DIANA REGION, Madagascar — With the sun still low in the sky, my taxi boat pulled up to a floating wooden pontoon in the bustling port of Ankify in northwestern Madagascar. As one of the few foreigners or vazaha, in the port that morning, I was instantly surrounded by local taxi drivers eager to take me and my camera gear to the neighboring town of Ambanja.
Situated on the banks of the Sambirano River, the town is best known historically for its cocoa plantations, which supply international chocolate markets. However, in recent decades a new trade has sprung up: collecting stunning lizards with iridescent blue and green hues from the local forests. These are a much sought-after color morph of one of the most popular chameleons in the exotic pet trade, the panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis).
As my fellow photographer and translator, Michel Strogoff, and I wove through the throngs of people to the taxi, a stocky middle-aged Malagasy man blocked my path. “Caméléon! Caméléon!” he shouted in French, angrily pointing at my large, hard-bodied camera case. A heated debate in Malagasy with Strogoff made it clear that he had mistaken me for an illegal reptile dealer. Whether he was looking to settle an old score with my doppelganger or protect the local herpetofauna from a grim fate, we couldn’t decipher. But once we convinced him I was not the dealer he had in mind, he calmed down and let us on our way. That was in 2016. As an environmental filmmaker and photographer, this accusation piqued my interest, and I determined to learn more about the repercussions of the trade-in Madagascar’s chameleons.
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