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African conservationists oppose flamingo extinction

afrol News, 16 October - Leading conservationist from 24 African nations met in the Kenyan capital Nairobi to sign a petition opposing the proposed chemical plant on the shores of Tanzania’s Lake Natron. Conservationists attending the BirdLife’s Council meeting fear the plant would extinct 75% of the world’s Lesser Flamingo population.

Signed by delegates of BirdLife’s Council for Africa Partnership (CAP) in Nairobi, the petition followed months of speculation and international outcry over the proposed salt ash development on Tanzania’s border with Kenya.

BirdLife officials said more than half of a million pairs of Lesser Flamingos may nest at Lake Natron, which is the only reliable breeding site for the species’ East African population. More than 75% of the world‘s total Lesser Flamingos are found in East Africa.

The lake’s isolation and vast salt flats provide crucial safety from predators. Its alkaline waters, rich in cyanobacteria, and lakeside springs supply food and freshwater for parents and chicks attracts the species.

The lake supports the huge concentrations of Lesser Flamingos that feed and roost on other lakes up and down the Rift Valley, hailed as “the greatest ornithological spectacle in the world” and supporting a thriving tourist economy, conservationists said.

The proposed salt ash plant would pump 530 cubic metres of brine per hour and produce 0.5 million tons of sodium carbonate a year. The large-scale development would also include a sizable residential complex.

Delegates fear that the entire flamingo population could be lost if the development goes ahead, citing a number of reasons such as changes in the chemical composition of the water (affecting the cyanobacteria on which the flamingos depend), disruption of nest sites, and expansion of surrounding infrastructure, a factor which could bring in new predators, particularly Marabou Stork Leptoptilos crumeniferus – a species linked to mass nest desertions in breeding Greater Flamingo, a similar species.

BirdLife International recognised Lake Natron as an Important Bird Area.

"This is a clear opportunity for the Tanzanian government to continue showing moral and environmental responsibility in Africa by taking a decision not to proceed with the Soda Ash development." BirdLife‘s Africa Division head, Dr Hazell Shokellu Thompson, said in a news dispatch.

The construction of the proposed plant was first made public after an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) put forward by a team of consultants involving professionals from the Tanzania government and India’s Tata Chemicals in mid-July this year.

A revised version of the assessment document was submitted to the country’s National Environment Management Council that will in turn make recommendations to the Minister of State for Environment. The decision ultimately rest here.

"We strongly urge the government to look at its natural resources – to look at the sustainable resource Lake Natron currently provides. The lake secures a way of life for nomadic communities, and the flamingos produce a thriving tourist economy. To jeopardize this for an ill-considered development would be economic, and moral, suicide,” said Mengistu Wondafrash, Chairman of the Council of the African Partnership (CAP).

The sight of Lesser Flamingo are a big pull for tourists to the area.

“If we can’t work to protect habitat for one of Africa’s most charismatic ‘postcard’ species, what hope is there for other species?” he added.

Much has been made of the Tanzanian government’s role in the final decision. “As a continent, Africa is making great strides towards conserving its immense biodiversity,” said the Head of BirdLife’s Africa Division, Dr Hazell Shokellu Thompson.

“Tanzania must think clearly of what this decision on Lake Natron says of its environmental credentials, and to the other twenty-four nations which are represented here at this meeting today.”

"This is a clear opportunity for the Tanzanian government to continue showing moral and environmental responsibility in Africa by taking a decision not to proceed with the soda ash development."

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