Everybody loves chameleons. I’m not sure what exactly attracts people to these little reptiles. Perhaps it’s their resemblance to dragons or precious relics of the dinosaurs that fascinate every child. 

Chameleon illustration: Margo Crossman

Chameleons are slow-moving so that we can get close to them. They are predators, and we can watch them hunt. Add to these their bright colours, which change in response to their mood or the temperature (no, not to match their background), and you have a winning formula.

Older people who had the privilege of growing up in the Western Cape had Cape Dwarf Chameleons right there in their gardens. They fondly remember going round with a chameleon on a finger, hunting for flies it would catch. Nowadays, it’s a rare privilege to see even one chameleon in our gardens. The truth is that they increasingly fall prey to habitat transformation, pesticides and domestic cats. 

There are still pockets of undeveloped stands in the Hermanus suburbs, where chameleons make a last stand. But these, too, will eventually be cleared for construction. Fortunately for chameleons, during 2020 the construction of new houses was delayed by the pandemic, giving Whale Coast Conservation a chance to prepare for chameleon rescues before development picks up again.

The Hawston Cadets with WCC’s Sheraine van Wyk (left), Cadets leader Noël Dreyer (third from left) and Shirley Mgoboza (second from right). PHOTO: Denfred Bruintjies

Our immediate target is to establish a chameleon sanctuary on the Whale Coast Nature Reserve between Vermont and Hawston. The sanctuary area was historically infested with thick stands of alien vegetation. The large trees were felled, chipped and the stumps poisoned – a hugely labour- and capital-intensive exercise. But all this effort would be in vain if new growth is not constantly removed.

The challenge is to uproot every new alien plant that grows back in the sanctuary  to allow the natural fynbos to re-establish. It is important that this follow-up is done in the first year after the initial clearing, because it is still possible for volunteers of all ages to do this with simple hand tools. The restoration is helped along by also planting some fynbos shrubs. 

A group of Homeschool Chameleon Monitors at work. PHOTO: Tertia Hendricks

Whale Coast Conservation’s chameleon rescue project relies on the enthusiastic involvement of dedicated teams of chameleon volunteers. Two such teams are the Hawston Cadets and The Homeschool Chameleon Monitors. 

During the winter months of 2020, the Hawston Cadets volunteered for two hours a week to clear invasive vegetation in the chameleon sanctuary. They were enthusiastic and hard-working, making a big impact. Through education and training on-the-job provided by WCC staff, they understood the importance of their work for conservation. Their credo was “Shut up and do it”.

Now that the Cadets have returned to school, the work is being continued by the Homeschool Chameleon Monitors, led by Tertia Hendricks. The homeschool group has been involved with the chameleon project for some time.

The collective efforts of the Homeschool Chameleon Monitors have removed so many Port Jacksons that they were dubbed “Poor Jacksons”. PHOTO: Tertia Hendricks

In 2019, Tertia received a small grant from WCC, funded by the Table Mountain Fund (TMF). The aim of the project was to find out how many chameleons still remain in the Hermanus urban areas that might require our help in future. 

“It was such a privilege to be part of the project, learning about chameleons and conservation issues right here on our doorstep, and being encouraged that even in small ways we can make a huge positive difference to our environment!” says Tertia.

“This past year has been challenging, but now further work can continue on the chameleon sanctuary, battling the invaders.”

From little saplings to bigger ones – small children, teenagers and adults are removing the alien Port Jacksons at the chameleon sanctuary. The alien plants’ root systems are just plain scary. So never again underestimate the harmless looking little Port Jackson. Below the surface is a system of strong invasive roots!

The collective efforts of the Homeschool Chameleon Monitors have removed so many Port Jacksons that they were dubbed “Poor Jacksons”.

It is clear that the knock-on conservation benefits of the project funded by the TMF small grant is continuing beyond the lifespan of the small grant. It has tremendous ongoing benefits for conservation, education and sustainability.

Presently the sanctuary is 7 hectares (70,000 m2). So far 1 900 m2  have been cleared of regrowth. Clearly a lot of effort is still required. The target is to double the size of the sanctuary in future, with the help of many more volunteers.

The work will not let up. Port Jackson seeds can remain dormant in the soil for decades, and constant follow-up action is required. Many more keen bright eyes and eager busy hands are needed for an hour or two per week to assist in this outdoor conservation activity – suitable for volunteers of all ages, at a safe social distance.

So take your family down to the Green House on Wednesdays at 10:00 and enjoy an interactive chameleon storytime, followed by an hour of outdoor teamwork as we prepare a safe home for our chameleon friends. If you are not able to join on Wednesdays, you are also welcome at any other time in the week that is convenient for you. 

Please contact Shirley Mgoboza of WCC if you would like to volunteer on 078 515 1078 / 028 316 2527 or shirleym.wcc@gmail.com.

Please note that masks were worn and only removed for the photos.

About the Author

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Whale Coast Conservation passionately lives by its slogan “Caring for your environment”.

Its small staff and volunteers are dedicated to

  • raising community and visitor awareness of the unique, biodiverse natural resources of the Cape Whale Coast region and
  • to projects that convert awareness into practical actions that lead towards living sustainably.

WCC ensures expert representation in public participation processes that contribute to environmental and developmental policies and legislation.  We monitor regional development; and ensure compliance with legislation and guidelines.

WCC increases general public awareness of sustainability through environmental education, citizen-science research projects, community projects and campaigns.

WCC communicates with its audience through exhibitions, signage, technology demonstrations, workshops, talks, film shows, newsletters and articles.

WCC places emphasis on educating future generations through its Youth Environment Programme (YEP).  YEP is offered to 24 schools in its target area with a total of over 10,000 learners.

WCC facilitates schools’ participation in special events such as Earth Day, Walking for Water, Arbor Day and Coastal Clean-ups.

WCC facilitates educator development programmes to improve the capacity of educators to offer informed environmental content in their lessons across all learning streams.

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