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Twin threat heightens flamingo's plight

Last modified: 10 July 2008

Lesser flamingos, Lake Natron

Image: Owen Newman/

A second major threat is facing endangered lesser flamingos in Africa after the announcement of development plans close to a man-made breeding site, built less than two years ago to help reverse the birds' decline.

Kamfers Dam near Kimberley, South Africa, is the only nesting site for lesser flamingos in the country and one of only six breeding areas for the birds in the world.

The wetland has hosted more than 50,000 lesser flamingos – about 50 per cent of the southern African population – and an incredible 9,000 chicks hatched on the dam's deliberately S-shaped artificial flamingo island this year.

But conservationists believe new homes planned for a buffer zone protecting the island could cause the birds to desert the site, where pollution from a sewage plant is thought to be causing deformities in lesser flamingo chicks.


Lesser flamingos are notoriously vulnerable to disturbance and human encroachment and the new development, and the pollution, could break South African Government commitments to international treaties safeguarding wildlife.

Duncan Pritchard, Acting Executive Director of BirdLife South Africa, said: 'Creating the breeding island at Kamfers Dam was a huge investment and its future should not be jeopardised by development or pollution.

'If tests prove the birds' deformities are being caused by poor water quality, many other species and possibly the entire aquatic system of the dam could be at risk.

'Without urgent action, the dam will become a polluted cesspool devoid of birdlife and a hazard to the people of Kimberley. If nothing is done and the housing development is allowed, our political leaders will have failed us.'

Kamfers Dam is being used to dump raw sewage from a malfunctioning treatment works close to the birds' breeding island. Yet the Sol Plaatje Municipality, which runs the sewage plant and includes a lesser flamingo in its emblem, is backing plans to build 6,500 upmarket homes on part of a buffer zone surrounding the island.

The South African Government has designated Kamfers Dam a Natural Heritage Site and Dr Brooks Childress, a world expert on flamingos, described the dam as 'arguably the single most important flamingo conservation project to have taken place anywhere in the world in recent years.'

He added: 'If left undisturbed, this new breeding island should have a significant beneficial effect in stabilising the southern African population of this species.'

Enormous threats

Development and pollution pose the most serious threats to lesser flamingos in Africa. Between 1.5 and 2.5 million of the birds – 75 per cent of the world's population - have nested on Lake Natron in Tanzania but the Tanzanian government is backing the plans of Indian multinational TATA to develop the site.

TATA wants to take saltwater and freshwater from the area for the export of soda ash. Lake Natron forms an isolated and magical panorama, which for years has been the species' most important breeding site in the world.

Paul Buckley, an Africa specialist with the RSPB, said: 'Lesser flamingos are facing enormous threats most of which are being caused by man. Southern and eastern Africa are incredibly important areas for these birds and the loss of lesser flamingos from Kamfers Dam and Lake Natron would together be a very serious blow to an already gravely threatened species.

'Lesser flamingos have declined throughout Africa and Kamfers Dam should be allowed to become an important sanctuary for these birds.'

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