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The mystery of the vanishing flamingos

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Lake Nakuru has always been viewed as a flamingo lake par excellence. Several decades ago, up to two million lesser flamingos (maybe a third of the world’s population) could be seen here massing in the warm alkaline water to feed on the abundant blue-green algae cultivated by their own droppings. In addition, the lake was also home to a small population of the much rarer greater flamingo, a species which tips its head upside down to use its beak to sift for small crustaceans and plankton.

Like Lake Elmenteita, Lake Nakuru has no outlet, meaning that its level fluctuates wildly. In 1962, it dried up almost completely, while in the late 1970s, increased rainfall lowered the lake’s salinity and raised the water level. The flamingos began to disperse, some to lakes Elmenteita, Magadi and Natron (in Tanzania), some up to Turkana, and the majority to Lake Bogoria. Since then, flamingos have been sporadically seen again in the surreal pink flocks that have become a photographic cliché. There are always hundreds, probably thousands, but the presence of mass flocks is unpredictable.

Over the last twenty years, large areas of forest in the lake’s catchment area have been converted to small farms, and Nakuru town has industrialized and grown massively. Sewage and industrial pollution is believed to be a major factor behind the flamingos’ decline, as are water diversion, soil erosion leading to siltation and even sand-harvesting along the Njoro River. The introduction in the 1960s of a hardy species of fish, Tilapia grahami – partly to control mosquitoes – has encouraged large flocks of white pelicans, and it’s likely that their presence is another disruptive element (a breeding colony of greater flamingos at Lake Elmenteita was forced off by the pelicans). The Nakuru Wildlife Trust has been studying the ecology of Rift Valley lakes since 1971 in an effort to find some of the answers, and the WWF now organizes educational trips to the park for local children, as well as running a scheme to monitor pollution from individual industries.

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