Saving Themba the chameleon – a story of hope

During the first week of June 2014 a young flap-necked chameleon, barely 5cm in length, was brought to Dangerous Creatures after being found on the roadside in Umhlanga Rocks.

Dangerous Creatures herpeologist Nick Evans gingerly holds little Themba

The little one was so severely dehydrated that both his eyes were sunken, his skin was black and his movements were limited. It was thought that his condition was possibly a result of poisoning, and not roadside trauma.

He began rehydration treatment immediately, and was left in a quiet corner to rest and allow his organs to respond to the administration of fluids.

On the second day, when he was still alive, he was started on a course of antibiotics and left alone to rest for most of the day. By the fourth day, when he started moving (albeit slowly) and showed signs of fighting for survival, he was named Themba (which means “hope”) and offered crickets.

Chameleons don’t generally respond well to human care, but little Themba proved the exception and ate the two crickets offered to him twice daily.  Slowly, over the next two months, his skin colour changed, he started moving around more steadily and his right eye healed completely.

Chameleons’ conical eyes have fused eyelids, leaving just a pinhole through which to see. They revolve independently, allowing a 360o arc of vision. Once they have a target in sight both eyes swing round to focus, providing a stereoscopic depth perception for an accurate strike.

Chameleons can shoot out their tongues further than their own body length, within three-hundredths of a second.

It is hoped that Themba's left eye will fully heal, so that he can be released

Themba now spends his days in a specially designed movable exhibit outside rehab, enjoying the sun and fresh air. He is still being hand-fed in the mornings, as he is unable to focus on prey without two good eyes.

It is hoped that within the next month his left eye will fully recover, enabling his release into a protected area in KZN.

Flap-necked chameleons (Chamaeleo dilepis) are found in tropical Africa southwards to KwaZulu-Natal, and although they are not considered endangered, are a highly threatened group.

Their greatest threats are humans through habitat destruction and chemical poisoning of their natural prey, which consists mostly of grasshoppers and beetles.

Less than 2% of all flap-necked chameleons survive into adulthood – let’s do what we can to increase this number, as they play a vital role in the natural web of life:

  • Brake for chameleons crossing roads
  • Limit the use of chemical sprays in your gardens
  • Don’t pick up chameleons unless you are sure they are in trouble

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