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Africa’s flamingos at risk due to rising lake levels

The spectacular sights of large flocks of flamingos around East Africa’s lakes, immortalized in films like “Out of Africa” and David Attenborough’s “A Perfect Planet,” might soon become a thing of the past, according to new research from King’s College London (KCL). 

The study indicates that the lesser flamingo of East Africa is at risk of losing its historical feeding grounds due to rising water levels, which are diminishing their main food source, with potentially grave implications for the species.

Flamingo feeding lakes in East Africa 

The researchers used satellite earth observation data to analyze all significant flamingo feeding lakes in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania over two decades. 

The analysis revealed that increasing water levels are curtailing the availability of food for these birds. This situation may force the flamingos to migrate to new, unprotected areas, particularly with expected higher rainfall from climate change.

Coordinated conservation efforts are needed

The scientists involved in the study are now urging for coordinated conservation efforts across borders, enhanced monitoring, and more sustainable land management practices around key flamingo habitats.

“Lesser flamingos in East Africa are increasingly vulnerable, particularly with increased rainfall predicted for the region under climate change. Without improved lake monitoring and catchment management practices, the highly specialized species found in soda lake ecosystems – including lesser flamingos – could be lost,” said study lead author Aidan Byrne, a PhD student at KCL.

The study is the first to use satellite data to assess all 22 essential flamingo feeding soda lakes in East Africa, while also including climate records and bird observation data spanning more than two decades.

Degradation of flamingo habitats 

Dr. Emma Tebbs, a co-author from King’s College London, noted the inherent adaptability of flamingos but expressed concern over the degradation of their habitats. 

“East African populations could potentially move north or south away from the equator in search of food resources. And whilst six study lakes increased in habitat suitability from 2010 to 2022, only three of those have some level of conservation protection. Increases in water levels could lead to lesser flamingos becoming more reliant on lakes that are unprotected, outside of current nature reserves and protected sites, which has implications for conservation and ecotourism revenues,” explained Dr. Tebbs.

Shifting characteristics of the soda lakes

Soda lakes are among the most extreme environments on the planet, characterized by high salinity and alkalinity. Nonetheless, various species, including flamingos and their phytoplankton prey, have adapted to flourish under these conditions. Flamingos, for instance, utilize their specialized, sieve-like beaks to filter these microscopic plants from the water.

The study revealed that increasing water levels are diluting the typical saline and alkaline characteristics of the region’s soda lakes, which is leading to a reduction in phytoplankton populations. This decrease was quantified by measuring the levels of chlorophyll-a, a photosynthetic pigment found in the lakes.

Decline in phytoplankton levels 

Over the 23 years covered by the study, the researchers observed a consistent decline in phytoplankton levels, correlating this trend with the expanding surface areas of these lakes during the same timeframe.

The most significant declines in phytoplankton biomass were recorded in the equatorial lakes of Kenya – specifically, the popular tourist destinations of Lakes Bogoria, Nakuru, and Elmenteita, as well as in the northern Tanzanian lakes that experienced the greatest increases in surface area.

Viable breeding sites for flamingos

Lake Nakuru, a crucial feeding site for over one million flamingos historically, saw its surface area swell by 91% between 2009 and 2022, while the average concentration of chlorophyll-a in the lake dropped by half.

Lake Natron in Tanzania, the primary regular breeding ground for lesser flamingos in East Africa, has also seen a drop in productivity coinciding with the rising water levels in recent years. Should this decline in phytoplankton biomass persist at Lake Natron and other adjacent feeding lakes, these areas may no longer be viable as breeding sites for the flamingos.

More about lesser flamingos of East Africa 

Lesser flamingos are one of the most interesting and vibrant bird species found in East Africa. They are smaller than their relative, the greater flamingo, and are noted for their stunning pink feathers which gain their color from the carotenoid pigments in their algae-based diet.

A significant characteristic of lesser flamingos is their dependence on alkaline or saline lakes for breeding. They are highly gregarious birds, forming large flocks that can number in the thousands, which helps reduce the threat of predation.

East Africa hosts some of the world’s most important habitats for these birds, including Lake Natron in Tanzania and Lake Bogoria in Kenya. The conservation status of lesser flamingos is of concern due to habitat degradation and water pollution affecting their food supply and breeding sites. 

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.


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