Flamingos may be homeless as lake dries up

KENYA'S LAKE Nakuru, one of the world's great natural spectacles and home to more than a million flamingos, is in imminent danger of drying up, conservationists have warned.

The sight of the birds taking flight in a dense pink cloud has become essential viewing for hundreds of thousands of tourists on safari in Kenya, but the lake is dying because of deforestation around the national park and water levels are dropping dramatically. Joseph Warutere, national park warden at the lake, said that without protection Nakuru could disappear.

Local business leaders said its loss would have a catastrophic effect on tourism. Peter Kinya, chairman of the Nakuru Business Association, said the time for action had come. "We cannot afford to lose such an important national heritage by sitting back and watching man-made activities destroy it," he told the Kenyan Daily Nation newspaper. "We have to rise up and protect our lake."

Lake Nakuru is one of a chain of soda lakes that stretches along the Great Rift Valley. Along with neighbouring Lake Bogoria, it is home to the planet's highest density of flamingos - about 80 per cent of the world's population live around the eastern Rift Valley lakes.

The flamingos, along with hundreds of other bird species, attract 200,000 visitors to the park each year, making it one of the east African country's biggest tourist attractions.

Recent studies suggest that the lake has shrunk by roughly four square miles since the 1970s, as tributaries dried up and soil was washed from deforested slopes into its waters.

And as water levels decrease, levels of toxic metals such as zinc, mercury and copper from industrial run-off have all increased - bringing a catastrophic threat to wildlife.

Mr Kinya cited the draining of poisonous chemicals into the lake, which he said was killing birds and fish. The presence of heavy metals was blamed four years ago for the death of 40,000 flamingos.

Conservationists have also warned that sewage from growing human settlements around the lake is finding its way into the water, leading to explosions of algal growth, starving other organisms of oxygen. Yesterday, Joseph Muya, vice-chairman of the Friends of Lake Nakuru, said that the lake was too important to lose. His organisation has planted thousands of seedlings in the area to reverse deforestation, and attempted to persuade farmers not to take water from the shallow lake for irrigation.

"Everyone knows about the flamingos but we have a rhino sanctuary here too, along with 450 different species of birds," he said.

"That makes this site nationally and internationally important for wildlife, and means it has a huge economic importance to the local population." The importance of the lake was recognised in 1960 when it became Africa's first bird sanctuary, becoming a fully-fledged national park eight years later.