The exact population for lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor) in Tanzania is hard to come by, but estimates range from 1.5 million to 2.5 million birds. That might seem like a lot, but the species has faced a dramatic decline in numbers in recent years, enough for the IUCN to classify the birds "near threatened" on its Red List of Threatened Species.
The decline comes in no small part from ecological disturbances by humans at the lesser flamingo’s three major breeding sites in Africa, typified by plans (since scuttled) to build a soda ash mining plant on Lake Natron. At least 75 percent of the world’s lesser flamingos breed there, making the lake’s health vital to the species’s survival.
Last week, Tanzania announced an action plan to help protect flamingos not just within its own borders, but in neighboring countries. The plan, developed with the assistance of Cambridge, England–based BirdLife International, includes conducting new scientific research on the flamingos, managing local water resources, and instituting cooperation between African nations—a rarity for that continent.
"In Africa, we tend to look at species and populations as national assets," says Ken Mwathe, coordinator for BirdLife’s Nairobi, Kenya, office. "Even where we have populations like wildebeests that range between countries, there hasn’t been much cooperation."
But the flamingo action plan changes that. "We must have a regional perspective as far as managing flamingo populations," Mwathe says. "We agreed to encourage regional cooperation throughout the flamingos’ range, including Tanzania and Kenya, where lakes provide critical breeding grounds. We will also work with Ethiopia and Uganda.
"When it comes to flamingos, I think we are more likely to talk to each other and identify priority actions," Mwathe says. "We have already been trying to communicate and collaborate, especially when we were working on the plan to stop the soda ash plant. I think we can learn from that."
Other facets of the action plan include "ensuring that the integrity of the lake and surrounding ecosystem is maintained," Mwathe says. The governments have agreed to examine how water and other resources are exploited. Construction sites near the lakes will be subject to "thorough scrutiny and strategic environmental assessment," he adds.
Scientific research is also a vital part of the action plan. "Very little is known about flamingos, especially in terms of their breeding requirements," Mwathe points out. "When do they breed, what conditions do they require, what sort of changes should be avoided in a lake where they are breeding and feeding?"
In addition, these East African countries need to determine the size of their flamingo populations, so they can monitor the numbers in the future.