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Perilous day for Africa’s pink flamingos

Sir David Attenborough backs campaign to save only breeding site

One of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles may never be seen again if the path is cleared today (November 2) for major industrial development on a remote and isolated lake in Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

Officials in Tanzania are to assess plans for a soda ash plant on Lake Natron, an internationally recognised wetland and the globe’s most important breeding site for the threatened lesser flamingo.

They will advise Environment Minister Mark Mwandosya on whether to allow Lake Natron Resources, jointly owned by the Tanzanian Government and the Indian company TATA Chemicals, to pump more than 100,000 litres of freshwater and 550,000 litres of brine (saltwater) from the area every hour, for the production of soda ash, a material used in glass and dye production.

A coal-fired power station, road and rail links and housing for 1,200 construction workers would be built at the site. The development would seriously harm tourism in three countries and could cause Lake Natron’s international wetland designation to be withdrawn.

The leaders of conservation groups in 23 African countries have signed a petition urging the Tanzanian government to turn down the proposal and their campaign has been backed by naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.

Sir David said: “Lake Natron’s vast flocks of shimmering pink flamingos are one of the world’s greatest wildlife attractions. These spectacular birds deserve the strongest protection we can offer them.

“Any threat to their future would not only be an ecological disaster, it would deal a huge blow to tourism in East Africa which helps ensure the survival of the region’s spectacular wildlife and wild places.”

Lake Natron is in northern Tanzania close to the Kenyan border. More than one million lesser flamingos nest on the lake and it is likely that every one of East Africa’s 1.5 to 2.5 million lesser flamingos – three-quarters of the world’s population - hatched at the site.

The lake’s isolation safeguards the birds from predators and its food-rich waters, and the freshwater close by, create ideal breeding conditions. Its vast salt flats have been East Africa’s only nesting place for lesser flamingos for 45 years.

Studies suggest that wildlife tourism in Tanzania and Kenya is worth US$2 billion annually and that those visiting East Africa primarily to see lesser flamingos spend up to US$12 million every year.

Graham Wynne, Chief Executive of the RSPB, who attended the African conservationists’ meeting last month, said: “Lake Natron is a truly extraordinary place in a beautiful and unspoilt landscape, steeped in Masai culture and absolutely invaluable to wildlife. The loss of lesser flamingos could seriously harm tourism in the region and mean people losing their jobs, their land and the natural resources that belong only to Africa.

“Disturbing these birds by allowing this development may well drive them from Lake Natron for good and create water shortages for nomadic communities and their animals. There is no reason on earth to allow this ill-conceived project. The economics are weak and the implications for wildlife and for the environment are deeply depressing.”

The soda ash plant would alter Lake Natron’s chemical balance, destroying the spirulina on which the birds feed and the development could attract Marabou storks which have been linked with nest desertion by greater flamingos elsewhere. Other wildlife could also be harmed including the chestnut-banded plover, the fringe-eared oryx and an endemic fish species.

Tanzania’s National Environment Management Council will today consider the environmental assessment for the project before making its recommendation to the minister.

The assessment says that information on lesser flamingos “strongly suggests that the project will entail a significant degree of risk for this species in the longer term that is not capable of direct mitigation”.

Ato Mengistu Wondafrash, of BirdLife International’s Africa Partnership, said: “Lake Natron secures a way of life for nomadic communities and the flamingos produce a thriving tourist economy. To jeopardize this for an ill-considered development would be economic, and moral, suicide.”

Dr Hazell Thompson, Head of BirdLife’s Africa Division, said: “Africa is making great strides towards conserving its immense biodiversity and Tanzania must think clearly of what this decision on Lake Natron will say of its environmental credentials.

“This is a clear opportunity for the Tanzanian government to continue showing moral and environmental responsibility in Africa by taking a decision not to proceed with the soda ash development.”

Cath Harris | alfa
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