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Story:The great discovery of the largest breeding colony of Lesser Flamingo in the world, belongs to an ornithologist by the name of Leslie Brown, who discovered the site in 1954 (also an indication as to how remote the lake is). Reading about Brown’s intrepid explorations in the book ‘Pink Africa’, the author tells the story of how Brown discovered the breeding colony, using the following words: ‘Leslie Brown nearly paid very dearly for his discovery of the Lesser Flamingoes’ breeding grounds. On his first attempt to reach a colony in Lake Natron, he burnt his feet so badly that he came close to needing a double amputation. He was disabled for six weeks and underwent numerous skin grafts’. The story goes on to say that Brown reserved a particular invective for Lake Natron and he referred to the dreadful heat to be, ‘Such as to make one wish one had never been born’! He goes on to describe the lake as being filled with ‘appalling smells, treacherous surfaces and sheer daunting size’. Both before his discovery and after his discovery, he used the following words to describe the lake: ‘evil, fetid, foul, frightful, ghastly, horrible, horrid, leprous, stinking and vile’.
Placing Brown’s ‘infectious love’ for Natron aside, residing in the southern part of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley for close on two years, I was afforded the unique opportunity of exploring and documenting Natron from her northern shores. The lake is readily photographed from space by NASA and is heralded as one of the most dynamic landforms on the planet. Images from the shore of Natron are however rare, and I set out to document this wonderfully rugged wilderness with my tripod in hand and my feet firmly planted in volcanic mud.
Standing on the shore of Lake Natron, one is offered a phenomenally vast vista and almost guaranteed of being all alone (except on Tuesdays and Thursdays when passing Maasai warriors traverse their way to or from a weekly market on the Kenyan side of the border). Looking to the North, one sees Oldoinyo Shompole, an extinct volcano resembling a large mountain of molten wax. Shompole itself, has been heralded as the most unpleasant mountain in East Africa to climb. Although its summit is a mere 5131 ft above sea level, the sides of the mountain are covered in Acacia mellifera shrubs. These Acacias are the proverbial ‘wag n bietjie’ or ‘wait a bit’ thorn and promise to cling to any form of life passing by. With no distinct pathways and no defined route, it is rumoured that the Kenyan Mountaineering Club has, on previous occasions, abandoned the eight-hour summit. Shompole is therefore best viewed from the lakeshore, where its mirrored reflection provides a breathtakingly tranquil canvas. Turning to the east one sees the Gelai Caldera (another extinct volcano), while due south lies a modern day anomaly in the form of Oldoinyo Lengai, the only active volcano in the eastern arm of the Great Rift Valley. Lengai, as the volcano is affectionately called, means ‘Mountain of God’ and is also the only active volcano of its kind in the world! It is a rare carbonatite volcano producing a unique larva containing a lower silica content than other conventional volcanoes. From the northern shores of Natron, and on clear day, one can see the white larva spilling down Lengai’s face, where its reaction with atmospheric water has turned it an ashy white colour. The Maasai believe that lengai (or god) resides in high places and that the streaming larva is in fact his beard. Oldoinyo Lengai’s last spectacular eruption took place in 1967 and the crater floors have, over the past few years, been steadily rising. Currently, the volcano is almost devoid of a northern crater, signaling the labour pains of a spectacular eruption in the not too distant future?
Thousands of tons of volcanic salts are indeed only half the recipe that comprises the formation of a soda lake. The second mandatory characteristic is that the lake itself must have no outlet. This lack of an outlet is essentially what separates soda lakes from freshwater lakes in the Great Rift Valley. Lake Natron is simply a volcanic cul-de-sac, facilitating the accumulation of vast quantities of salts, creating a caustic soup ideal for algal blooms. Added to this, the lake is shallow throughout and at certain times of the year, the formation of inaccessible mudflats, make it the ideal breeding ground for flamingoes.
The lake receives some of its fresh water from underground springs and rainfall, but it relies on a single river, the Ewaso N’giro River, for its main source of fresh water. The Ewaso is birthed in the Mau Escarpment on the Kenyan Highlands and snakes its way onto the Rift floor, before spilling its contents into the Ewaso Swamps. Emerging from the swamps as a mere trickling stream, the water clings to the floor of the rift, fighting its evaporative tendencies before ending its journey on the shallow Natron basin. With nowhere to drain, the freshwater fast changes its PH status, becoming a part of the lake. Standing on the shore, the smell of this caustic water permeates the air, adding a strange olfactory dimension to this timeless wilderness. This same clinical aroma travels on the hot dry winds up the valley, depositing its strange volcanic odour many miles away. The water in the centre of Natron is alkaline in the extreme and painful soda burns await any intrepid explorers who choose to wade into the caustic soup. The only vertebrate able to thrive in this hostile environment is the White-Lipped Tilapia (Oreochromis alcilicus). The scientific name of which points to its ability to survive in water that would kill a thirsty Zebra! This beautiful little Tilapia does indeed have white lips, but it is the high PH level of its body fluids, to which it owes its caustic existence. By matching the alkaline levels of the lake, this species avoids Natron’s osmotic obsessions.
