 30cm. They too will disappoint you if you’re hoping to see a chameleon change pink, blue or red. They can only really change various shades of green, from extremely light green, almost appearing yellow, to extremely dark green, to almost appearing black. At night, when sleeping, they go a very light green.

This species favour grassland and savannah areas so won’t be found in forest areas.

Unlike the Dwarf Chameleons, Flap-necked Chameleons lay eggs. And they can lay a whole lot!

I once picked up a battered, big female that had been kicked around by some nasty little children. There was no saving her, even though we could see she was heavily pregnant. It was a really sad loss and after being euthanized, the vet extracted the eggs. There were fifty-two! I had no idea they could lay so many.

You most probably all know what a chameleon’s ‘hands & feet’ look like. They’re a bit like little oven mitts, with tiny claws on the end. It would be hard to picture an animal like that digging 20cm or more into the ground to lay their eggs, but that’s exactly what they do. I was fortunate to witness this behaviour during 2019 when a friend of mine found a female digging in Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve. The female would dig mostly with her front legs. At a suitable depth, she would turn around, reverse her body into the burrow, and deposit a few eggs. She’d cover them up as she laid. It was incredible to watch. She was secretive and protective too, not allowing us the slightest view of the eggs.

Flap-necked Chameleon laying eggs

Amazingly, these eggs can take between ten months to a year to hatch! They usually hatch in mid-summer after which the hatchlings will dig their way out of the burrow. On their first night, and indeed on every night for the first few months of their lives, they’ll climb to the tops of the long grass, and that’s where they sleep for the night. Relatively safe from predators below.

One can find more than one hatchling Flap-necked Chameleon on a blade of grass!

Threats to chameleons

Chameleons have a whole host of natural predators. A variety of snakes and birds will feed on them, as well as carnivorous small mammals, and even large spiders. But those animals are not what’s caused the massive decline in chameleon numbers. Below are some of the threats facing chameleons

  • The biggest threat to all wildlife is habitat destruction. Natural areas are either shrinking, or being totally transformed for the worse. Chameleons have to adapt to living in the suburban gardens which replaced the indigenous habitat and this can be okay if the conditions are right. Unfortunately, many people use pesticides which are extremely bad for chameleons. Many people also and pave most of or in some cases their entire gardens thus destroying the chameleons’ home and habitat.
  • The global decline in insects is frightening, and this is affecting our entire world, starting with animals. Less insects, particularly grasshoppers means less chameleon food.
  • Cats. Cute as they may be, cats are unfortunately a lethal predator of chameleons, and the small wildlife.
  • I remember when growing up, at my grandparents garden in Westville, was a thriving population of chameleons. We saw them all the time. Then, the neighbour got a couple of cats, which spent most of their time in my grandparent’s wildlife-rich garden. The chameleons disappeared.
  • I wouldn’t call it a major threat to chameleons in general just yet, but some individuals see more worth in chameleons in cages than in the wild. Some species in this country are targeted, and are captured and exported overseas. The chameleon trade is relatively popular in Europe and the USA. One of the most commonly-traded species is our beautiful Midland’s Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion thamnobates), which is really sad.

Midlands Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion thamnbobates)

But it isn’t just foreign trade. All too often, people will find a chameleon, think, “Ah, it’s so cute”, and decide to keep it as a pet. I know this can be tempting, as they really are cute, but please refrain from doing this. Our chameleons don’t do well in captivity and usually just die.

One last note that I must mention regarding this topic, is that if you find a chameleon in a game reserve, or far from home, please don’t pick it up and take it home for your garden. It’s never good to move reptiles too far away from their home, as they may not adapt to their new environment, or they can potentially spread disease to other reptiles in the area.

Gardening for Chameleons

Do you want to attract chameleons to your garden? The best and easiest way is to simply plant indigenous. Indigenous plants attract hordes of insects, keeping chameleons well-fed!

Flap-necked Chameleon capturing a grasshopper

Unfortunately, this does not guarantee the attraction of chameleons. If chameleons have been wiped out from your immediate surroundings, then there isn’t much one can do. But too often people think there’s no chameleons around, but often, they are. Spotting them during the day is near impossible, but should you wander out into your garden at night with an LED torch, you’ve got a fair chance. Shining an LED torch around, look out for pale-coloured chameleons perched on the edges of shrubs and branches. If you’re lucky enough to spot one then, you’ll get your eye in, and chameleon spotting can get a whole lot easier.

Indigenous gardening is extremely rewarding, and it won’t just be chameleons that you can attract. You’ll have an abundance of wildlife in your garden, which can keep you entertained. Seeing animals enjoy plants that you’ve planted, restoring the natural environment, is a great feeling!

FYI: In my grandparent’s garden, we usually found the Flap-necked Chameleons in Plumbago hedges. They really seemed to enjoy that! Something to consider, if you’re trying to decide on which plants to select.

Author photo: Pat McKrill

About the author

Nick Evans runs KZN Amphibian & Reptile Conservation. He spends most of his time teaching people about snakes across the province, and removing unwanted snakes from homes in the Greater Durban Area. But he has always had a love for chameleons, and spends many evenings looking for them, whether it’s just for ‘fun’ or whether its to survey populations.

Website: KwaZulu-Natal Amphibian & Reptile Conservation

Facebook: @KZNHerpConservation

Instagram: @nickevanskzn

Twitter: @nickevanskzn

Youtube: Nick Evans – Snake rescuer