This week, BirdLife, the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) and the Engaresero Eramatare Community Development Initiative (EECDI), reported on the results of the lesser flamingo survey conducted in February 2019 at Tanzania’s Lake Natron. The results were exciting —
“This year, we counted over 1,750,000 adult birds compared to 760,000 last year, which is an increase of 130%. The number of chicks increased by over 600% from 120,000 in 2018 to 995,000 in 2019,” says Emmanuel Mgimwa, BirdLife’s Manager of the Lake Natron Ecotourism Project*. — BirdLife.org
Why am I suddenly reporting on Lake Natron? Because this is an important update to a post about Lake Natron that I wrote back in 2013. Here’s a short recap of that post —
Lake Natron is a shallow saline body of water that burns with alkalinity born of the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano’s unique soda ash that has rained into its waters over the last 350,000 years. Almost as alkaline as ammonia, and as scalding as a cup of coffee, the waters of Lake Natron will blister skin, burn nostrils, blind eyes, and poison nearly any animal tempted to drink its water.
Lake Natron offers two things of interest. First, it is the source soda ash, a key component in glass manufacturing —
Soda ash is cheaper to mine than to make, so any country finding itself sitting on a deposit stands to have a viable market for the resource. And that’s what happened in Tanzania where a deposit of some 460 billion cubic litres of soda ash was discovered in the Lake Natron Basin. Growing at a rate of 4 million cubic litres per year, it’s a seemingly endless supply.
Second, because it is a rich source of the cyanobacteria, Arthrospira fusiformis, at type of Spirulina, Lake Natron is the breeding ground for three quarters of Africa’s 2.5 million lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor).
Impervious to the burning water, they come en masse to Lake Natron to eat the rich Spirulina. The birds swish their “upside down” beaks back and forth through the water, siphoning it through special filters that allow them to capture the algae. An adult lesser flamingo consumes up to about 72 grams dry weight (DW) of cyanobacteria per day and in return, the bacteria pass along their rosy pigment to the birds’ feathers.
Back when I wrote that piece, a battle was raging between the government of Tanzania, who wanted to build a soda ash plant in the basin and conservation officials and environmentalists who were rightfully concerned about the well-being of the flamingos and the other species that count on Lake Natron for their survival.
At the same time, Masai residents were developing a budding tourism industry offering eco-tourists dramatic scenery, spectacular waterfalls, wildlife safaris, and fishing and hunting, all under the mandatory watchful eyes of paid local guides.
“We do not want any project which will interfere with tourism. Our area is dry so we can’t farm. Tourism is our farm; it is puts food on our tables. It helps us educate our children. Why is the Government insisting on building a soda ash plant?” –Mary Saiguray of Ngare Sero Women’s Cultural Boma (BirdLife.org, Sept. 2012)
The issue went unresolved until 2018, when the Government of Tanzania abandoned its plans to construct a soda ash factory on the site. Meanwhile, because of the ongoing collaboration among local communities, organizations, and government, the Lake Natron basin has become a thriving ecological region and a boon to the local economy.
“Over 152 women, 29 men and 71 youth have been trained in ecotourism management and how to run small businesses. The project will soon roll out a revolving fund to support small-scale entrepreneurs.” — BirdLife.org
And the flamingos, for now, are thriving.
** Header photo Richard Mortel, CC 2.0.