Thursday, 29 November 2018, 09:03

Local guardian of the Knysna Dwarf Chameleon
Aldo Kleyn has been breeding Knysna dwarf chameleons for over 15 years. Photo: Supplied

KNYSNA NEWS – The intricate life of the Knysna dwarf chameleon constitutes one of nature’s fascinating displays and equally impressive is the time and effort put into their preservation and wellbeing by a dedicated, self-appointed Knysna “chamelianist”.

For the past 15 years, local resident Aldo Kleyn has spent thousands of hours protecting, nurturing, caring and rehabilitating what has become an endangered species in Knysna.

Kleyn, who moved to Knysna from New York in the months that followed the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, recalls a particular day when he was sitting at a restaurant in Memorial Square back in 2003, some days after his arrival in town.

“I had seen a little chameleon crossing the road, probably to get to the tree on the other side. I watched him carefully and admired the little creature, but then a car drive over him. I ran over and picked him up, just a mangle of meat. He turned black, the mouth foamed and the chameleon died. That moment just sparked something inside of me, I knew right then that something must be done to protect these creatures.”

The beginning of a legacy
Kleyn says he felt sorry for the chameleon that just died, and wanted to gain more information on specifically the Knysna dwarf chameleon. But details on their lives were limited, so Kleyn went out searching for his own chameleons.

He found a month-old baby female chameleon, and a few weeks later found a little male.

“So now I had this cute little couple who lived in my garden between a lemon and ficus tree. I gained some information on how to look after them and about a year later the female gave birth to eight babies,” says Kleyn. But what he saw next would change his entire perspective on looking after chameleons.

The Knysna Dwarf Chameleon. Photo: FB/Knysna Dwarf Chameleon

“This coucal bird landed in my garden and ate all the babies,” says Kleyn. “This freaked me out, so I decided to build a netting enclosure that would better protect the babies. A year later, the female gave birth again, this time to 13 babies.”

And so the family grows
As the babies grew and bred with each other, so did the size of the enclosure where they were kept. By this time Kleyn had gained invaluable knowledge regarding the safety of the Knysna dwarf chameleon, their habits and habitat, needs and diet requirements.

“I realised that they have lots of natural predators, particularly many species of birds. But the biggest predator is humans. We’ve built up this area and the natural habitat of these creatures is shrinking, forcing them into open spaces where they become easy prey.”

The chameleons are fed with grasshoppers that are supplied to Kleyn from a farm in Karatara, meal worms, crickets and flies that are attracted to the sanctuary by a stink bowl – a concoction of fish and fruit hung near the chameleons. Kleyn says it started as an interesting hobby to learn about the Knysna dwarf chameleon but has now evolved into a passion to protect them, become their guardians and ensure their survival.

Most released back into wild
“I’m an animal lover. I love all of God’s creations. During the first three years of starting this sanctuary, I’ve released more than 200 babies into the wild. Of all the chameleons I’ve bred, about 95% is released in the Knysna forest,” Kleyn says.

He also clarifies the colour-changing abilities of chameleons and states that they don’t change colour to camouflage themselves but rather to communicate.

“They express themselves through colour. When they are in a good mood they turn bright turquoise, orange, white, blue and all sorts of colours. When depressed or in trauma they turn dark colours, mostly black. They also have incredible eyesight, and notice each other from long distances. They communicate with each other through colours.”

Kleyn, who is a fire victim of the June 2017 inferno, lost his home in Paradise along with 80 chameleons who didn’t survive. In the weeks that followed, hundreds of people around Knysna found injured chameleons, some blinded due to burns, others without a tail or front legs.

Little baby chameleons born at Kleyn’s rehabilitation sanctuary. Photo: Supplied 

“I took these chameleon fire victims in, built a new sanctuary, and helped them rehabilitate. Many of them survived, and others healed with remedies especially prepared by Dr Anuska Viljoen of Sedgefield. Some chameleons got really healthy and fat, and the females were reproducing. It was an incredible recovery.”

Raising public awareness
Kleyn says he started the Facebook page Knysna Dwarf Chameleons to raise awareness on the plight of the creature, and to share advice and information on how to care for them.

“The response from the community has been absolutely incredible. People love these chameleons and continue to shower praise and appreciation on the sanctuary for highlighting the importance of their survival,” says Kleyn, who adds that the public interest has led to the decision of opening a rehabilitation sanctuary where the public would be welcome to visit, as well as school education tour groups.

“We have purchased a property at Eastford, where currently all the alien plants are being removed. We plan to turn this into a chameleon sanctuary where the public will be welcome. It will be run by trained experts and volunteers, all of whom share the same passion as myself when it comes to the Knysna dwarf chameleon. This is work in progress but hopefully it will be up and open really soon,” says Kleyn.

Aldo Kleyn has been breeding Knysna Dwarf Chameleons for over 15 years. Photo: Supplied

He concludes by saying that members of the community are welcome to bring any Knysna dwarf chameleon to his sanctuary, or he can pick them up anywhere in Knysna. He is also available should people need advice on caring for these creatures. Klein says many people do not know that common pesticides used in gardens poison the food that chameleons eat, which in turn kills the chameleons.

“I’m trying in my small little way to save the species, and for this reason I have taken it upon myself to dedicate all my free time to their well-being.”

Find out more
Contact Kleyn on 073 299 0598, or Knysna Dwarf Chameleons on Facebook