It is however, not just the White-Lipped Tilapia that thrive in such basic conditions, but also a blue-green algae belonging to the genus Spirulina. Flying over the lake, it becomes very apparent, that these algae might go by the name ‘Blue Green’ but its their coral red pigments that stand out! From above, the algal blooms resemble the lunar surface of Mars! Viewing NASSA’s satellite photographs of Lake Natron, one begins to understand the dynamic nature of algal blooms as no two photographs are the same. On areas of the basin where the water has evaporated, large pink soda flats form, radiating a pink reflection that can be viewed on the surface of overhead clouds. This same algae forms the staple diet of the Lesser Flamingoes, and is also responsible for the beautiful colouration of their plumes. The East African population of Lesser Flamingo spends most of its time on Lake Nakuru and Bogoria, where the algal blooms are unrivalled. However, when it comes time to breed, the flamingoes choose Lake Natron to be their only East African breeding ground, and indeed the largest breeding ground in the world. Numbers in excess of 2 million birds have been recorded breeding at Natron, a wilderness that affords the birds maximum safety and privacy. Standing on the shore, one cannot view the mud-cone nests of the flame-birds as they choose to breed in parts of the lake that are completely inaccessible to any form of terrestrial predator. From the eastern bank of Natron, one can however witness thousands of birds making their way to the shore where they drink and bath in freshwater, emerging from hot underground springs. These flamboyant processions of birds, offset against the strewn chunks of jet-black volcanic rock, are indeed a spectacular sight.
Not only do older maps depict the lake spanning across the Kenyan border but if one visits these lake remnants today, you will find an aggressive saline grassland sneaking its way south towards the current day Natron. The lake seems to be in a pattern of recession and this becomes glaringly obvious when driving in from the Kenyan side, whereby one drives on the dry lakebed for many kilometers and far into Tanzania, before reaching any water. The lake no longer reaches the Kenyan border except during exceptional floods as experienced in the El Nino of 2000. The big question to ask is, “What is causing this pattern of recession”?
The river has its source many miles away on the Mau Escarpment and towards the interior of Kenya. From there, the river snakes its way through numerous towns and villages not least of which is Narok, the largest and most prominent town on the border of the Masai Mara. The Ewaso’s banks boast some of the most beautiful Sycamore Fig forests in East Africa, and it should be a large perennial river. Both the informal take-off by people in the villages needing water to live, as well as ecologically unsound irrigation practices used to grow vegetables, are of concern. These factors combined with the vast cattle herds drinking from the river when it reaches the floor of the Rift Valley (also trampling the banks and adding silt), is also of concern. The Ewaso is at times so low and carries so much sediment, that sand banks form making it impossible to even canoe down! It is sometimes hard to believe, when viewing the Ewaso as a trickle entering Natron, that the lake exists at all. The river does however, nearing the end of its journey, contain a few deep channels closer to the Ewaso Swamps. Here too there is an issue, as the Maasai need to cross these channels with their livestock and to do so, they have built bridges using logs. These man-made logjams do not completely halter the flow, but it is hindered and with the Flamingoes’ breeding requirements being as delicate as they are, even this could adversely affect the colony. As with other areas in Africa, rivers pose a major conservation challenge as they flow across vast tracks of land and often across international boundaries. To save Natron and other ecosystems there is a real need for effective international treaties protecting rivers, which after all act as critical arteries supporting life! No more so than the Ewaso N’giro, Lake Natron’s only lifeline.
Another alarming and highly unnecessary threat to the breeding birds, comes in the form of charter pilots flying foreign clients and photographers over the lake, thereby potentially disrupting breeding colonies of birds. Many of these cowboy pilots enter the Tanzanian airspace illegally from the Kenyan side and carry out their aerial acrobatics with ignorance and insensitivity. I have even witnessed a helicopter flying over the breeding birds and when it came to land on the shore, an American lady leapt out exclaiming with glee that when the birds flew off she could even see the eggs!
Lastly, as with so many other ecosystems but none more so than Lake Natron - where the balance between water and evaporation is by nature already delicately critical - Global Warming offers the proverbial ‘nail in the coffin’. The slightest increase in global temperature will desiccate this shallow wilderness potentially taking 75% of the world’s entire Lesser Flamingo population with it!
I believe that while the problems facing the lake are complex, they are not insurmountable. It is not too late for Natron! Placing mining projects and hydroelectric schemes aside, there are a few practical steps that could halt Natron’s demise: The Ewaso N’giro River needs to be better conserved, ensuring that irrigation practices are environment friendly and that designated stable points of the river’s bank are set aside to water livestock, thereby helping limit the excessive silt currently carried in the river. The logjams nearer the swamps must also be removed and replaced with suitable footbridges to allow the river to flow unhindered. The Maasai north of the lake, although no longer nomadic, can be taught rotational grazing techniques and the rehabilitation of currently overgrazed tracts of land should be prioritized. Charter companies, pilots, photographers and tourists alike need to take responsibility, and not fly close to the birds when on route in the area! Lastly, each one of us 6 billion plus human beings, by decreasing our own personal carbon footprints, can help save over 2 million Lesser Flamingoes, by allowing them to continue breeding on Natron’s delicate mudflats.
After my time on the shores of Natron I would like to add the following words to Brown’s repertoire when describing Natron: ‘splendid, isolated, timeless, wilderness, invigorating and surreal’. Might I suggest that Mr Brown would agree had he not risked life and limb to make his wonderful discovery!
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