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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 May, 2003, 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK
Solar power tracks flamingos
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Scientists should soon know far more about the movements of one of Africa's most spectacular birds, the lesser flamingo.

Flamingos in flight   Karl Lehmann/lostworldarts.com
The flamingos are much more mobile than we'd realised; the research will establish just how mobile
Tony Richardson, WWT
A pilot scheme in east Africa to monitor their movements by satellite tracking has proved a success and is being extended.

Four more birds are being fitted with transmitters, doubling the number originally involved.

The transmitters, which are solar-powered, weigh only 40 grams (1.4 ounces).

The scheme is the work of a group of conservation organisations, including the University of Leicester, UK, and the Earthwatch Institute. It is based at Lake Bogoria in Kenya.

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) is launching a website to support the scheme, by publicising the birds' uncertain future.

The site also gives visitors the opportunity to support the project directly by adopting one of the satellite-tracked flamingos.

Avian black boxes

Regular SMS texts will be sent to adopters with the latest movements of their chosen bird.

The researchers hope to learn more about the species' movements and habitat use, and are focusing on the string of alkaline lakes in the Rift Valley, where most of the flamingos live.

Satellite image of Rift Valley   Nasa
A satellite view of the Rift Valley
The transmitters, strapped to the birds' backs, identify the different lakes and wetlands they visit.

The information, which has not been recorded before, is then relayed direct to the WWT site. It should help scientists to understand how the flamingos manage to survive in such inhospitable surroundings.

The hope is that it will lead to the development of an international flyway management and protection plan.

It may also show whether the flamingos have "home lakes" where they spend the greater part of their time, and could show whether there is a link between the east African birds and southern African populations.

Tony Richardson of WWT said: "When we see images of thousands of pink flamingos on our TV screens, stretching as far as the eye can see, it is hard to imagine that we might be watching a spectacle that is under threat.

Conservation on screen

"As levels of pollution and disturbance increase, these fragile habitats and the flamingos that depend upon them are in trouble.

Flamingos taking wing   Karl Lehmann/lostworldarts.com
Nobody knows how far the flamingos range
"This website will pass on new information about lesser flamingo movements virtually in real time, and a worldwide audience can share and help support a conservation programme as it happens."

There has been a series of unexplained mass deaths of flamingos on Kenyan feeding lakes over the last decade.

Dr David Harper, a University of Leicester biologist, said: "For the first time researchers will understand better how the flamingo uses the various lake habitats in its range.

Here today, gone tomorrow

"This will enable conservationists to influence government decisions on issues such as land use and water allocation."

Tony Richardson told BBC News Online: "The flamingos are much more mobile than we'd realised; the research will establish just how mobile.

"They may not be as numerous as we once thought, because the same group of birds may be reappearing in different places.

"This should also give us a better understanding of the lakes they prefer, so we know where to focus our conservation efforts."

Flamingo images courtesy of Karl Lehmann/lostworldarts.com, satellite image courtesy of Nasa

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