BirdLife: The Magazine June 2017 - Page 36

THE SEX ISSUE FLAMINGOS CONGREGATE AT LAKE NATRON IN A GLORIOUSLY FLAMBOYANT FLURRY OF PINK Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor. Photo Gudkov Andrey/ Shutterstock 2 THE FLAMINGO FACTORY Soda ash mining is still a lingering threat to Lake Natron in Northern Tanzania, the most important breeding site in the world for Lesser Flamingos. But a new community-based tourism initiative could save the “pink parade” from disaster Irene Lorenzo & Shaun Hurrell 36 BIRDLIFE • JUNE 2017 F rom above, Lake Natron’s waters look from a different planet. Pink and red in colour, with temperatures frequently above 40° C (sometimes even 60° C), the water in places is so alkaline that it can burn skin, making it inhospita- ble for most plants and animals. However, there’s one bird that has made this hellish place their paradise: flamingos. An impressive 1.5-2.5 mil- lion Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor (Near Threatened) depend on this single lake during the breeding season – that’s 75% of the world’s population. While many migrating flamingos do stop over at other saline lakes along the East Afri- can Rift Valley, most rely on Natron, congregating here in a gloriously flamboyant flurry of pink. The lake’s high salinity and alkalinity doesn’t faze the evolutionarily prepared flamingos, though, and higher salinity means more food: Spirulina, cyanobacteria that they filter from the mud JUNE 2017 • BIRDLIFE BIRDLIFE’S “THINK PINK” CAMPAIGN AVERTED DISASTER FROM CONSTRUCTION OF A SODA ASH PLANT IN 2006 with their specialised down-curved bills. Away from threats, it’s the flamingos’ place to party. Lake Natron is home to the world’s largest “pink parade” (see p. 23), where large groups of strut- ting birds can be seen annually in a mesmeris- ing romantic dance, heads moving side-to-side, after which they pair up and nest in the middle of the shallow lake. “It’s the greatest ornithological spectacle on Earth, which nature has given to us for free”, says Ken Mwathe, Policy & Advocacy Coordinator for BirdLife International in Africa. Given the extreme conditions of the breeding site, neither predators nor humans had dis- turbed the booming populations of flamingos. That was, until 2006, when Natron drew global attention as a result of a soda ash mining pro- posal, put forward by Tata Chemical Industries and the Government of Tanzania. Soda ash is mostly used to make glass, so building a large plant in the lake was seen as a great opportunity for investment. However, the consequences were going to be disastrous for flamingos. With the aim of stop- ping the development, BirdLife launched the “Think Pink” campaign, which forced Tata to withdraw the proposal in 2009. Sadly, the Tan- zanian government remained interested in soda ash mining, in spite of warming to conservation. The threat therefore remains in the background. So how would a soda-mining project have such a big impact? Flamingos are bound to this unique environment, so much so that even the colour of their plumage comes from the red photo- synthetic pigments found in the lake’s Spirulina. Removing brine, extracting soda ash, and pump- ing it back would change the lake’s chemical composition, affecting the availability of food for millions of flamingos and their chicks. “Soda ash factories use huge amounts of fresh water, which is so limited in the vicinity of the lake, and a lifeline for flamingos”, says Mwathe. “Young chicks move in large nurseries across the lake looking for fresh water to drink and wash salt from their feathers. Whenever they can’t find it, they die from desiccation.” Used to a preda- tor-free salty spot in the middle of a huge caustic caustic lake, breeding flamingos are extremely vulnerable to nesting disturbance too: just one incident of disturbance can cause abandonment of a season’s breeding effort. Considering they lay one egg every three years, the effect of a fac- tory and mining would be catastrophic. It is possible to watch the pink parade with- out disturbing them, however. One visitor, a Sir David Attenborough, called “Lake Natron’s vast flocks of shimmering pink flamingos… one of the world’s greatest wildlife attractions”. Yet, only a few hours from some of Tanzania’s most famous safari destinations, this hidden gem awaits, unknown to many. 37