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Scientists plan to restore flamingo habitats in Kenyan Soda lakes

 Data from the water bird counts revealed a declining trend in the number of flamingos within Lake Nakuru which was once renowned for hosting thousands of flamingos. [iStockphoto]

Scientists plan to restore flamingo habitats in Kenyan Soda lakes.

Upon the mid-day sun, the graceful pops of floating pink flamingos on the Southern edge of Lake Nakuru National Park create a small haven. Their synchronised grunts and growls serenade the afternoon's epic silence.

Barely ten years ago, the populations of these birds in the lake were massive, a sight to behold. They became the flagship of Lake Nakuru to the world. However, the increasing volume of water levels experienced in the past ten years has dealt a blow to the flamingo populations which are a common feature in Kenyan soda lakes that also include Lakes Bogoria, Elementaita, Solai, and Simbi Nyaima.

The dwindling populations, experts say, is directly linked to the increasing water levels that have resulted in the decline of their food; and now research scientists are exploring ways to help manufacture flamingo food in a pioneer project to solve the challenge.

"The increase in freshwater volume affects the chemistry of the lake. Initially, the pH levels of Lake Nakuru stood at 10.5, creating a perfect environment for the production of food for the flamingos. The increasing water levels have however seen the pH levels reduce to 9.5," Kenya Wildlife Service Senior Researcher Joseph Edebe said during a media cafe organised by Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture.

While African saline lakes are hosts to two species of flamingos, the Greater flamingo and the Lesser flamingo, the two flamingo species differ in their food preferences. The Greater flamingo consumes small planktonic and animals such as Mollusca and arthropods, as well as mud and algae, the Lesser flamingo depends on blue-green algae. The rising water levels impacted the production of algal food.

With the fact that flamingos are only able to feed in shallow waters above 80 centimeters, the increasing volumes have not been favourable and they tend to move to edges and places where there is an abundance of food.

Data from the water bird counts revealed a declining trend in the number of flamingos within Lake Nakuru which was once renowned for hosting thousands of flamingos. In January 2021, figures indicated that there were 6,000 flamingos in Lake Nakuru. At the time, experts say the lake was at its highest point, a sharp decline from an estimate of 850,000 in the year 2000.

The increasing water levels have not only had an impact on the feeding grounds-it has also had an impact on Tanzania's Lake Natron, the only regular breeding site for the East African population.

Data from Nature Tanzania, Bird Life International's partner in Tanzania from 2018 to 2021 reveals a dramatic decline in their breeding sites in lake Natron in Tanzania. In the 2018 water bird counts, 760,000 lesser flamingos were counted including 120,000 chicks. By 2019, 1.7 million lesser flamingos were counted alongside 955,000 chicks. By 2020 however, only 250 lesser flamingos were counted alongside 35 chicks. In 2021, only 1,900 were counted. In the same year, no nests were recorded.

"There was a very dramatic decline in flamingo numbers between 2018/19 and 2020/21. Natural dynamics and changes in climate at the lake basin and beyond appear to be the main reason for the sharp fluctuation in lesser flamingo numbers in the past two years. Torrential rains at the end of 2019 and early 2020 resulted in water levels rising at Lake Natron," Emmanuel Mgimwa, the director for Nature Tanzania told the Standard.

Although there have been lesser numbers of flamingos recorded in Rift Valley soda lakes where they once thrived in droves, it is expected that the increasing levels forced flamingos to migrate to other areas where they can find food. While some lakes like Nakuru in Kenya are experiencing declines, in others like Lakes Simbi Nyaima, Solai and parts of creeks and salt farms in Coast, the numbers have been increasing.

In Tanzania, lesser flamingos have also been recorded in seasonal wetlands like Mungere seasonal swamp in Monduli district.

"The disappearance of flamingos in the lakes they once thrived in does not mean that they are dead, it means that they are seeking refuge in places where there is food. A number of flamingos have been recorded in brackish wetlands within the Coast and this means that they are looking for food," Paul Gacheru, a species expert with Nature Kenya said.

And now scientists have embarked on a one-of-a-kind project to manufacture flamingo food, an initiative expected to bring back the flagship species back to Kenyan soda lakes.

The project will be a first in the region and seeks to propagate food specifically for the flamingos whose populations have been on the decline.

According to Dr Judith Nyunja, the principal research scientist at the Kenya Wildlife Research and Training Institute, the project is in its initial stages of developing a programme. The project, she says, will entail propagating the blue-green algae in the laboratories before finally exposing it to the natural environment where it is expected to thrive.

