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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Tanzania on a mission to wipe out Kenya’s flamingoes

By Ken Opala Daily Nation

Kenya’s multi-billion shillings tourism industry faces major test as Tanzanian authorities plan a soda ash project that could eliminate the flamingos in the region.

The plans have sent world conservationists into a spin.

A number of them attending a key international environment meeting here in the Norwegian coastal city of Trondheim are busy lobbying global action against the project that seeks to mine soda (used in the making of glass) from Lake Natron, considered the cradle of a type of flamingo that is endangered.

This writer was able to see a number of petitions signed by conservationist seeking to block the project on grounds that, if implemented, it will kill “the world’s greatest ornithological spectacle”, even as it damages livelihoods that are intricately linked to the Rift Valley tourism industry.

Dr Hazell Shokellu Thompson, the head of Birdlife Africa Partnership Secretariat, says his organisation has listed the services of two lawyers (a Kenyan and Tanzanian) to look at the possibility of moving to the East African Court of Justice sitting in Arusha, Tanzania, to block the envisaged project.

“We are meeting this Friday to look at that possibility,” he told this writer by the sides of the UN/Norway Government Trondheim Conference.

“We have already contacted our lawyers in both the countries.”

Dr Thompson was one of the speakers at the conference.

Others from Kenya included Unep’s Bakary Kante, Walter Jami Lusigi (a senior adviser to the World Bank in Washington), and Lucy Mulenkei (a minority rights activist)

In one of the petitions, the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania (WCST) and the Birdlife Africa Partnership, say Lake Natron Resources Ltd, a company jointly owned by the Tanzania Government and TATA Chemicals Ltd. of Mumbai, India is proposing the development of a soda-ash facility at Lake Natron.

According to the conservationists, this development could “bring about changes in the lake’s chemical composition, affecting the cyanobacteria on which the flamingos feed”.

BirdLife Africa argues that all the three million Lesser Flamingos in the region, from Djibouti down through Tanzania to Malawi, were hatched at Lake Natron

“New roads and railways, and an influx of settlers into an otherwise pristine area (with a low population of Maasai pastoralists), will cause substantial disturbance. Following the people will be scavenging birds such as Marabou Storks, associated with mass desertion of flamingo nests elsewhere.”

The salty Lake Natron is close to the Kenyan border and is very shallow, just three metres deep, although this depth varies from one end to the other.

Its bed is covered by the salt crust that runs through Kenya’s Lake Magadi, in the north.

Magadi is the world’s largest soda ash mine, and is just kilometres from Lake Natron.

“It is likely that the proposed plant would lead to a collapse of the lesser flamingo population in East Africa,” says Dr Thompson.

The Nation has gathered that the Tanzanian National Environment Management Council (NEMC) planned to meet to discuss the project’s likely harm to both the environment and the livelihoods of the local people.

A UN official attending the Trondheim conference confirmed he planned to visit the area of conflict soon.

Flamingos are a major tourism attraction in Kenya. Thousands of tourists visit the Rift Valley lakes of Naivasha, Nakuru and Bogoria to view the pink spectacle of these migratory birds.

Lake Nakuru alone generates some $15 million (about Sh1.05 billion) annually.

Yet the birds have faced constant threat from pollution, but the latest threat could be one of their biggest dangers of all, say conservationists.

The flamingos are attracted to the lake because it offers a reliable food supply and freshwater, even as it acts as a protection against most predators, conservationists argue.

According to documents by BirdLife Africa, the lesser flamingo stands between four and five feet high but is the smallest of the six flamingo species.

It has long pink legs and a long neck. Its large body is rose-pink, the colour coming from pigments in its main food. The birds eat by holding their bills upside down in the water.

They are found throughout Africa south of the Sahara, and from the Arabian Peninsula to Pakistan. They occasionally migrate to areas bordering the Mediterranean.

According to estimates, there are about 3.25 m lesser flamingos in the world of which around three-quarters, about 2.5 million, are found in East Africa.

“Lesser Flamingos are extremely sensitive to environmental disturbance, particularly when breeding. They easily abandon colonies,” says Dr Thompson.

Flamingos live until they are about 40 years old but only breed every five or six years. Non-breeding birds do not return to breeding sites until they are ready to breed again.

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