Conservation status of endemic Mulanje mountain chameleons in Malawi

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R. platyceps (Mulanje pygmy chameleon) ©TBAMA 2013

The Mulanje Mountain Chameleon, Nadzikambia mlanjensis  and the Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon, Rampholeon platyceps  are dwarf chameleons endemic to Mount Mulanje in south eastern Malawi. The plateau area of the massif is characterised by isolated montane forests in a grassland matrix. A majority of these forest patches are rich in biodiversity and provide habitat for these two endemic dwarf chameleons. The chameleons have also been recorded at lower altitudes of the mountain and along the mountain slopes. Currently, very little information exists on population size, distribution and habitat preference of both species on the mountain. In addition, local attitudes towards the chameleon are rooted in mythical description that clouds the harmless nature of these small animals. Oral tradition recalls a story that puts the chameleon in bad light, and so the chameleons have remained in negative light in Malawian cultural beliefs.

The aim of the study was to collect primary data on the habitat ecology and conservation status of the N. mlanjensis  and R. platyceps; and specifically, to identify habitat preference; map distribution of chameleons to delineate area of occupancy estimate. The project also aimed to interact with local residents to document the (negative) mythology associated with chameleons on the mountain and gather their knowledge of the dwarf chameleons. The data from this project will be used to inform a reliable IUCN assessment for evaluation of these species as a Red list candidates.

Presently, a total of 13 sites have been visited and searched for chameleons, 7 sites on the plateau and 6 sites on the lower slopes.  N. mlanjensis  was not found at any of the sites visited during this study. However, 45 individuals of the Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon, R. platyceps  were found. All individuals were found perched on vegetation near running streams. Questionnaire responses showed that a lot of people were not aware of the existence of any dwarf chameleon. Most people knew the big horned chameleons better. People who knew about the dwarf and pygmy chameleons were mainly porters and guides based at the Likhubula valley. These results indicate that N. mlanjesis may be critically endangered. The team is currently finalising the study by searching two other possible sites for N. mlanjensis.

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The dwarf chameleons bleach to a white colour during the night thus are easy to find ©TBAMA 2013

These are preliminary results of the research project being undertaken by the Malawi TBA Alumni Group (TBAMA) under the TBA Small Grant Scheme for alumni groups. The project is examining the status and threats to a chameleon found in the Ruo Gorge forest on Mount Mulanje in Malawi. Results show that the Mountain Dwarf Chameleon, N. mlanjensis is found in areas in forest patches on the plateau and on the lower slopes. Further surveys are required to ascertain their full distribution and whether seasonality is a factor. But there appears to be little movement of the chameleons in the habitats where they were found. Results indicate that the species’ dietary preference is not specific to a particular plant type which may be an advantage for the species adapting to any future environmental change. However, deforestation could pose a major threat as the Chameleon’s habitat is forest patches and they require large trees for perching.

Tiwonge G. (05/1, Kibale),
Coordinator, Malawi TBA Alumni Group (TBAMA)

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