Over 2 000 Lesser Flamingo chicks are currently being reared at various rehabilitation centres around South Africa after nests were seemingly abandoned by their parents at Kamfers Dam, outside Kimberley. In late January, the dam’s water levels had receded substantially following an extended hot, dry spell in the region and from the lack of inflow of treated sewage water from the Homevale Sewage Works which usually keeps the dam permanently inundated and rich in blue-green algae on which the flamingos feed. Failing infrastructure, dysfunctional pump stations, lack of maintenance and non-compliance from Sol Plaatje Municipality has resulted in limited sewage flowing to the works and therefore no excess treated water flowing into the dam.
Flamingos require lots of standing water in order to breed successfully; the birds at Kamfers Dam usually breed from November – April coinciding with the summer rains in the regions. If drought and no-flow conditions persist and areas around nests dry-out they become vulnerable to predation and disturbance from dogs and other predators, including humans. Observations at the dam on 19 January 2019 revealed that nests on the perimeter of the breeding colony were exposed and seemed deserted; some abandoned eggs were seen in a few nests or lying on the ground but no chicks were seen. Most of the other breeding birds in the colony were seen further into the dam.
With the hot and dry conditions, and other large areas of nests (some with small chicks) seemingly abandoned or in areas of receding water levels, there was a decision taken to rescue the chicks to prevent any further losses. The SPCA together with Linja Allen and other concerned citizens of Kimberley coordinated this effort and the first group of 850 birds were rescued on 25 January. These birds were subsequently flown, courtesy of Kimberley Ekapa Mining, to a private facility in Pretoria to be hand reared. Over the next several days more rescue efforts were undertaken resulting in almost 2000 chicks being rescued and finally transported to other facilities around South Africa, including SANNCOB and The World of Birds in Cape Town, uShaka Marine World in Durban, Onderstepoort Veterinary Hospital, Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital and VulPro in Gauteng.
There was an overwhelming response from the Kimberley community who volunteered to assist with the initial feeding of chicks arriving at the Kimberley SPCA after each rescue effort. Currently 18 flamingo chicks, from the last rescue effort, are being kept and reared at the Kimberley SPCA under supervision from international rehabilitation experts from PAAZA, the Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria which includes facilities such as Sea World in the USA and Dallas Zoo. Additional experts have also been dispatched to other rehabilitation centres. Good rains started falling in Kimberley on 1 February which resulted in water levels rising in the dam which has now come to the flamingos’ rescue. BirdLife South Africa has been monitoring the colony over the past two weeks and noticed that the improved conditions have led to more flamingos breeding but has allowed some of the bigger, fluffier brown chicks to walk around the colony and be fed regularly by their parents. After a meeting in Kimberley on 11 February with all relevant role-players a decision was taken that no more birds should be rescued and that the birds be left to continue with their incubation and chick rearing activities. Ekapa Mining, together with the Sol Plaatje Municipality, have also made efforts to repair pipes and other infrastructure to and from Homevale Sewage Works to allow treated water to flow into the dam.
So what has this rescue operation achieved? Firstly, it has once again raised awareness of the importance of Kamfers Dam for Lesser Flamingos. The dam (or salt pan as it should be referred to) is only the fourth breeding site in Africa for this species which is listed as Near-threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The flamingos first started breeding at the dam in 2004, and in 2006 an artificially built S-shaped island was constructed in the northern section of the dam to further encourage breeding and prevent chick losses from poaching and disturbance; the construction of the island was sponsored by Ekapa Mining and the birds bred successfully on the island for three-four years producing up to 23 000 chicks from 2007-2010. Unfortunately, the island flooded during a high rainfall event exacerbated by excess flow from the Homevale Sewage Works and was badly damaged and required extensive repairs.
Secondly, it has highlighted the plight of the Lesser Flamingo. Globally, the species is under threat from habitat loss mainly from proposed housing developments and mining at or close to its breeding sites, irregular breeding patterns leading to poor breeding success and poor water quality. Numbers are believed to be in decline globally so any effort to safeguard its breeding sites and encourage high breeding success must be seen as a positive move to conserve the species. Kamfers Dam has enormous potential to do this and conservation efforts to date have shown that it can be done. The dam must be seen as a globally significant site for Lesser Flamingos. It is currently listed as a Global Important Bird and Biodiversity Area by BirdLife International but it is not formally protected. Efforts to do this would greatly enhance the future conservation of the flamingo colony at the dam.
Thirdly, it has highlighted the interest and enthusiasm of thousands of volunteers, animal lovers, concerned citizens and rehabilitation groups in caring for a species that is under threat. This is a first mass rescue and rearing operation of its kind for Lesser Flamingos in Africa. Lessons have been learnt and these will be taken forward should such an event happen again. Monitoring and rehabilitation protocols are being developed in conjunction with ornithologists and rehabilitation experts to ensure that processes can be improved, streamlined and risks further minimized. Nevertheless, the response of the local and international community has been overwhelming and can only serve as a heart-warming response to ‘nature in crisis’, raising awareness of the importance of a threatened species and the way in which people and organisations must work together to find common ground to sustain both wildlife and human well-being.
Dr Doug Harebottle
Ornithologist and HoD – Dept of Biological and Agricultural Sciences
Sol Plaatje University