"We are looking into ways where we can enhance food production using science. The greatest challenge the flamingos are facing at the moment, especially the lesser flamingos is the lack of enough food. The project, known as Spirulina project, is expected to solve this,"Dr Nyunja said.

The initiative, she says, entails visiting the field, which are the soda lakes including Lakes Nakuru, Bogoria, Solai, and Elementaita among others to collect water samples. The scientists will then extract the algal food within the water samples, which will be then propagated in the lab.

Thereafter, she says the propagated food will be introduced into demonstration ponds that will be set up within all the soda lakes which the project will be rolled out to restore flamingo habitats.

"Within the ponds, we will monitor the frequency with which the flamingos are visiting to look for food. Once it becomes a success in the demonstration ponds, we will introduce it in abundance to these lakes," Dr Nyunja added.

The research that seeks to introduce flamingo food to the lake will solve the critical challenge that had initially been documented among flamingos in Lake Bogoria which host the current largest congregation of flamingos.

Early this year, a number of flamingos were recorded to have been trapped by Prosopis, commonly known as Mathenge in Lake Bogoria. The incidences occurred on the edges of the lake which had also experienced increasing water levels, forcing the flamingos to seek refuge on the edges that incidentally are inhabited by the invasive Mathenge, trapping a number of them as they try to fly.

"The result we got from examining a carcass in the lab detailed that the birds were becoming weaker as a result of lack of enough food. This means the birds easily got entangled by thorns on the shores of the lake where they were foraging for food," Edebe said.

The scientists have also embarked on a project of tagging flamingos to track their movements so as to understand more about the movements and the places they spend their time in particular seasons of the year. The project is jointly being undertaken by researchers from the Kenya Wildlife Research and Training institute in collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya.

"The project is in its initial stages. It will shed a lot of light on the lives of these birds, where they spend most of their time, where they move to at certain periods of the year and even their movements between feeding and breeding grounds," Edebe added.


Flamingos at Lake Bogoria National reserve [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The current researches are part of the plans and achievements the research institute is looking into, nearly a year since it became an independent national institution mandated to undertake research that generates practical scientific information to guide on conservation and management of wildlife in the country.

Side Bar

Water recedes in Lake Nakuru as the number of tourists increases.

The changing chemistry of Lake Nakuru has seen an influx of new bird species, adding to the number the over 450 bird species within the National park.

Initially, the lake was known to host thousands of flamingos alongside other resident and migratory bird species, attributes that have made Lake Nakuru internationally recognized as a Ramsar site and an Important Bird Area. But the changing chemistry of the lake has now seen an increase in the number of birds often associated with freshwater lakes.

"The phenomenon of swelling lakes has brought on board new bird species that are common in freshwater lakes. During the period of heavy rains, some fish species found their way from nearby dams into the lake, where they thrived. This in turn saw a number of bird species that feed on fish becoming a common feature within the lake," Lake Nakuru Park warden Edward Karanja said.

Three fish species have since been documented in the lake and are a protected area, fishing within the lake is prohibited.

"Being a protected area and sanctuary to endangered species like the rhinos, fishing is prohibited and it amounts to poaching. The fish within the lake has also been flagged as unfit for human consumption following research that revealed the presence of heavy metals beyond the recommended levels," Karanja said.

While the lake recorded losses estimated to be over Ksh 400 Million as a result of submerged infrastructure and facilities, the Kenya Wildlife Service has re-routed the key roads that can now allow tourists to go around the park.

"There number of tourists has also been increasing after the Covid-19 pandemic that dealt a blow to the tourism sector. Being the park that is centrally located, tourists can have access to majestic wildlife," Karanja said.

While the increasing volumes of the lake levels in Rift Valley lakes posed a challenge to many lakes, including Nakuru, it has not been all gloom.

In 2020, Conde Nast, an international travel website released a list of the 31 Most colorful Lakes in the world and Lake Nakuru was ranked 8th in the list.

In the 'deep dive into these captivating bodies of water,' the travel website described the most colourful lakes of the world as spectacular and natural and might even make one forget about beaches altogether.

"A beautiful lake with its glassy, still surface and spectrum of colours, can showcase some of water's most mesmerizing qualities. If their crystalline or wildly colored waters in these lakes do not do the trick, then the diversity of wildlife they often attract just might," Conde Nast described the lakes which Nakuru was among.

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