On Wednesday 13th February 2013, a British tourist, Nick Armour, recovered a dead flamingo bearing a metal ring near Lake Bogoria (Kenya). This lesser flamingo (Hoenicopterus minor) was described as looking very old and the ring number confirmed an age of 50 years! This flamingo was a messenger from the past, the product of a life cruising between saline lakes in search of spirulina algae. We need to learn from the past and heed this amazing story of a miraculous life in the changing Great Rift Valley of East Africa…
Astonishingly, this old pink flamingo had, as a chick, been rescued from certain death in Lake Magadi in 1962. Alan Root, a wildlife filmmaker who led the 1962 rescue and ringing effort along with the late Leslie Brown said in an email that: “Another old friend passed away. It gives me a good feeling to know that this latest find probably means there are still hundreds of ‘our’ birds of that age, paddling around in our lakes.”
This 50-year-old flamingo is probably not alone with other flamingo species surviving well over 50 or even 60 in captivity. The oldest known greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) is in the Adelaide Zoo (Australia) and is thought to be at least 80 years old. This flamingo’s actual age is unclear, as he was already an adult when he arrived in Adelaide in 1933. He is still alive but, shockingly, was attacked by four teenagers almost exactly five years ago. It is surprising that a bird that weighs less than five pounds lives for more than 50 years in the wild. How long can lesser flamingos live in the wild? I wager that we are in for a surprise.
Colin Jackson (Ringing Scheme of East Africa) confirmed that the ring recovered in February was one in a batch of 8,000 obtained from British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). Since 1962 only ten of the 8,000 rings attached to flamingo chicks have been recovered.
Alan Root adds: “The most amazing record is of a lesser [flamingo] that ended up on a tiny lake in West Africa. Thousands of miles away with no possibilities of feeding anywhere west of the Queen Elizabeth Park in Uganda.” This lesser flamingo was 6,197km away from Lake Magadi where life began.
Lesser flamingos are considered Near Threatened and the last 50 years have not been good for the species. The message from this flamingo is clear. People were already concerned with the wellbeing of the flamingos in the early 1960s, so much so that they rescued hundreds of thousands of chicks from certain death, and that we need to do more the species.
Years later Brown and Root published a peer-reviewed manuscript in Ibis. Here they estimate that more than 850,000 chicks were hatched in Lake Magadi in 1962. That year heavy rains had flooded the birds’ traditional nesting ground on Lake Natron while fuelling algal growth. There was a lot of food around and nowhere to nest, so they started descending en masse on Lake Magadi. It was a tragic year of “life” taking risks for huge benefits and the last time flamingos used Lake Magadi for nesting.The soda “anklets” that precipitated on the legs of thousands of lesser flamingo chicks on Lake Magadi in 1962, restricting their movements and making life impossible. (Alan Root)
The soda flats on Lake Magadi were exposed at the right time that year and the nest mounds were built in huge numbers. After hatching, more heavy rains flooded the nesting grounds with super-alkaline water that got so bad that salt bangles or “anklets” precipitated on the legs of thousands of flamingo chicks. The flamingos had been tricked into choosing Lake Magadi and had decided to tolerate the soda factory nearby that was reducing freshwater inflow.
As conditions in the center of the lake got worse, the mass of flamingo chicks started moving to less saline inlets near the soda factory. On the lakeshore chick mortality was extremely high due to predation by hyena, vulture, and jackal. This was made worse by the hard soda “anklets” restricting their movements and making life near impossible. These anklets grow to several inches in diameter and drowned the chicks that could not move to the edges.
In that fateful 1962 breeding season the adult flamingos would typically fly to Lake Natron to feed each day on what were usually their nesting grounds, only coming back to feed the chicks at dusk. This left hundreds of thousands of chicks fighting for their lives in manacles. A rescue mission became a necessity when thousands started dying.
Over 27,000 flamingo chicks were rescued in an amazing story of community conservation. The Magadi Soda Company started pumping fresher water into part of the lake to create a safe haven of suitably alkaline water for the flamingos. The late Leslie Brown, Alan Root, British Army personnel, members of the East Africa Natural History Society, and even Evelyn Baring, the previous Governor of Kenya (1952-59) worked on the rescue effort at Lake Magadi. A teacher’s strike at the time meant that Magadi schoolchildren were available to help rescue the stranded flamingo chicks.
Alan Root sets the scene: “The kids easily caught the shackled chicks and brought them to about ten ‘hammerers’ who kept a rough tally of birds freed … a week of long hot days at about 400 chicks per person per day.”
Another 200,000 were saved by driving them each day away from the super-alkaline water and keeping them near the soda factory. As long-lived birds,the flamingos remembered this event and never went back to Magadi to nest. Pollution and environmental damage from the soda factory has ruined the lake.
Mr. Paul Matiku, the Executive Director of Nature Kenya, points out that: “Soda ash mining has been going on at Lake Magadi for over 100 years and flamingos have not attempted to breed there over the last 50 years.”
The flamingo that died in February was among the last to hatch at Lake Magadi. That fateful summer in 1962 was the last time the flamingos used the lake. Changes in salinity and water level, accumulation of pesticides, more and more wastewater, and mechanical disturbance to the lake surface have made the site unsuitable for flamingos. Soda mining also does not allow a hard crust to form in the nesting grounds, causing the lesser flamingo chicks to become stuck in the hard soda. Flamingos need a regular receding flood to construct nesting mounds, and mining disturbs this natural cycle.
Mr. Matiku also points out that: “Soda ash mining at Lake Magadi has left local communities disillusioned with little to show for the 100 years of mining. The environment has been damaged and fresh water nearly depleted.”
Up to 2.5 million lesser flamingos, representing more than three-quarters of the global population, frequent highly alkaline lakes in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Lake Nakuru and Lake Bogoria are considered the most important feeding sites. Both lakes are now considered harmful to lesser flamingos due to heavy metal poisoning, the accumulation of pesticides (e.g. DDT), and significant declines in algal growth.
Lake Natron (Tanzania) is the primary breeding site for all East African lesser flamingos. Most of their eggs are now in one basket… Proposals for a multi-purpose dam on the Ewaso Ngiro River, which represents 45% of the lake’s catchment area, and a soda ash extraction factory threaten this important breeding ground. The Tanzanians need to learn from what happened to the Kenyans at nearby Lake Magadi. The discovery of this leg ring is a message from the past, a warning we must listen to now. Flamingos have captured the imaginations of people around the world. They are symbols of grace and beauty. The message from this 50-year-old flamingo is that we risk losing these wonderful pink flamingos within the next 50 years if we do not accommodate them. A simple dam and another soda extraction factory could very well be the end of the species.
Special thanks to Pat Morant, Colin Jackson, Alan Root and Kenya Birds for your dedication to this conservation story.
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