Working for birds in Africa

Scientists axed in battle of flamingo dam

Date posted: 
Friday, September 5, 2008

Three high-ranking scientists face disciplinary action and the loss of their jobs because of their work to save rare Lesser Flamingos in South Africa. All three were employed by the Northern Cape provincial government which has suspended them after discovering their links to a campaign to save Kamfers Dam, one of only six Lesser Flamingo breeding sites in the world. Deputy Director Julius Koen, ornithologist Mark Anderson and scientist Eric Herrmann have yet to receive charges or a date for their disciplinary hearing but have been suspended from their jobs with the department of tourism, environment and conservation.

They had called for action to tackle pollution of the dam, which is being blamed for swollen joints and lesions on the legs of many of this year’s 9,000 lesser flamingo chicks. In addition, plans to build a commercial park, shopping mall and 6,400 upmarket homes within the wetland’s protective buffer zone could force these vulnerable birds to leave.

Duncan Pritchard, Acting Executive Director of BirdLife South Africa, said: “The action against Mark and his colleagues has bewildered and outraged conservationists throughout South Africa and beyond. Kamfers Dam is one of the best places in the world to see lesser flamingos and could have the greatest potential of all lesser flamingo nesting sites in Africa, and especially southern Africa, to help these birds start recovering their numbers.” Kamfers Dam’s flamingo island was built less than two years ago to help reverse the lesser flamingo’s rapid decline. The idea was conceived by Mr Anderson in 1995 and he has been pivotal in the project since then. After the island’s construction in 2006, schoolchildren, scouts and guides built 1,000 nesting turrets on the site, which was designed in an S-shape to protect the island from wind and soil erosion.

More than 50,000 Lesser Flamingos – half the southern African population - have used the island for nesting and feeding already. The South African government has designated the 400-hectare wetland a Natural Heritage Site and images of the species grace buildings and business logos all over nearby Kimberley. The suspension of the three scientists is thought to have followed a complaint from a member of the public about the role of two of them in the Kamfers Dam Save the Flamingo campaign.

Mr Anderson, who worked for the state authority for 18 years, will soon become Executive Director of BirdLife South Africa but Mr Koen and Mr Herrmann may be out of work if disciplinary action goes against them. Mark Anderson said: “I feel proud of the work I have done. Many of the birds were sick because of the pollution and I was responsible for them. The support we have received has been incredible and the whole world seems to be behind us. This is publicising the flamingos’ plight internationally like nothing else could.”

The first webcam on any lesser flamingo site is being installed on Kamfers Dam island, looking down on the breeding colony. Campaigners hope live pictures beamed across the world using full sound and infrared cameras at night will bolster support for the birds. Lesser flamingos are also threatened at Lake Natron in Tanzania where the government and Indian multi-national TATA want to export soda ash. Lake Natron, in the Rift Valley, hosts between 1.5 and 2.5 million lesser flamingos in summer, 75 per cent of the world population.

Paul Buckley, an Africa specialist at the RSPB, which is backing the flamingo campaign, said: “Pollution and development are the most serious threats facing lesser flamingos in Africa. Safeguarding these birds at Kamfers Dam and Lake Natron is vital if we are to halt their serious and alarming decline. “We applaud local conservationists who are working tirelessly and at great personal cost to endure these sites remain protected and undisturbed sanctuaries. If they do not, the future is bleak for this beautiful and emblematic species.”

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