New threat to Kenya's flamingos

Posted: 20 July 2007

Last year came warnings that Kenya's Lake Nakuru, famous for its flocks of pink flamingos, was in danger of drying up as a result of the destruction of its catchments areas, and of pollution from toxic waste. Now, experts are warning that another lake - home to millions of Lesser Flamingos - is threatened by a planned factory. This report is from ENS.

Conservation groups are outraged over a proposed soda ash factory near Tanzania's border with Kenya that threatens the survival of the entire East African population of lesser flamingos. The light pink birds that flock by the hundreds of thousands to the lake each summer to breed attract visitors from around the world.

Lesser flamingos
Lesser flamingos
Lesser flamingos flock to Lake Natron each summer to breed. Photo © Safari Images
The plant would be constructed by Lake Natron Resources, a subsidiary of the giant Indian conglomerate Tata Chemicals, to mine 500,000 tons of soda ash, or sodium carbonate, each year. Soda ash is used to produce glass, cosmetics, detergent, paper pulp and other industrial goods.

Lake Natron, in the Great Rift Valley, is known as a soda lake because of its high concentration of sodium carbonate. It is attracts largest number of flamingos of the world's five breeding sites - 75 per cent of the species. If it is damaged, conservationists say there is no evidence that the birds will breed successfully elsewhere.

The only East African site in which the Lesser Flamingo, Phoenicopterus minor, has bred in the past 45 years, Lake Natron is recognized as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, and as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.

A draft environmental impact assessment of the project says the proposed factory would pose a significant degree of environmental risk to the 500,000 lesser flamingos that breed there each year.

Conservationists fear the soda ash plant could upset the delicate natural ecology of the lake. Even minute changes in habitat can disrupt breeding by lesser flamingos, which IUCN has classed as a near-threatened species. The report acknowledges that building the plant could result in Lake Natron losing its wetland status and create high levels of light and noise pollution. It says that extracting soda ash would have a significant impact on the chemical composition of the water.

The proposed development will pump 530 cubic metres of brine per hour and produce and export half a million tons of sodium carbonate annually. There may also be a 11.5 megawatt coal-fired power plant and a residential complex to house 152 permanent and 1,225 construction workers expected on the site.

Lesser flamingo
Lesser flamingos
The lesser flamingo is the smallest of the four members of the flamingo family. Photo © Adrian Pingstone
An ecologist with the Nairobi-based African Conservation Centre, Ken Mwathe, explained: "Flamingos are going to be disturbed during breeding, and therefore, because they are very sensitive to disturbance during breeding, then it is likely that 75 per cent of the world's population of flamingos are going to be affected, because Lake Natron is host to the breeding of 75 per cent of the flamingos in the world. But then they do not say what are they going to do to deal with that."

The report concludes there are no environmental impacts that would definitely rule out construction. Mwathe says that ignores one of his main worries about the plant - its heavy use of water. "One of the things that we are concerned about is this plant is going to use 106,000 litres of water per hour," he said. "That is a lot of water in a very dry environment with very few rivers. The consultants and the proponents, that is Tata Chemicals, have not done hydrological surveys," Mwathe said. "There is no hydrological data in this report."

Lake Natron is listed as a wetland of international importance because it provides the unique habitat that allows the flamingos to survive. It is full of the bacteria that is their primary diet and is shallow enough for them to build the mud nests where they lay their eggs. Predators like baboons and hyenas are deterred by the lake's high salinity.

"The chances of lesser flamingos continuing to breed at Lake Natron in the face of such mayhem are next to zero," said Dr Chris Magin, international officer for Africa with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. "This development will leave lesser flamingos in East Africa facing extinction and should be stopped in its tracks," he said.

Tata Chemicals and the consultants who did the survey did not respond to reporters' requests for comment, and it is unclear what effect the environmental assessment will have on any decision to build a plant at Lake Natron.On its website, Tata calls itself the company that cares and says it is recognized as one of the most environmentally responsible in India.

But conservationists are not reassured. Dr Magin said, "This could be the beginning of the end for the lesser flamingo. Millions of people have enjoyed the spectacle of flocks of flamingos in Tanzania and Kenya and all of that is now in jeopardy."

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