Clinging to survival: Critically Endangered Chapman's pygmy chameleon Rhampholeon chapmanorum persists in shrinking forest patches

Chris Anderson

Dr. House of Chameleons
Staff member
Hi Everyone,

In 2014 the IUCN/SSC Chameleon Specialist Group (CSG) ran a crowdfunding campaign through Rockethub.com to perform a rapid assessment of the status of Rhampholeon chapmanorum, the most range restricted chameleon. This crowdfunding was supported in no small part by donations from members here at Chameleon Forums (https://www.chameleonforums.com/thr...g-the-most-range-restricted-chameleon.136440/) and in 2016 a teach of researchers from the CSG and Malawi surveyed the area where this species was previously found to determine if the forest is intact and whether any populations remain. As announced at the time, the team found that the species did persist in the small remnant forest patches. Now, the final results of the survey has finally been published in the journal Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation. That article can be found here open access: https://www.cambridge.org/core/jour...rest-patches/29F333043481BA6F54A7DEA029EDDD8A

To briefly summarize, the Critically Endangered Chapman’s Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon chapmanorum) occurs in just a few remaining patches of rainforest on the Malawi Hills. This tiny, terrestrial chameleon is a habitat specialist, occurring only in the understory vegetation of primary rainforest, where it forages in the leaf litter by day, and perches on low bushes at night. Unfortunately, most of the primary rainforest habitat has been, and is still being converted for subsistence and small-scale commercial agriculture through slash and burn clearing.

Recent work shows that only about 40 ha (0.4 km2) of forest remains and this is highly fragmented, with some of these small patches degraded within. The original forest extent is unknown, but it is estimated that between 80 – 96% of the forest has been lost since the 1980s, and the forest at the type locality has been completely destroyed. Despite this, populations are clinging to survival in the small, but shrinking forest patches. Initial rapid surveys in 2016 enabled through Crowd Source funding suggest that where the forest persists, the populations can still thrive, and these populations have not yet undergone genetic erosion. Thus, if the forest destruction could be halted through engagement with the local communities, this species could be rescued from the brink of extinction. There has been some progress toward this goal through initial community workshops run by the NGO Biodiversity Inventory for Conservation (https://binco.eu/), and a draft Action Plan for the species is in development.

Despite these exceptionally high levels of habitat loss the species still persists in its native range, but the future of that habitat is uncertain. Fortunately, a small population was translocated 22 years ago, from the type locality to a forest approximately 100 km to the north. Rapid surveys in 2016 shows that the population thrives, and that the gene pool from the original type locality is intact, albeit with low diversity due to the small founding population. Given that alleles from the type locality were not found at any of the remaining forest patches in the natural range, this translocated population essentially represents the type specimens in rescue. The situation for this chameleon is at a tipping point. Should the current small remaining forest patches be preserved, it is possible that the species will be able to persist in the long term. While the forest is adjacent to the Matandwe Forest Reserve (which is also a proposed Key Biodiversity Area), the bulk of the remaining rainforest habitat is not within this boundary. The measures needed to prevent extinction are clear. Firstly, the existing Forest Reserve and proposed KBA boundary must be extended to encompass all the forest patches and strong community engagement is urgently needed to avert the destruction of the remaining patches. The forest has not received full attention in terms of biodiversity surveys, and it is possible that other endemic species occur there and like the Chapman’s Pygmy Chameleon, could be clinging to survival.

Thanks to everyone who helped fund this research at the time!

Chris
 

leedragon

Chameleon Enthusiast
Is there a current plant to how to go about engaging the comunities and the authorities so the forest where they live an be added to the preserve?
 

Chris Anderson

Dr. House of Chameleons
Staff member
Is there a current plant to how to go about engaging the comunities and the authorities so the forest where they live an be added to the preserve?
There has been initial community workshops run by the NGO Biodiversity Inventory for Conservation (https://binco.eu/), and a draft Action Plan for the species is in development. We are hoping that a larger NGO with more resources may also show interest in becoming involved, as that type of involvement will be critical in the long term viability of such efforts.

Chris
 

leedragon

Chameleon Enthusiast
There has been initial community workshops run by the NGO Biodiversity Inventory for Conservation (https://binco.eu/), and a draft Action Plan for the species is in development. We are hoping that a larger NGO with more resources may also show interest in becoming involved, as that type of involvement will be critical in the long term viability of such efforts.

Chris
This is so great that there has already been such a direct and fast response to this.
 
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