The Citizen (KZN)

Africa’s flamingos ‘threatened by rising lakes’

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– The lakes where Africa’s flamingos congregate in spectacula­r numbers are producing less food for the iconic birds as their water levels rise, threatenin­g the survival of a much-loved species, researcher­s have said.

Three-quarters of the world’s lesser flamingos live in East Africa and more than a million birds at a time can gather at lakes in huge “flamboyanc­es” for feeding and courtship.

But as these lakes expand to record highs, scientists have discovered they produce less of the unique algae upon which flamingos rely, putting at risk a species already in decline.

This is driving the distinctiv­e, pink-plumed birds away from their usual habitats into unprotecte­d areas in search of food, said Aidan Byrne, lead author of the research and PhD student, said on Friday. “They might be able to move elsewhere, but they could be lost from the region that they’re currently in at these key feeding lakes,” he said

Flamingos use their specialise­d beaks to feed on a particular type of algae that exists in salty, alkaline waters known as soda lakes. These lakes are concentrat­ed in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia and despite being harsh landscapes, certain species – including the flamingo and the algae they feast on – have adapted to thrive there.

But the lakes have risen to levels not seen in decades, driven in part by increased rainfall linked to climate change. This has greatly diluted the alkalinity and salinity of these soda lakes.

Byrne and other researcher­s wanted to study the impact that had on biodiversi­ty and found a “massive decline” in concentrat­ions of the very algal blooms upon which flamingos survive.

Earlier studies had looked at the problem but its extent was not known until now, he said. “We were surprised at the scale of the changes and how much the flamingo habitats are threatened.”

Extreme rainfall predicted for East Africa would only “increase the threat to the species within the region”, said Byrne.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, is the first to use satellite imagery to observe all 22 of the soda lakes that host flamingos across the East African region. This was combined with climate records and bird observatio­n data over more than 20 years.

The sharpest drops in algae concentrat­ions were observed in Kenya, including at Nakuru, one of the most important flamingo feeding lakes in Africa known for hosting million-strong “flamboyanc­es”.

It expanded by roughly 90% between 2009 and 2022, while algal concentrat­ion halved. Lake Bogoria and Lake Elmenteita, also tourist magnets for their brilliant flamingo displays, experience­d steep declines as well. And where algal blooms declined, so too did flamingo numbers, Byrne said.

Flamingo habitats in East Africa are protected whereas outside these ranges monitoring would be difficult and other threats – including from humans – could emerge. “They’re just such an iconic species that are unique to these environmen­ts.

“If they’re lost, it would be devastatin­g,” Byrne said.–

 ?? Picture: Michel Bega ?? FLAMBOYANC­E IN JEOPARDY. Lesser flamingos in their enclosure at the Joburg Zoo. Rising of lakes, where they gather for feeding and courtship in the wild, puts the species at risk.
Picture: Michel Bega FLAMBOYANC­E IN JEOPARDY. Lesser flamingos in their enclosure at the Joburg Zoo. Rising of lakes, where they gather for feeding and courtship in the wild, puts the species at risk.

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