Is the Writing on the Wall for African Flamingos?

To: Birding Aus <>
Subject: Is the Writing on the Wall for African Flamingos?
From: knightl <>
Date: Mon, 16 Jun 2003 18:51:08 +1000

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 million.

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.

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