Meet Lake Nakuru’s spectacular flamingos
By Jayne Rose Gacheri

Image [Courtesy]

It is amazing that once you start scheduling your family outings, they become such fun that within a very short time you get hooked. Whenever an opportunity comes, it is time to think about travel.

So, on this particular occasion, Toya my sixteen-year-old daughter and I are set to travel to Nakuru to see the “little princesses and princes” (her name for the Flamingos!). We have been to this destination many times, but it has never tired her. She always gets thrilled by the safari drives, watching the monkeys and baboons doing their tricks, getting intrigued by a rare dik-dik pair encounter and their love and commitment to each other – besides the Flamingos, there is always something special about Lake Nakuru National Park.

Nakuru District lies within the Great Rift Valley and captures the attraction of local and international visitors. In the list of unique attractions is the Lake Nakuru National Park with its pink and white flamingos. The Park itself is home to the sanctuary for the Black Rhino and a multitude of other game.

As soon as we enter the park, we are swept away by the amazing diversity of birds, animals and vegetation within Lake Nakuru National Park – splendour of big game and birds in their natural environment. As we drive through the Park, it is evident that the Friends of Lakes Nakuru and Elementaita (a conservation group) have been working hard to preserve the two major ecosystems – the aquatic and terrestrial that are found within the Park.

This area covering over 188 kilometres boasts of having more than 150 different kinds of plant species and over 500 bird species both resident and visitors (migrants). As we descend to the lowest point in the Park and come upon Lake Nakuru, a catchment area of about 200 square kilometres, the sight of pink flamingos is a sight to behold.

“Aren’t’ the Princesses and Princes a real beauty?” Toya, asks as I turn to look at her delightful smiling face with a rejoinder: “wow, how so stunning!” Indeed, many visiting ornithologists have described this sight as the greatest bird spectacle in the world. This is what is referred to as the “Great Flamingo Migration). Just like the counterpart, the Great Wildebeest Migration in the Mara, if you want to enjoy a spectacular display by the 1.5 million pink and white flamingos, you must visit during the migration times (between May to November for the flamingos and June to October for the wildebeest).

Flamingos are the vagabonds of the ecosystem in the Great Rift Valley. The birds choose to live in any of the saline lakes scattered all over Rift Valley (Lake Elementaita, Lake Nakuru and Lake Baringo, all of which have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites) or might migrate to Lake Solai or Lake Natron (Tanzania). At times, the waders will fly to and from countries as far as apart as Malawi and Palestine – the Great Rift Valley extends between these countries.

The longevity of the flamingos’ sojourn in any of the countries depends on the availability of food in the host lakes. Lake Nakuru is the dining (feeding) table to the flamingos while Lake Natron is the “maternity” (breeding). The waders prefer Lake Natron as their “maternity” because the Lake has muddy shores where they build their nests. The rest of the Rift Valley lakes have sandy shores.

The Flamingos are not migratory by nature and only do so when it is necessary. They feed on blue-green algae, which grows well in clear water. This means the surrounding of the lake must provide fresh water. Environmental experts say that when the surrounding of the lake is contaminated, it causes siltation, which inhibits the algae’s growth. Siltation and the dirt also make it difficult for the birds to fly after feeding.

The 1990s settlement of more than 60,000 people by the state in a 30,000-hectare piece of land carved out of forestland in the Eastern Mau area, a vital catchment basin for the lake made the lives of the flamingos a “living hell”. Human activities increased siltation at the lake through Feeder Rivers as a result of vegetation cover removal in the catchment areas. They waders died in their thousands due to stress, starvation and food poisoning. Many of the surviving ones fled to neighbouring lakes of Elementaita and Lake Baringo although the two lakes do not have sufficient food

Although the gorgeous lesser flamingos are the main attraction of Lake Nakuru, be sure to see a range of other bird species, especially white pelicans, as well as other wildlife around Lake Nakuru National Park. There are just a few spots on our planet which can boast 1.5 million flamingos colony.

Flamingos are striking! They are spectacularly pink in colour, are oddly shaped atop tall, have stilted legs with knees that bend backwards with every step taken. They are among the most iconic birds on the planet. Lesser flamingos are differentiated from their greater relatives by rosier feathers, a darker beak and crimson legs, while their slightly smaller size can only really be identified when the two subspecies are seen together. Two-thirds of the world’s populations of these marvellous water birds are found in southern and East Africa, as they require a highly specialised habitat and diet.

All the Flamingos in East Africa fly in massive V formations when heading for their preferred breeding area, Lake Natron in Tanzania. It’s an exceptional sight – 2.5 million long-legged, pink-feathered birds taking off in an almighty surge from the surface of the lake, revealing the blue water beneath their crowded wings. The birds migrate in unison between the alkaline lakes in the East African Rift Valley as food sources deplete and the season to breed arrives.

The birds rely on unique environments in which to lay their eggs and have never bred in captivity, meaning that a positive change in their ‘Near-Threatened’ status depends entirely on their environment. Lake Natron was for decades the chosen nesting spot for all East Africa’s Flamingos, with couples producing just one chalky egg at a time. However, industrial development has polluted the water source, making Lake Natron, one of only three breeding sites in southern and East Africa, unsuitable.

So, if we want to enjoy the stunning pink and white carpet-like display by the “princesses and princesses” alive at Lake Nakuru, efforts to preserve the ecosystems must be upheld. This will enable the algae to grow fast (it has happened in the past) in order to sustain the 1.5 million flamingos that migrate to Lake Nakuru. The Flamingo population consumes about 160 ton of weed in a day. This will keep the flamingo migration patterns alive and the waders will keep flying from their dining tables to maternity and vice versa.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Environmentalists and stakeholders are working in partnership with the government alongside a 10-year strategic management that involves the community around the lake to bring a balance between nature and human development outside the lake through education and public sensitization. Reports indicate that there has been a slight improvement in the amount of garbage dumped into the water.