Flamingos by the millions
05 October 2011 | Fact sheet
Kenya Lake System, World Heritage Site, Kenya
Background/size and location
The Kenya Lake System harbours some of the world’s greatest diversities and concentrations of bird species. It is the single most important foraging site of the Lesser Flamingos. For most of the year, up to 4 million of these magnificent birds move between the three shallow alkaline lakes in an outstanding wildlife spectacle. The lake system includes Lake Bogoria (10,700ha), Lake Nakuru (18,800ha) and Lake Elementaita (2,534ha) and their surroundings. It is situated on the floor of the Great Rift Valley in southern Kenya, where major tectonic and/or volcanic events have shaped a distinctive landscape. Surrounded by hot springs, geysers and the steep escarpment of the Rift Valley with its volcanic outcrops, the natural setting of the lakes provides an exceptional nature experience. Each of the three lakes is under a different form of protection: Lake Nakuru is a National Park; Lake Bogoria is a National Reserve, and Lake Elementaita is gazetted as a National Wildlife Sanctuary. However, all three of them are managed as Category IV (Habitat/Species Management Area) under the IUCN system. In June 2011, the site was accepted to the UNESCO Natural World Heritage List. All three areas have been designated as Ramsar sites.
View images of the World Heritage site
Fauna and flora
Overviews of the soda lakes of the Rift Valley emphasize that they “are among the world’s most productive natural ecosystems. In contrast to such prolific biological activity are the harsh physical and chemical conditions” (McClanahan and Young, 1996).
The Kenya Lake System hosts 13 globally threatened bird species and is included among the 60 “Important Bird Areas of Kenya” by Birdlife International. Within the relatively small size (less than 36,000ha in total) exists one of the most diverse and spectacular avifaunal assemblages in the world. Remarkable bird species found here include Great White Pelicans, Palearctic waders, African Spoonbills and Grey-Headed Gulls. The lakes are home to over 100 species of migratory birds, with the total number of bird species exceeding 450.
The main attraction however are indisputably the millions of Flamingos, who feed on the dense-growing green algae Spirulina platensis. Of the 5 existing species of flamingos, 2 are found in the Kenya Lake System – the Lesser and the Greater Flamingo, with occasional congregations representing more than 75% of their total populations. Their movement between the three lakes has been described by Sir Peter Scott (founding chairman of WWF) as “a sight of incredible beauty and interest and there can be no more remarkable ornithological spectacle in the world”.
The area is also home to sizable populations of mammals such as Black Rhino, Rothschild’s Giraffe, Lion, Cheetah and Wild Dog. In Lake Nakuru, a species of Tilapia (Sarotherodon alcalicus grahami) has been introduced to Lake Nakuru in 1962 and is now the main food source for fishing birds.
The vegetation is characterized by upland forest, thorny bush land dominated by Acacia, bushwillow (Combretum sp.), Ficus and grasslands adapted to high concentrations of salt.
The property faces numerous pressures, however regulatory and management measures have significantly improved during the past few years.
Increasing areas of forest have been lost to agriculture and human settlements in the catchment areas during the last thirty years. River flows have reduced markedly due to the construction of small irrigation dams along rivers flowing into the lake, resulting in less water reaching the wetlands and the lakes.
Deforestation is not a concern within the boundaries of the protected area – however it is outside, as forest loss in the surroundings directly influences the amount water going into the lakes. To address this problem, numerous reforestation programmes have been put into place in the last years.
Another problem is the pollution of water, mostly originating from the growing agricultural and industrial centre of Nakuru. Treatment of waste water entering the lake from the town has improved and water quality monitoring is now in place. Continued efforts to improve water management will be needed to mitigate threats.
In the southern area of Elementaita, overgrazing is still an issue, potentially leading to human-wildlife conflicts. It is thus intended that cattle grazing is progressively prohibited within the protected area and its buffer zone.
Large numbers of tourists, especially in Nakuru National Park, pose an additional challenge to management. The possible extension of the park to the south by merging with the Soysambu Conservancy would offer an effective way to dilute this tourism pressure in a larger conservation area.
Marie Fischborn, IUCN Global Protected Areas Programme