Wildlife detectives try to solve mystery of dying flamingos
By Mark Rowe
15 June 2003
A coalition of British wildlife organisations is attempting to halt the
startling decline of one of the world's most spectacular birds - the
African flamingo. They fear that unless urgent steps are taken, the
sight of millions of stately, stilt-legged birds gathered in
charismatic pink clouds on the lake shores of east Africa may soon be
consigned to the video banks of wildlife documentaries.
Despite being such an emblematic species, little is known about the
African, or lesser, flamingo. Not even their numbers are certain,
though it is thought that the population has dropped by at least 20 per
cent in the past 15 years and now stands at between two and four
For nearly a decade, they have perished in large numbers, leaving the
shores of African lakes littered with mountains of pink carcasses.
Tests on dead birds have revealed traces of heavy metals including
zinc, copper, lead, mercury and cadmium.
Now scientists are launching a tracking programme for the birds,
focusing on the string of alkaline lakes in the Great Rift Valley where
the largest population of lesser flamingos, or Phoeniconaias minor, can
be found. They are attaching 40g solar-powered transmitters to the
birds to identify the lakes and wetlands they use when they leave
Tanzania and Kenya. They hope to use the findings to lobby for greater
international protection for the breeding sites and the wetlands the
birds use when migrating.
The project is a joint effort by the University of Leicester, the
Earthwatch Institute, and the National Museum of Kenya, based at Lake
Bogoria, and supported by a research team from the Wildfowl and
Wetlands Trust. Seven birds are being tagged, a number considered
sufficient because each will fly in a flock of at least 100 flamingos.
"Lesser flamingos breed in inhospitable areas," said Dr Brooks
Childress, a research associate with the WWT. "We see them when they
arrive at the big lakes and we see them leave but we don't know what
happens after that. These birds can fly 8,000km in seven months."
Owing primarily to the African flamingo's dependence on a limited
number of breeding sites, it is classified as "near-threatened" by the
World Conservation Union. In the past 30 years, the east African
population is known to have bred successfully only at Lake Natron in
Tanzania, and conservationists fear that a catastrophic event there
would put the species in jeopardy. There are already worries that a
mining company is planning to extract salt from the lake.
"It's all very well saying there's one million birds on the lake, but
what if something happens to the lake?" said Tony Richardson, managing
director of the WWT. "You then have one million birds looking for a
nest, and that will be a species in real trouble."
This is the first time that the migration has been followed, and WWT is
tracking the flight on its website, allowing viewers to monitor the
birds' progress. "It is hard to imagine that we might be watching a
spectacle that is under threat," Mr Richardson said. "Lesser flamingos
usually favour inhospitable and often remote wetlands, but it is
becoming apparent that, as levels of pollution and disturbance
increase, these fragile habitats and the flamingos that depend upon
them are in trouble."
A dying breed?
Flamingos' pink or reddish feathers, legs and face are a result of
their diet, which includes worms, crustaceans and especially algae,
which are high in alpha and beta carotenoid pigments.
At 80cm high and weighing 2.5kg, the lesser flamingo is the smallest of
the five flamingo species.
Flamingos collect food by lowering their necks and tilting their heads
upside down, allowing their bills to hang facing backwards in the
water. However, they must drink from freshwater sources.
It is often thought that flamingos stand on one leg to keep warm -
curling a leg under the body conserves body heat. But they also stand
on one leg in warm conditions.
Flamingos can fly at up to 35mph and cover 370 miles in a single night.
One of the many things unclear about them is their lifespan, though
captive birds have been to known to have lived for more than 40 years.
Birding-Aus is on the Web at
To unsubscribe from this mailing list, send the message
"unsubscribe birding-aus" (no quotes, no Subject line)