Environmentalists lose appeal against flamingo dam development

Posted by Laura Grant on April 17, 2009
Posted in Conservation

baby-flamingo

A baby flamingo at Kamfers Dam taken by the Flamcam webcam on the breeding island, courtesy Save the Flamingo Association

Environmentalists concerned about the future of the lesser flamingos at Kimberley’s Kamfers Dam – one of only four sites in the whole of Africa where these birds breed – received some bad news this week. Their appeal against a decision to allow a massive housing development to be built in close proximity to the dam has been overturned.

Mark Anderson, the ornithologist who was dismissed from his job at the Northern Cape department of tourism, environment and conservation because of his work trying to save the flamingos of Kamfers Dam, broke the news at a talk he gave in Johannesburg on Tuesday organised by Birdlife South Africa to raise funds for the flamingos.

He said the Save the Flamingo Association will now have to take their battle to court, but the Kimberley-based group will need to raise about R1-million to pay for this legal action.

There have been lesser flamingos on Kamfers Dam for decades, but it wasn’t until January 2008 that the flamingos started to breed successfully thanks to an artificial island built for the birds in a part of the dam where disturbances, such as from people and dogs, could be minimised.

A breeding island for greater flamingos in the Camargue, in the Rhone Delta, France, that had been built in the 1970s was something of an inspiration to Anderson. But he and his colleagues were the first to build an island for lesser flamingos. They were amazed at how quickly the flamingos accepted the island, within four days of the completion of the island in 2006, 17 flamingos were spotted on it.

The island was built from 26,500 tonnes of material, mainly calcrete from a local quarry, and is topped with a 200mm layer of clay from which the flamingos make their nest turrets. It’s S-shape provides two sheltered bays and four ponds, which have submersible pumps powered by solar panels, keep the material wet for the birds to build their nests. The island was built with the help of local company Ekapa Mining.

The first breeding attempt on the island in January 2007 was unsuccessful and between May and August 2007 there were no birds on the island at all. Anderson began to worry that he had built a R500,000 white elephant. But then in September, the birds began to arrive and up to 40,000 were counted on the island that month. In January 2008, the first six baby flamingos were seen and by March there were 9,000 of them.

A great milestone had been reached: it was the first time lesser flamingos had bred on an artificial island, but, more importantly, it was the first time lesser flamingos had bred successfully in South Africa. In Africa they breed at Etosha Pan in Namibia, Sua Pan in Botswana and Lake Natron in Tanzania. Lesser flamingos are listed in the Red Data Book because their numbers are declining. The fact that they “put their eggs in too few baskets”, so to speak, doesn’t help. This is an important reason why the Kamfers Dam breeding site should be conserved, says Anderson.

The development, which Anderson says will comprise 6,500 houses and is, at its closest point, 250m from the dam, isn’t the only thing threatening flamingos. Raw sewerage is leaking into the dam from the broken Homevale sewerage works causing the water quality to deteriorate. The Save the Flamingo campaign is trying to persuade the local authorities to take urgent action to prevent the dam from becoming a “polluted cesspool devoid of birdlife, and a hazard to the people of Kimberley”.

The Kamfers Dam flamingos could be a huge ecotourism attraction for Kimberley, says Anderson.

They have now bred successfully for two years in a row. This year there may be as many as 15,000 chicks by the end of the season, says Anderson. Lesser flamingos on Estosha Pan breed successfully on average every 10 years – a comparison that serves to highlight the importance of the new breeding site for Southern Africa’s lesser flamingo population.

A state-of-the-art webcam was installed on the island at a cost of R250,000 last year that allows Mark and the rest of the world to get a rare glimpse at what’s going on among the flamingos – their breeding sites are usually too remote to allow people to get up close and personal. The webcam is not working properly at present – it is thought to have been struck by lightning – and it may be a while before anyone can access the island to fix it. In the meantime, though, Mark’s wife Tania has made some videos using the webcam which you can see on the Save the Flamingo Facebook site. One I particularly like is of a day-old chick on a nest turret.

Mark Anderson accepted a job as the executive director of Birdlife SA shortly before he and two of his colleagues, Julius Koen and Eric Hermann, were suspended by the Northern Cape conservation department for their work trying to save the flamingos in August 2008.

Eric Hermann returned to work late last year, but according to Anderson, Julius Koen is still at home, without access to his pension accrued after working 34 years for the department.

Anderson himself was found guilty on all 17 charges against him at a disciplinary hearing he was unable to attend. But he says he is taking the matter to court.

To find out what you can do to help save the lesser flamingos of Kamfers Dam visit Save the Flamingo‘s website.

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