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Flamingo lakes of Kenya explored
Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Environment News Service (Leicester, UK)

The University of Leicester, in association with Earthwatch Institute Europe, has received Darwin Initiative funding from the British government for three years to further the conservation of lesser flamingo and Kenya's Lake Bogoria National Reserve, a wetland of international importance designated under the Ramsar Convention.

The Darwin Initiative provides a means of mobilizing British expertise, in partnership with conservationists from developing countries worldwide, to help safeguard the Earth's biodiversity. Earthwatch programs team amateur volunteers with scientists to further research and exploration.

Project leader Dr. David Harper is a senior lecturer in ecology in the Biology Department at the University of Leicester. He has been leading teams of ecologists to study Rift Valley lakes for 20 years. He started working at Bogoria in 2000 and Baringo in 2001.

In 2000, Lake Bogoria was designated as a Ramsar wetland. This status requires the development of a conservation management plan, but there is little scientific information concerning the lake's ecology to aid this process.

The lake is a vital feeding site for the threatened lesser flamingo, Phoeniconaias minor, and an important Kenyan site for the black-necked grebe, Podiceps nigricollis, and Cape teal, Anas capensis. The lake often holds more than 90 percent of the total number of both species found in Kenya.

Dr. Harper says understanding the interaction between these species and between them and the lake ecology is critical to their conservation and development of a sound management plan for Lake Bogoria.

The cornerstone of the scientific research is the monthly research expeditions to the three key flamingo lakes in Kenya - Bogoria, Nakuru and Elmenteita. Never before has the ecology of these three lakes been studied concurrently.

The research will be carried out by staff from the project's scientific partners in Kenya - Lake Bogoria National Reserve, National Museums of Kenya Ornithology Department, University of Nairobi Zoology Department, Kenya Wildlife Services Naivasha Training Institute, WWF, and Delamere Estates.

Theories about why lesser flamingos move between these lakes in an unpredictable manner can now be tested. Some scientists think that it is a decline in food quality at one lake that triggers movement; others think it is a change in environmental stressors.

Scientists will attempt to answer some of their questions about lesser flamingos utilizing satellites to track the birds. Dr. Brooks Childress, who is leading the flamingo study, is a research associate of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and at the National Museums of Kenya. He has tagged seven birds to learn their movement patterns.

More information about the funding partnerships that have led to satellite-tracking of Kenyan lesser flamingos, as well as the individual birds' movements, are on the WWT website at: http//www.wwt.org.uk.

Scientists will try to understand why the lesser flamingos die in large numbers at irregular intervals. They will build up an understanding of the biology of the bird in health, so that a database of knowledge exists when another die-off occurs. They will study body mass, blood cell volume, proportion of different white blood cells and total parasite load.

The Darwin Initiative will fund the more expensive analysis, both of blood and environmental samples such as water and sediment from the lakes, in the UK. The Darwin project will identify the essential lake ecosystem properties that sustain these water birds and collect the baseline data needed to help understand the birds' response to changes in these properties.

A field laboratory will be established, and the results will also be translated and disseminated to local communities living around the lake who will be responsible for its conservation.

The training component funded by the Darwin Project can be seen as an educational pyramid, with formal university training of a few core partners at the pinnacle, leading down to a base stretching out to all the inhabitants of the area of Lake Bogoria through their schools. Five individuals will receive university training under the Lifelong Learning programme at Leicester. Two will be trained to Masters level in biodiversity. Three more will be trained at undergraduate level in ecology and conservation.

Nine Kenyans will be invited to apply to fully participate in the Earthwatch research teams at one per team, and 120 Kenyan undergraduate students and scientists will be invited to apply for weeklong workshops.

The famous ornithologist, Leslie Brown, who discovered the flamingo breeding site at Lake Natron, wrote in 1979, "Personally, I hope that no one ever will fully rationalize flamingos, and that they will remain the supremely beautiful, elusive, opportunistic, unpredictable beings I like to think they are."

To find out more, contact Dr. David Harper at: dmh@le.ac.uk


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