Sunday, July 09, 2006

Rescuing Chameleons in Morocco


The View from Fez recently went on a chameleon rescue expedition into the spice souks and returned with two rather unhappy and unhealthy looking chameleons (Ghengis & Boadicea). We released them into the two large trees in our central coutyard where we are happy to say they appear to be thriving on a diet of flies and wasps.

One of our rescued Chameleons (Boadicea) hunting flies


To most westerners,chameleons are cute little reptiles. To many Moroccans the chameleon is a source of considerable magical power. Go to almost any spice stall or traditional herbalist and you will find live chameleons for sale or dried chameleon skin.

There is also a widely held belief that the bite of the chameleon is fatal and so the first response of many Moroccans is to kill the reptile. They are, in fact, completely harmless.

According to chameleon expert Andy Highfield, Moroccan women who suspect that their husbands are having extra-marital affairs "often resort to the use of concealed chameleon meat or bones in their husband's food in the belief that this will restore his fidelity!"

In Tunisia, it is traditional practice to slaughter a chameleon and bury it in the foundations of new buildings as a protection against the 'evil eye', or bad luck. We have not come across this practice in Morocco, but we did find a small skull buried in the rubble under the floor in our riad.

"Boadicea" puffing up


There are many reports in Morocco of live chameleons being thrown into fire as part or ritual magic and also the drying of the skin in order to burn for the supposed beneficial properties of the smoke. Hence there is a flourishing trade in chameleons that sell from between 15 and 25 dirhams each.

The sad fact is that many chameleons captured for live sale do not survive long as the stall-holders have little understanding of their insectivorous diet and often feed them nothing but mint leaves.

Writing in 1809, in An account of the Empire of Morocco,James G. Jackson commented: "Various medicinal effects are attributed to the flesh of the camelion; and many whimsical effects are attributed to fumigation with it when dried; debilitated persons have recourse to it, and it is accordingly sold in all the drug shops at Marocco, Fas and other places…"

Little has changed in almost 200 years, as a visit to Fes today will readily confirm. A substantial number of chameleons are collected every year to supply the folklore and traditional medicine markets in Morocco; a brief survey of just one medium-sized souk revealed a total of 23 animals being offered for sale at two separate stalls.



"Excuse me, whose house is this anyway?"

The chameleon is also believed, in some places, to be a strong foe of snakes, which it attacks and kills in the following manner; the chameleon proceeds along the bough of a tree, beneath which the serpent sleeps. Placing itself immediately above the snake's head, the chameleon discharges a glutinous thread of saliva, which, upon contact with the snake soon kills it.

Andy C. Highfield and Jane R. Bayley also report Chameleons in Argan trees.

In the future The View from Fez will continue to rescue chameleons and release them into the wild. If you would like to help with the chamelon rescue - a contribution of a few dirhams will go a long way!


"Boadicea" yawning!


Our thanks to the writings of Andy C. Highfield. Andy is the director of British Tortoise Trust and is the author of the Practical Encyclopedia of Keeping & Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles (Carapace Press). He has almost a decade of field experience in Morocco.

Photographs: Sandy McCutcheon

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6 comments:

Omar Barsawad said...

I have really enjoyed reading this! It is educative too, about Moroccan culture and superstitions!

At the same time, I am saddened at the way Moroccans view and treat chameloeons.

Chameleons are very rare here, and they don't have any particular meaning for Hadhramis, except - most here too, think that chameleons are poisonous!

Oscar Rielly said...

I feel I have a home there too.

Foulla said...

u re amazing!!!

Cat in Rabat said...

I am always saddened when I see these little fellows as well as turtles for sale in the medina. I want to buy and release them all - any suggestions for an apartment-dwelling Cat?

Yo La La said...

Wow, I had no idea about the ritualistic uses and bizarre beliefs relating to chameleons.
I found your post searching for information on chameleons the reason being, last week I was in Rabat with some friends, while walking in the medina I found a man selling turtles and in a small basket about 5 little chameleons. It was horrible to see them all crammed in there and we couldn't bear to give back the one the man was trying to sell us (he did tell us to feed it mint) 2 days later we found the perfect place to release him, in the beautiful grounds of Chellah.
He looked very happy as he crawled up through the vines and I only wish we could have saved them all.
We ended up buying him for about 150 dirham which was much less than the first price we were given.
We did meet a woman who was terrified of him and wouldn't be in the same room as him.
Anyway, I think next time I go back I will do the same again and release it in Chellah.
It's nice to hear there are others who do this.

Wally said...

When we were in Marrakech, we stumbled upon what we called the witch market in the souks. We saw dried chameleons sold there and were told they were used to cure eye ailments (because of their large eyes).