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The Slow Messenger – Chameleons in Welgevonden Game Reserve

When you set off from Nungubane on a game drive through Welgevonden Game Reserve in summer, eyes on the surrounding bush in search of animals, make sure you also watch out for small life on the road ahead. Because it is chameleon season.
Part of a chameleon’s defensive strategy when threatened is to stay motionless. This tactic, combined with its mimicry, is very effective against its natural predators. But it is not so effective against an oncoming vehicle. Looking across the plain hoping to spot a cheetah, it is easy to miss a small, well-camouflaged chameleon standing perfectly still on the road in front of you.

Chameleons in African Culture

The chameleon’s slow rate of progress not only puts it at risk of being squashed by a manmade machine. It has also earned it the mistrust, and often the enmity, of many Africans for centuries. The reason lies in myth.

The Bantu People
The Bantu peoples, who make up some 30% of Africans, including most Southern Africans, blame the chameleon for a most unfortunate situation. In a seminal Bantu myth about the origin of human death, the chameleon plays a central role.

According to the myth, God sent the chameleon to announce to men that they would never die. The chameleon went on his mission, but he walked slowly and stopped along the way to eat. Soon after the chameleon had left, a lizard went to announce to men that they would die. Being much quicker, the lizard arrived first, thus establishing the mortal nature of man. Because of this myth, both chameleons and lizards are often considered bad omens in Bantu cultures.

This may seem harsh if you are a chameleon, but it is important to remember that in Bantu mythology, mortality is not a universal aspect of life. In Bantu mythology animals are eternal, and only man is mortal. Viewed in that light, an aversion to chameleons is perhaps more understandable.

The Maasai in Kenya
The Maasai in Kenya are not a Bantu people. They are a Nilotic people, from the north. They also do not like chameleons but for a different reason. In their mythic tradition, the slow chameleon is responsible not for death, but for the colour of their skin. When Anne Rasa was studying dwarf mongooses in the Taru Desert in Kenya in the 1980s, she recounted the following wonderful story told by her Maasai camp staff:

“It took me a while to work out why the boys were so scared of the chameleon as they didn’t want to talk about it and always changed the subject when I asked. Finally, it turned out that their fear was based on an old hate which, in turn, was based on an old fairy story ….

The story went that when God was making the world, he sent various animals to tell the people, who were all black-skinned at that time, to come and bathe in a special pool which would make their skins fair. To Africa he sent the chameleon which was so slow in getting there that by the time the people living in Africa heard the news and hurried to the pool, the water was all gone and all that was left was a tiny dribble in which they could wet the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet. As a result, all Africans now have fair skin only in these places. Because the chameleon was tardy, the Africans were furious and since this time, enmity has existed between the chameleon and themselves.”

Chameleons in Welgevonden Game Reserve

In Welgevonden, the most common chameleon is the flapnecked chameleon, which is also the largest. It can grow to 35cm. The chameleons in both photographs are flapnecked. Like all chameleons, they are territorial, and a male will sometimes battle with an intruder, hissing fiercely.

The individual in the second photograph established its territory in the wild seringa trees beside Nungubane’s pool. You can see how superb is its mimicry, the green of its body matching the green of the seringa leaves, and the lateral yellow markings echoing the leaf veins and stalks.

WORDS AND IMAGES: IAN FINLAY @ianfinlayphotography

1. Personal observation, Nungubane Private Game Lodge, Welgevonden Game Reserve.
2. Werner, Alice, (1933), Myths and Legends of the Bantu.
3. Rasa, Anne, (1985), Mongoose Watch.

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