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Mary Ellen Harte Headshot

Micro Chameleons Are Cute -- and Threatened: Want to Help Them?

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Have you seen those newly described micro Brookesia chameleons from Madagascar? They are so CUUUUTE! As a biologist I felt almost guilty, succumbing to such a gushy emotion when I saw that dainty little one perched atop a matchstick -- such a Steven Colbert moment. Memories came flooding back of Madagascar in 2006, standing in a magic forest, holding the inch-long critter in my hand. Madagascar is chameleon heaven on earth, home to most extant species, but even there they aren't common. Occasionally you find them crossing roads, inching slowly along telephone lines, and camouflaging themselves in the ever dwindling scraps of forests left.

Dry forests, which covered much of Madagascar, have practically disappeared -- I'll never forget the giant panorama of rust red earth spreading to the horizons that greeted us as our car rounded a hilltop, headed west. Nor the burning to clear ever more land -- they were trying to raise cattle for export. Burning eats away about 5 percent of all remaining forests, annually. There are about 27 known species of Brookesia chameleons, mostly in the north, with the tiniest ones living in leaf litter in forests or between chunks of limestone. Many are known only from the location where they were first discovered. One can only wonder how many more unknown species of little chameleons were wiped out when the island's dry forests were burned for cropland or range over the past century or so.

Just how small are some of these remaining habitats we're talking about here? First, many small reserves are no bigger than a few hundred acres, and even that is misleading. In Amber Mountain reserve, at 45,000 acres one of Madagascar's larger reserves, the young guide who led us through the forest was electric and voluble, moving with confidence and alacrity as he ticked off our biological targets like a time-starved mother zooming through her shopping list at the grocers. We flew down the trail after him, as he headed off in search of the tiny chameleons, passing what seemed to be pretty much the same habitat of forest and leaf littered understory for a mile or so. Suddenly he halted, bent over, and started looking. We mimicked. It was the ONE spot he knew that hosted the little critters. We found no more than six there that day. Closet-sized habitats, becoming ever scarcer.

Yes, many chameleons, including our newly found little ones, are now threatened, and the reasons are iconic to what is happening throughout the planet -- humans are exploding to unsustainable levels, destroying the habitat and lives of other creatures, including cute chameleons, as they try to grab ever dwindling resources for themselves. The map of Madagascar says it all, as the unique wildlife and forests have evaporated from encroaching humanity over the past few decades.

Oooh, another one of life's inconvenient truths. So inconvenient, in fact, that most articles about fascinating wildlife don't delve into it -- who wants to depress readers with what seems like a hopeless mess? But, wait a minute. What better time to let readers know that they can make a difference? I get frustrated watching nature shows or reading about fascinating habitats that I know are becoming increasingly threatened, with no mention about how threatened they are, and much less (and more importantly) how we can help personally. It's a perfect marketing opportunity for conservation, passed up every time, because we CAN help. In the case of Madagascar, even conservation organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) recognize that Madagascar's impoverished population needs to be helped if the remaining wild habitat is to be preserved, not exploited by the impoverished.

How? You could, of course, get involved with WCS or other conservation organizations. But it's been shown that one of the most effective ways to improve general health in developing nations is to aid women who want to plan their own families. Worldwide, there are over 200 million women who want but do not have access to contraceptives. And indeed, one of Madagascar's rare and little known success stories is that as the UN Population Fund's (UNFPA) Global Programme to Enhance Reproductive Health has improved access to contraceptives, the number of poor women there using them has almost tripled, from 11 percent in 2004 to 29 percent in 2009.

So, go ahead: get involved now with the UNFPA, and earmark it for Madagascar. I did. Help some poor families -- and some cute little chameleons -- improve their future.