Despite numbering in the millions in lakes located in the Great Rift Valley, flamingos in Kenya are fast declining in population.
Ecologists say the population of the pink-feathered birds in feeding grounds in Kenya and breeding sites in neighboring Tanzania is on a sharp decline.
Dead flamingos have been found in the hundreds around the lake, mostly stuck in thorny bushes as water levels continue to rise steadily.
Oblivious to the birds as they fly low in search of food in what used to be a lake clear of the evergreen thorny mathenge trees, is that the rising lakes have displaced thousands of residents and submerged houses and nearby forests.
Once the wading birds land on the water, they are prickled from beneath or stuck in the thorny trees that now resemble bushes.
As of 2015, flamingoes in Kenya, which could be seen in the hundreds of thousands in Lake Nakuru, have ditched the lake for others on the floor of the Rift Valley, which has blue-green algae — their main source of food.
Kenya’s Standard Newspaper cited ecological reports that said the birds have completely abandoned ecosystems where they used to be found in great numbers.
”In January 2021, figures indicated that there were 6,000 flamingos in Lake Nakuru. 4,000 birds were recorded within sewerage treatment ponds nearby and another 2,000 in the lake – a sharp decline from an estimate of 850,000 in the year 2000,” it said. “In 2018, the lake, located in northern Tanzania, hosted 760,000 lesser flamingos and 120,000 chicks. A decline of 250 flamingos and 35 chicks was registered in 2020. 1,900 were recorded in 2021.”
The overall population of flamingos in Kenya is not known but figures from ecologists and bird watchers show a decline in flamingo flocks across all lakes in the Rift Valley.
All the beauty of the flamingos that brings bird-watching enthusiasts from across the world to Kenya might soon fade.
At age 68, Spencer Mwangi Maina has seen the birds reduce in population over the years.
“They used to be so many, as kids we could climb to that hill,” said Mwangi, as he pointed to a hill that stood out from the flat terrain of the Lake Elementaita ecosystem. “From there we could see the flamingoes, they were so many, they would fill all those spaces that you see vacant on the lake,” said Mwangi.
“That place used to be full, yes. Now, they are maybe in the hundreds of thousands here today … but believe me, if I tell you they used to be twice, thrice this size. Now, things have changed. People are building close to the lakes. The waters are rising and when the drought is there, it is severe. We should rename them from “flamingo” to flaming-gone,” Mwangi said with a chuckle.
Residents around the lake also voiced similar sentiments about the dwindling population.
The birds still do thrive in the Saline lakes on the floor of the Rift Valley across East Africa. In Kenya, they can be found in the millions in lakes Nakuru, Elementaita, Bogoria, Magadi, and Naivasha.
Number of flamingoes falling
The number of flamingoes has been falling for many reasons.
“There was a time when pollution was an issue here, also like I told you people have been over-farming on this land. Also, there is climate change. It no longer rains as it used to before,” said Mwangi. “These are some of the reasons but now the top reason is the increase of the water on these lakes. It is displacing us humans and also it is not good for flamingoes.”
Kenya is home to 64 lakes with eight in the Rift Valley which is an intra-continental ridge system that runs through Kenya from north to south.
In addition to inundating farmlands and residential areas, rising waters are bringing crocodiles and hippos near human populations.
Hordes of flamingoes, who breed in salty lakes have also been affected as waters have been diluted. Their main food algae cannot thrive in low saline water.
Jackson Kinyanjui Koimbori is an agro-climatologist and environmentalist. He is also the founder of climate change Kenya, an NGO that aims to promote climate change levels of awareness.
His organization monitors and studies the Lake Elementaita ecosystem.
Kinyanjui, like other specialists, attributes the reduction of flamingoes to increasing water levels of the lakes on the floor of the Rift Valley.
“The effects of the rising water levels that we have been experiencing, especially in Lake Elementaita and all the other lakes in the Rift Valley — in Lake Elementaita we have not recorded any catastrophic events in terms of household and settlements, ”Kinyanjui said.
“The catastrophic event we have seen in this area … put in mind Lake Elementaita is a world heritage site and a bird heritage site under UNESCO, over 10,000 breeding sites of the flamingoes have been destroyed by the rising water,” Kinyanjui added.
The destruction of breeding sites has driven the birds to other lakes and at the same time prevented them from breeding.
A report by a multi-agency team under the ministry has blamed climate change for rising water levels in the lakes.
“The freshwater ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, for example, changes in water availability, water quality, and evapotranspiration on ecosystem structure and function,” said the report.
The unusually high rainfall has further complicated the situation.
The report attributed rising water levels to geological factors and general land use.