Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

Kinyonga, the Ground-Lion

Last week's guest blog brought back bittersweet memories. Over the years, my family has had many memorable pets, from tiny toads to timid tarantulas, from a melanic boa constrictor to a praying mantis so lovely, with its elaborate frills of pale pink and apple green, it looked like an animated orchid. But perhaps the most memorable of our pets was a pair of chameleons.


We were living at the time in Tanzania. If you went on a road trip, chances were good you would cross paths with one of these little ‘lions of the ground’. For some reason, they got it into their heads that the vast expanse of dry scrub on the opposite side of the road had more food potential than the vast expanse of dry scrub they found themselves in, and they were willing to risk their lives to get there.


They always looked so vulnerable and exposed on the tarmac. So we would stop and pick them up and carry them to the patch of vegetation they’d set their hearts on. Their bright orange gape and menacing hiss did not intimidate us; chameleons are completely harmless. But many Africans will recoil with distaste, even fear, and tell you they are highly poisonous.


I remember my father holding a chameleon and showing it to our gardener. “Look, Ezekiah, you can touch it, they don’t do anything. See?” And Ezekiah, keeping a safe distance, looked at him and smiled gently. “But, bwana, you are a white man. Me, I will die if I touch that kinyonga.”


I can’t recall how we came to have two chameleons at home; I suppose one trip we must have decided to try keeping them as pets. We built a large, chicken wire enclosure on our terrace, planted a tall bush for them to roam in, and fed them daily with choice insects. These my brother and I caught by sweeping a butterfly net low over our lawn, back and forth, just scraping the surface of the grass. (To this day, my brother maintains he did most of the work. I’m not convinced).


I never tired of watching the chameleons eat. They swayed through the twilight green of their world with roving, pinhole eyes, knowing themselves to be unseen, invisible. One would register the shape of a grasshopper. A delicate pause. Mitten feet would grip the twig and its tail twine around it, for extra purchase. Slowly it would turn its head and fix both eyes on its target. The insect had no inkling of its impending doom.


The chameleon’s spring-loaded tongue would lash out and hit it broadside. It folded and champed the grasshopper, with a rustle of gauzy wings, in its toothless mouth. Then it would continue its rocking through the foliage, one baleful eye scoping the leaves ahead, the other turning to look at me.


One day, the chameleons began to dig in the soil at the base of their enclosure. This was when we realized they were both female. After depositing their eggs, they painstakingly buried them. Weeks and months passed. I think we decided something had gone wrong, that the eggs had not been kept at the right temperature and humidity. We eventually forgot all about them.


You can guess what happened next. We suddenly found ourselves with eighty adorable, miniature copies of their mothers on our hands. The holes in the chicken wire were too large to contain them so we transferred them to glass terrariums, tastefully decorated with a layer of earth and stones, and topped with leafy twigs.


But it wasn’t easy keeping track of so many babies. One evening, while reading, I became aware of a crunching sound. Looking up, I caught sight of our cat on the back of the sofa, eating something with a preoccupied air…


Another day I tipped a net full of small insects into one of the tanks and bent down to watch. The sudden flutter and buzz roused the chameleons from their slumber and their eyes swiveled wildly to follow all the activity. Once the insects had settled down, the babies began their slow motion hunt. One little fellow, all of three centimetres long, spied a fly cleaning its wings on a pebble. It approached its prey with hesitant steps, accurately impersonating leaves shivering in a breeze. I waited with bated breath. Out shot the tongue, as long as the baby’s body.


But something went terribly wrong. Its aim was off a fraction; instead of whipping back with the fly, its tongue hit the pebble. And stuck. In horror, I watched the little chameleon writhe and twist to free it, but it was no use. I shoved the lid off the tank, picked up the baby and pebble with trembling fingers, and rushed to my father for help. Together we dribbled water on the pebble, in hopes of releasing the suction pressure. This worked, but the damage was done. The poor little chameleon could no longer retract its tongue. I blamed myself.


We decided the babies would be better off in the wild. We heard a good friend of ours was going on a road trip, so a week later, early in the morning, we carefully loaded them all into a large cardboard box filled to the brim with branches and foliage so they would be cushioned against potholes and bumps, and dropped them off at our friend’s house.


Later we received a series of photos, of our friend’s car by the side of an empty, red dirt road, the open cardboard box next to the car, a hand transferring a baby to a branch. The accompanying message told us the chameleons had travelled well and were now prowling the African bush like the little lions they were.

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