By Hu Berry
As they lance the sky with crimson wings, flamingos follow ancient routes across Africa. Migration in tune with the rains is cardinal for their existence, but if breeding sites become unsuitable, their flight for survival will become futile.
Africa is dehydrating. The second-largest of the earth’s continents straddles both hemispheres, covering an immense area of 30 million square kilometres. However, 60% of it is classified as desert and semi-desert, and this is increasing as human activities desiccate the surface and drain the subterranean aquifers. Africa is home to two to three million flamingos, which survive on soda lakes, saline pans and salt-water lagoons. It is also home to 800 million humans and their domestic livestock.
The lifespan of humans and flamingos is remarkably similar, both living considerably longer than most wildlife species, but there the similarity ends. Flamingos are highly specialised, filter feeders, with genes originating 50 million years ago and their evolution rooted in the times when reptiles developed feathers instead of scales and Archaeopteryx rose phoenix-like from the morasses of the Triassic era. Humans made a relatively recent appearance on earth – some religions purporting they are as contemporary as 8 000 years, while science dates us as a distinct species that started evolving 600 000 years ago. Whatever our time of origin, we have developed into the most opportunistic species on earth. We are generalist-specialists, enlisting a daunting array of technology to ensure our survival.
Are humans a major threat to the future of flamingos in Africa? Our apparent, albeit unintentional, ability to change even the earth’s climate has placed not only flamingos, but also any other species, at risk. Barren wildernesses and desert wastes surround the natural world of flamingos. Whatever climate change may bring, be it conditions that are hotter or colder, wetter or drier, a shift in weather patterns bodes ill for these upside-down beaked feeders of micro-organisms.
As specialists they depend on specific water depths for successful breeding. Higher rainfall will result in raised surface-water levels, flooding traditional nesting areas. Decreased rainfall will expose naturally inaccessible breeding sites to access by predators. Moreover, there is an ominous, immediate threat to the largest concentration of flamingos on earth. East Africa’s soda lakes host about two million Lesser Flamingos and tens of thousands Greater Flamingos. One of these sanctuaries, Lake Natron, is threatened by the proposed development of a soda-ash factory and a coal-fired electrical power station. Any factories close to the shore will cause undue disturbance, and increase the number of failed breeding attempts, while a grid of pipelines will disrupt the movement of unfledged chicks fatally. Moreover, the data available suggest a decline in the East African population since the late 1960s from four million to not more than two and a half million.
In combination these threats place an increased responsibility on Namibia, which boasts the second-largest African populations of both flamingo species, to ensure secure feeding and breeding habitats for them. Fortunately, we have representatives on the Flamingo Specialist Group, an affiliate of the World Conservation Union, giving us direct and immediate contact with the extensive database of the world’s flamingos. The Group is co-ordinated from the Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, United Kingdom. Namibia and other African countries maintain close contact with these experts because the sharing of local knowledge is essential for the future of flamingos.
Footnote. The sources of these estimates are:
Wetlands International, 2006, Waterbird Population Estimates – Fourth Edition, Wetlands International, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Brown, LH East Africa: 38–48, Flamingos, 1975, (editors J Kear and N Duplaix-Hall), Poyser, Berkhamsted, England.
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.
This article appeared in the 2008/9 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.