Around two-thirds of the world’s chameleons are native to Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world and the 12th poorest country in the world. It is situated off the southeast coast of Africa, home to nearly all the remaining species of chameleons. There are a few other species from places like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, southern Spain and India, and chameleons are also found on several of the small islands near Madagascar and Africa like the Seychelles and Comoros.
Some countries, like Kenya and South Africa have voluntarily banned exportation of their endemic species of chameleons for the commercial pet trade and others have legislation governing collection and exportation. The formal basis for the protection of chameleons is the regulation of international trade by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). CITES lists all chameleon species, with the exception of species in the genera Brookesia and Rhampholeon, on Appendix II, defined as "all species which although not necessarily now threatened with extinction may become so unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to strict regulation in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival." All of the countries that have endemic chameleon species are parties to CITES and must abide by CITES rulings.
The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has identified eight chameleon species at various levels of extinction risk on the IUCN Red List:
Bradypodion nemorale (Africa) - Near Threatened
(The only species on this list that is not currently prohibited from trade is Brookesia perarmata.) Unfortunately, this list is incomplete as there are many more chameleon species that meet the criteria for several of the extinction risk categories defined by the IUCN.
Bradypodion taeniabronchum (Africa) - Critically Endangered
Bradypodion setaroi (Africa) - Endangered
Bradypodion thamnobates (Africa) - Near Threatened
Brookesia perarmata (Madagascar) - Vulnerable
Furcifer campani (Madagascar) - Vulnerable
Furcifer labordi (Madagascar) - Vulnerable
Furcifer minor (Madagascar) - Vulnerable
Almost without exception, the natural habitats of wild chameleons are under heavy pressure from rapidly growing human populations with few resources for survival other than nature. The same trees that are home to chameleons are cut down to build housing and may be the only source of fuel for cooking and warmth in many underdeveloped countries. Forests are also cleared to provide grazing land for cattle and crops like rice, which does not provide an alternate habitat for arboreal animals like chameleons. Many agricultural crops like mango, lychee, coffee, avocado, breadfruit, and cacao do provide refuge for chameleon populations, but are not an ideal substitute for natural forest. Many species will not thrive in altered environments, particularly species that require rain forest or have other specific habitat requirements. When most of these species’ preferred habitat disappears, they may disappear with it.
Some chameleon populations will survive long into the future because the establishment of parks or reserves protects their natural habitat. Some chameleon species will survive because they adapted to degraded habitat and the presence of humans, but there is no question that some species are at high risk for extinction if conservation measures are not enacted soon to protect small, fragile populations of rare species.
Collection for the Pet Trade:
Habitat loss and fragmentation is undoubtedly the most serious conservation issue for chameleons, but the future of wild chameleons is also threatened by escalating collection for the pet trade. From 1993 to 1998, more than 250,000 chameleons were exported from Africa, Yemen and the Seychelles. During the same time period, more than 226,000 were exported from Madagascar for a grand total exceeding 476,000 chameleons (source: World Conservation Monitoring Centre). Of this astronomical figure, it is likely that less than 1% of these chameleons are still alive today. Many of the commonly exported species have a long history in herpetoculture, but have consistently failed to survive long-term or reproduce often (if at all). One of them is Chamaeleo senegalensis (Senegal chameleons), a species that rarely survives more than a few months after exportation, and does not have a history of successful breeding in captivity, yet from 1988-1994 nearly 70,000 were imported to the U.S. alone, and from 1993-1998, more than 78,000 were exported worldwide.
Other species from Africa imported in large numbers (more than 10,000 in a 5-year period) that demonstrate low survivability and have not reproduced well or consistently in captivity include Ch. gracilis (Graceful chameleon), Ch. dilepis (Flap-neck chameleon) and Ch. melleri (Meller’s chameleon). Species in this category from Madagascar include C. brevicornis (Short-horned chameleon), F. campani (Jeweled chameleon), F. lateralis (Carpet chameleon), and C. parsonii (Parson’s chameleon). Purchasing imported specimens of these species is not recommended. It is in the best interests of conservation of these species and the financial interests of the hobbyist to encourage the commercial trade to stop importation. If you have questions about the captive history of a species or need assistance with selecting a chameleon species, please contact the CiN. For more information on the history of chameleons in herpetoculture including exportation figures, order CiN No. 38. For additional information on exportation from Madagascar including CITES regulations, order CiN No. 32.
How You Can Help with Chameleon Conservation
Support conservation organizations:
You can help conserve natural habitat by supporting these organizations:
or any other organizations that are dedicated to conserving the fragile and disappearing natural environments of chameleons in places like Madagascar and Africa. Support organizations like the Chameleon information Network, Animal Ark, and Animal Welfare Institute who are actively working to raise awareness of these issues.
Do not purchase chameleons that are imported illegally, and support the efforts to control trade and stop illegal trafficking in chameleons of organizations like:
You will help conserve rare and delicate species by making conscientious choices when you acquire chameleons for your own collection and by communicating your preferences to retailers. For species recommendations please contact the CiN.
For popular species that have demonstrated adaptability to captivity through long-term survival and reproduction such as F. pardalis (Panther chameleons), well-run breeding programs can help reduce the pressures on wild populations by supplying healthy captive-born chameleons in place of wild-caught specimens to the hobbyist market. Cooperate with other breeders in managing ethical programs for species that reproduce well in captivity, and provide educational support to inexperienced buyers to increase the survival rate of captive-born chameleons. Reward the efforts of responsible breeders by purchasing their captive-bred chameleons instead of wild-caught, imported chameleons.
If you are concerned by the mistreatment or poor condition of chameleons in retail stores, boycott establishments that stock sick or injured chameleons, or maintain chameleons inappropriately and inform the owner(s) or corporate officers in writing of the reasons for your decision. Remember that rescuing an abused chameleon from a pet store by paying the selling price may result in another chameleon taking its place to face a similar fate. If we eliminate the market for diseased and injured chameleons and species that do not fare well in captivity, we will remove the financial incentive for irresponsible people to continue capturing, exporting and selling these chameleons.