A group of farmers in Kirinyaga district of Central Kenya have ventured into a rare kind of farming targeted at both local and international markets, rearing and selling chameleons. Kirinyaga eco tourism Self Help Group, with 15 members, moved into chameleon farming as a way of diversifying, but is still grappling with the challenge of accessing the international market with its high-class product.
The venture, set up three years ago, is now selling some 2000 chameleon a year to the local market. “The majority of Kenyans have expressed interest in keeping the chameleons as pets and for beauty in their houses. It hasn’t been altogether easy, as we have been forced to deal with busting the dominant myths about chameleons, including that chameleon’s saliva is very poisonous and can kill you instantly. Luckily, the majority of these clients have responded to what we have told them and are now demanding more chameleons,” said Stephen Kabuthi the secretary of the group who doubles up as the publicity person.
The international market is already buying from established chameleon firms in Madagascar and Tanzania, which have become now well established in the chameleon market. Statistics from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) place the export figures from Madagascar at 66,500 chameleons from five different species.
“But we have had a hard time trying to look for an international market for our chameleons and we have even tried a hand in online marketing, but every time we get an international buyer before we can organize ourselves, someone else manages to sell their chameleons before us,” explained Kabuthi. This has left the farmers with an oversupply of chameleons, which they are sometimes forced to release back to the forest.
Chameleon rearing requires meticulous attention and constant monitoring, which may explain why the majority of farmers shy away from the business. Most chameleons feed on insects and so require a natural environment to ensure insects are available. The group, for example, has to place rotten food inside the rearing cot to attract insects for the chameleons to feed on. Chameleons also feed on locusts and grasshoppers “meaning we have to also put anything that a locust likes feeding on, so that it will attract locusts, which will then be eaten by the chameleon,” said Kabuthi.
The farmers have also grappled with the sensitive climatic conditions for the chameleons. During cold seasons, the chameleons tend to die, with Kabuthi explaining that for every cold month since they started the rearing they lose 50 to 100 chameleons. Chameleons are also cannibals, with male chameleons feeding on the young ones, meaning the young must be separated from the adults immediately they are born. A female chameleon gives birth to 8 to 30 young at a time and can give birth three times a year.
To discourage continuous bleeding Kabuthi advises those rearing chameleons to sprinkle salty water on leaves, “when they drink salty water, it reduces their fertility rate and this is important for those who wants to use chameleons as pets in their homes,” he said.
Farmers rearing chameleons must also get authorisation from the Kenya Wildlife Services whose officials first have to survey the land where the chameleons will be reared to ensure it is conducive and it won’t open up chances of human wildlife conflict. KWS also determines the number of chameleons that can be reared based on the size of land. The Chief Licensing Officer then issues a permit to the applicant.
Officers from KWS also carry periodic visits to the farm to monitor the progress of the chameleons and to educate the farmers on how best to tend to them.
To export chameleons, farmers also have to get additional authorisation from KWS to meet CITES requirements and fulfill the exporting requirements of the country they are exporting to.
The most sought after breed of chameleon, which is also predominant in Kenya, is the Jackson's chameleon, which is a woodland/montane forest species that exists over a range of mid- to high elevations of central Kenya and isolated regions of Tanzania, often coexisting with humans on farms and suburban parks.