PAUL SPRINGETT/Peter Arnold

Big flap.
Industrial development might harm a breeding site of lesser flamingos in Tanzania. (These are elsewhere, at Ngorogoro crater).

Fighting for Flamingos

The world's most important breeding site for lesser flamingos, whose colorful gatherings at East Africa's Rift Valley lakes are one of the continent's greatest spectacles, will be threatened if an industrial building plan in Tanzania goes forward, conservationists are alleging. Although the proposal has not yet gained government approval, the first public presentation of the plan's details at a meeting yesterday brought protests from conservation groups, which dispute claims that the birds' breeding sites would not be harmed.

East Africa hosts about 2 million lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor), about 75% of the world's population. In recent years, unexplained mass die-offs of thousands of the birds at various Rift Valley lakes have alarmed conservationists (Science, 22 September 2006, p. 1724). Now they are crying foul over a plan, first aired last year, to build a soda-ash plant at Lake Natron, the only known East African breeding place for the species.

The plan is a joint venture between Tata Chemicals, of Mumbai, India, and Tanzania's National Development Corporation, a federal economic development agency. It calls for a new road and power station, as well as facilities for the 1200 workers needed to build the plant, which would extract sodium carbonate from the alkaline lake for export.

At Thursday's meeting in Tanzania's capital, Dar es Salaam, consultants for the industrial group presented sections of its draft environmental impact report and sought comments from conservationists, including ornithologist Brooks Childress of the British-based Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. He contends that even minor changes to Lake Natron's water level, chemistry, or quiet environment could interfere with flamingo breeding. The lake's "protection and preservation are crucial to the survival of the lesser flamingo," he told ScienceNOW in an e-mail. Childress heads the Wetlands International specialist group that is drafting a flamingo protection plan that could be added to international migratory bird treaties.

Another critic of the project, Chris Mangin of the British-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said in a statement "the chances of lesser flamingos continuing to breed at Lake Natron in the face of such mayhem are next to zero."

Lota Melamari, chief executive of Tanzania's Wildlife Conservation Society, told ScienceNOW after the meeting that representatives of the joint venture promised to consider conservationists' objections in refining the plan. But he says more details about the project are needed for an accurate assessment of its impact on wildlife. A representative for Tata Chemicals in Tanzania declined to comment; the company hopes for a government decision on the project by year's end.

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