A juvenile veiled chameleon about 7 inches long was shown on Thursday, in Hamakuapoko, Maui. Six illegal veiled chameleons were found on Maui, raising concern over a burgeoning underground pet trade for the illegal reptile, which officials say poses a threat to native birds and insects.

Illegal lizard’s capture
spawns search on Maui

6 veiled chameleons have officials
worried about a possible environmental threat

By Matt Sedensky
Associated Press

The capture of six illegal veiled chameleons in upcountry Maui this week has prompted a more intensive search for the reptile that could go on throughout the island for months.

Officials are concerned there is a burgeoning underground pet trade for the chameleons, which grow up to 2 feet long and are considered an invasive species that threatens native birds and insects.

At least 10 of the reptiles have been found on Maui this year. But the specimens located this week in the Makawao area were the first captured alive in the wild and may represent as many as three generations of the lizard, officials said.

The chameleons have no natural predators in Hawaii, officials said. They do not pose a serious direct threat to people. But officials say the reptiles eat insects and might harm endangered birds and their eggs.

"It's a real problem right now," said Lisa Yasunaga, the land vertebrate specialist for the state Department of Agriculture, which got involved in the search after two adult female chameleons -- one of them pregnant -- were found on Tuesday.

"It's scary just to know what kind of impact they're going to have on the environment," she said.

"The disturbing aspect of these captures is that we believe that this is a result of intentional releases of illegal animals into the wild with the purpose of establishing a population," said Neil Reimer, the state's Plant Quarantine Branch manager.

Dr. Fern Duvall, a wildlife biologist for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said the chameleons lay as many as 70 eggs at a time, which have a 70- to 200-day incubation period. That raises the possibility that there are an unidentified number of lizards waiting to hatch.

The chameleons captured this week include an adult male, a juvenile male, two adult females and two juvenile females.

The search for them was set off when a dead chameleon was found about three weeks ago in the compost pile of a Maui home. It was not far from a home where a pair of live veiled chameleons was found in March. A couple of weeks before that, another dead chameleon was found in a remote area of West Maui.

"There's pretty clear evidence that we have a breeding population out there," said Duvall.

Agriculture officials have not yet decided what they will do with the chameleons, but one of two solutions is likely. They may be taken to the Bishop Museum for preservation or brought to a zoo -- possibly the Honolulu Zoo -- for display. An agreement would allow the zoo to house the illegal animals for educational purposes.

Veiled chameleons are native to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The lizard's colors run the spectrum but it has distinctive stripes and a bony, shark fin-like shield on its head.

Officials are not sure how the chameleons wound up on a Pacific island far from their Near East home. But they are popular pets in the United States.

Possession of illegal animals in Hawaii is punishable by up to $200,000 in fines and three years in jail.

But the state encourages individuals with illegal pets to turn in the animals under the Department of Agriculture's amnesty program, which provides immunity from prosecution.

State Department of Agriculture

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