11 Jul 2017

The deadly lake that gives life to flamingos

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 spectacle of the “pink parade” from disaster

 Lesser Flamingo © Gudkov Andrey/ Shutterstock
Lesser Flamingo © Gudkov Andrey/ Shutterstock
By Irene Lorenzo & Shaun Hurrell

Watch the video below

From 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 inhospitable 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 million 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 African Rift Valley, most rely on Natron, congregating here in a gloriously flamboyant flurry of pink.

Flamingos congregate at Lake Natron 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 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”, where large groups of strutting birds can be seen annually in a mesmerising 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 disturbed the booming populations of flamingos. That was, until 2006, when Natron drew global attention as a result of a soda ash mining proposal, 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.


"The Flamingo Factory" video:

However, the consequences were going to be disastrous for flamingos. With the aim of stopping the development, BirdLife launched the “Think Pink” campaign, which forced Tata to withdraw the proposal in 2009. Sadly, the Tanzanian government remained interested in soda ash mining, in spite of warming to conservation. The threat therefore remains in the background.

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 photosynthetic pigments found in the lake’s Spirulina. Removing brine, extracting soda ash, and pumping 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 predator-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 factory and mining would be catastrophic.

It is possible to watch the pink parade without 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.

There is a greater benefit in developing the ecotourism potential for Lake Natron; doing so is good for people, the global community, and the Government of Tanzania itself

A bird's eye view of Lake Natron © NASA Johnson / Flickr

"I would like to call upon the Government of Tanzania to think about what already exists at Natron as an investment”, says Mwathe. “There’s already a factory there: it’s a flamingo factory, a tourism factory.” Done properly, ecotourism can be the saviour for Natron’s flamingos and communities. “There is a greater benefit in developing the ecotourism potential for Lake Natron; doing so is good for people, the global community, and the Government of Tanzania itself”, he says. In any case, the natural soda ash market is facing serious competition from synthetic soda ash, which is much cheaper to produce.

In the meantime, BirdLife has worked to improve local livelihoods and boost tourism, involving government agencies as much as possible. For example, 21 Maasai huts have been constructed and over 100 women were trained to run them as ecotourism centres. Also, two Water Users Associations have been formed in the villages of Pinyinyi and Oldonyosambu, at the edge of Lake Natron – a critical step to ensure fresh water is utilised sustainably for both people and flamingos, as Pinyinyi River drains into two of the breeding locations.

Meanwhile, with training workshops on bird monitoring and wildlife management, and the formation of three Site Support Groups (comprising 150 members of the local communities of Ngare Sero, Pinyinyi and Magadini), local people are themselves ensuring the lake remains protected. Regular monitoring now works as an early warning system that delivers information on trends in bird populations, habitat changes and the effectiveness of conservation management measures.

But what can you do?

One thing starts at home. “If we recycled more glass, we wouldn’t use nearly as much raw soda ash”, says Turk Pipkin from The Nobelity Project, who has produced a flamingo awareness film for BirdLife. “Local acts have global impacts.” For the world’s most important site for Lesser Flamingos, this phrase couldn’t ring more true.

Now a brand-new BirdLife project, funded by the Darwin Initiative, aims to build upon earlier work by developing a community-based ecotourism model, linking to ecological restoration and capacity building so that local communities can take centre stage in the ownership and management of ecotourism businesses. So, if you’re heading to Tanzania, join the pink parade and support Natron’s local ecotourism.

Do you want to help the conservation of breeding sites such as Lake Natron?

Please donate to our Quest for a safer nest appeal.

BirdLife is very grateful for the supporters of the Think Pink Campaign, for support from the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation and the Darwin Initiative for work at Lake Natron, and for support from Turk Pipkin & The Nobelity Project for the Flamingo Factory film.