As Lake Nakuru dries up, Kenya's flamingos vanish.
The elegant birds once numbered a million; now, 30,000.
Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya - The
famous flamingos of Nakuru are fading away.
The spindly, exquisite birds - clouds of pink rising
on a million wings in generations of tourist photographs
- are dying, flying off, fleeing a seemingly fatal brew
of environmental threats in a shrinking Lake Nakuru,
the home that has sheltered them for uncounted centuries.
Where just six years ago as many as a million flamingos
fed in Nakuru's shallows, in vast rosy carpets of plumage,
hooked beaks and curved necks, today as few as 30,000
stay-behinds hug the equatorial lake's receding shoreline.
The carcasses of hundreds of dead flamingos litter newly
dried and caked sections of lakebed.
Nakuru, whose recent maximum size was less than 20 square
miles, may have lost half its water in the past few
"Something must be done," says Jackson Kilonzo, manager
of Lake Nakuru Lodge. "People have to come together
and decide to do whatever it takes to bring the water
level back up."
Precisely why the shallow lake and its flamingo population
are shrinking remains a complex question.
The water catchment area around Nakuru has been heavily
deforested, and its rivers are running dry. Years of
drought have further reduced the water supply. African
temperatures, like global temperatures, are rising.
Sewer and industrial runoff from nearby Nakuru town
pollute the lake. And its blue-green algae, the flamingos'
food, has diminished with the lake.
The U.N. Environment Program will soon undertake a comprehensive
Lake Nakuru study.
"It won't be easy to pin down a complexity of issues
that ultimately might be the causes," says the Nairobi-based
agency's Nehemiah Rodich, a former director of the Kenya
The flamingo, to many, symbolizes Africa as much as
the lion or rhino.
Ancient Egyptians revered the impossibly graceful bird.
In her classic 1938 memoir, Out of Africa, later made
into a movie, Karen Blixen tells of a vast flamingo
flock alarmed by duck hunters:
At the first shot they rise in a cloud, like dust from
a beaten carpet; they are the color of pink alabaster.
Such sights have drawn 200,000 visitors a year to Lake
Nakuru, long home to what was believed to be the bulk
of the worldwide population of lesser flamingos, one
of two species (the other is greater flamingos), inhabiting
Nakuru, in the Rift Valley 100 miles northwest of Nairobi.
Paul Opiyo, deputy warden of Lake Nakuru National Park,
questioned a recent report in the Nairobi newspaper
the Nation that the flamingo population had dropped
"There's slightly more than that," he says, although
he offered no current official figures.
Many birds are known to have relocated to other Rift
Valley lakes that, like Nakuru, are heavily alkaline,
waters hospitable to blue-green algae growth.
But those lakes are shrinking too, and Rodich said mass
flamingo deaths have been reported at nearby Lake Oloidien.
"There's a problem with the algae," says Opiyo. "If
the lake is shrinking, there will be less food for the
The park deputy said a smaller Lake Nakuru presents
another problem: toxic urban runoff becomes more concentrated
in less water.
Many flamingos have developed sores on their legs because
of pollutants, he says. "We're working to clean up a
sewage treatment plant."
Lake Nakuru - mean depth 8 feet - has shrunk before,
even disappeared. But this time may be different as
a result of global warming.
"The lake is threatened by deforestation and other problems,"
says U.N. Environment Program spokesman Nick Nuttall,
"with a climate signature on top of that." The shallowness
of many Rift Valley lakes makes them vulnerable as temperatures
rise and more water evaporates.
Ringed by big spreading acacia trees and grasslands
where zebra, waterbuck and rhinoceros browse, Lake Nakuru
is slowly pulling back toward its center, leaving a
whitish, salt-encrusted rim several hundred yards wide
at some points. Die-hard flamingos retreat with the
water, their muted honks breaking a haunting afternoon
Where will it end?
"The life of the flamingo depends on the water level,
and we haven't had reliable rainfall for years," says
Kilonzo, the lodge manager. "Tourism is the lifeline
of this area. Without the lake and the flamingos, our
lifeline is threatened."
Charles J. Hanley writes for the Associated Press