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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 August 2007, 18:43 GMT 19:43 UK
French alarmed as flamingos leave
By Petru Clej
BBC News

Flamingos in the Camargue region
Salt water is vital for the flamingos (pic: A.Arnaud/Tour du Valat)

A rare colony of flamingos has left the marshy Camargue region of southern France since a strike at a saltworks deprived them of their breeding habitat.

For 30 years thousands of the iconic birds have nested on an artificial island in the delta of the River Rhone. It sits in a lagoon called Etang du Fangassier.

But since March, salt water from the Mediterranean has not been pumped into the lagoon, because staff at the local saltworks have been on a partial strike against redundancies.

The fact that the birds had been breeding at all in the Camargue was a victory for conservationists. The lagoon was created in 1969 to protect the flamingos from predators and since then their numbers had steadily increased, until this year.

Ironically economic activity, so often detrimental to wildlife protection, was in this case a lifeline for birds.

A solution may be in sight however, with potential new landowners promising to refill the lagoon.

The greater flamingos, the only species of the bird that breeds in Europe, have been attracted to the Camargue because of its plentiful brine shrimps and relative safety.

Breeding heaven

According to a research centre for the conservation of Mediterranean wetlands, Tour du Valat, 10-12,000 flamingo pairs use the lagoon annually for breeding.

Rhone Delta region

"If they do not reproduce for one year it is not worrying, given that flamingos have a life span of 40 years," Coralie Hermeloup, spokeswoman for Tour du Valat, told the BBC.

"But if this situation were to be repeated for two or three years in a row, that would be a serious cause for concern."

Ms Hermeloup said a larger number of flamingos had been reported on the Italian island of Sardinia, where they had apparently found an alternative nesting ground.

Optimism

But the future might not be so bleak for both employees and breeding flamingos in the Camargue. The saltworks, Salins du Midi, has agreed to maintain a reduced salt output, therefore employing half of its current workforce.

The other half will be retrained for tourism and conservation jobs.

Flamingos in Camargue
Conservationists hope flamingos will return for breeding in 2008

The company has agreed to sell 3,500 hectares (8,650 acres) of the land it owns in the Rhone delta, including the lagoon, to Conservatoire du littoral, the state body in charge of coastal conservation in France.

The deputy head of its regional branch, Roger Esteve, says that negotiations with Salins du Midi and trade unions are at an advanced stage, which will allow Conservatoire du littoral to become the new owners of the lagoon from 1 January 2008.

"We will definitely replenish the lagoon, as it doesn't cost more than 35,000 euros (23,650) a year", Mr Esteve told the BBC.

The flamingos are one of the main attractions of the region, along with horses and fighting bulls.

It would be paradoxical if the bird disappeared from this unique environment as a result of a saltworks scaling down its operations in the area.

"You don't need to exclude economic activity from this region, one of the largest wetlands in Europe, in order to conserve the wildlife habitat", Grahame Madge, spokesman for Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told the BBC.


SEE ALSO
Flamingo pair adopt jilted chick
22 May 07 |  Gloucestershire
Second fertile egg for Flamingos
02 Feb 07 |  Gloucestershire

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