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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, December 7, 2002

Banned lizard taking hold on Maui

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

State wildlife officials fear the veiled chameleon is established on Maui, after six of the lizards were found around Makawao in what is believed to be an intentional effort to breed and export the popular pets.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Coordinated searches by wildlife officials have turned up six more veiled chameleons on Maui, confirming fears that the alien species is established here.

The state Department of Agriculture is investigating specific individuals suspected of releasing the illegal chameleons into the wild.

Neil Reimer, the department's Plant Quarantine Branch manager, said yesterday the animals likely were released intentionally to establish a breeding colony for the pet trade.

"Veiled chameleons have never been allowed in Hawai'i, not even for a municipal zoo,'' Reimer said.

State law prohibits importing chameleons, lizards or snakes or transporting them within the state. Anyone possessing illegal animals such as reptiles and snakes is subject to penalties of as much as $200,000 and three years in jail.

The captured lizards — one large adult male; two females, including a pregnant one; and three juveniles — were found around the same Makawao neighborhood where the carcass of an adult male was discovered two weeks ago.

The six new captures bring to 10 the number of chameleons found on Maui this year. All were discovered in Makawao except one, found in March in an agricultural field above Ka'anapali.

Native to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the chameleons have no natural predators in Hawai'i. Biologists say their large size and ability to adapt to various elevations and temperatures could help them proliferate and prey on native birds and insects.

"The damage to the environment and to native species can be devastating,'' said Mele Fong, spokesperson for the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

Lisa Yasunaga, state Department of Agriculture land invertebrate specialist, said the sizes and ages of the captured chameleons lead officials to believe they were released a year or two ago.

Investigators believe the veiled species were imported for breeding by the same group involved in illegally exporting Jackson's chameleons, Yasunaga said. She said the veiled chameleons were released into the wild for much the same reasons — to proliferate and be collected easily for export.

Yasunaga would not name the suspects. She said investigators have no hard evidence but are working on leads.

The veiled chameleons have a 3-inch shield that resembles a shark fin. Their color can vary from white to black, gray, brown, green, blue, orange, red and yellow, usually with stripes. They can grow to 2 feet — about twice as long as the Jackson's chameleon.

"They're hot items in the pet trade,'' said state wildlife biologist Fern Duvall, noting that the animals pose a danger to native birds. He said officials are distributing a photo of a veiled chameleon with a bird in its mouth.

"Birds are a regular part of their diet. If they get into the forests, they could do some real damage,'' he said.

Searches were conducted Tuesday and Wednesday by members of the Maui Invasive Species Committee, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the Department of Agriculture. For weeks, officials have been canvassing Maui neighborhoods, telling residents to be on the lookout for veiled chameleons and other alien species.

Additional surveys are being planned in hopes of establishing a boundary around the Makawao population, officials said.

Illegal pets can be turned in under the state Department of Agriculture's amnesty program, which provides immunity from prosecution.

Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880, or e-mail thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com.