A University of Leicester ecologist is setting out to discover why flamingos are so in the pink of health - in the poo!
Dr David Harper, of the Department of Biology at the University of Leicester, has been studying lesser flamingos for nine years.
His research has been carried out in the lakes of East Africa but new
investigations he has carried out for the first time in India have- by
his own admission - given him 'rather a shock.'
He said: "Lesser
flamingos are graceful, majestic, birds. They are not the ones you can
see at the zoo, because they are very difficult to maintain in
captivity, but the ones that you see on television in their hundreds of
thousands, crowded into a few specialist lakes in East Africa.
have been studying them, on these lakes in Kenya and Tanzania, but
earlier this month I returned from India, having carried out a
preliminary investigation of the population there, and I had rather a
"In Africa the lesser flamingo, with its beautiful pink
plumage, stands for everything that is pure and pristine. Many of the
lakes where it feeds, occasionally with a million birds crowded
together when the food is good, are almost untouched by man's
"In complete contrast to Africa, where lesser
flamingos only live on inland soda lakes and are never seen at the
coast, in India I watched 20,000 lesser flamingos happily feeding on
tidal mudflats in front of an oil refinery, a petrochemical plant and
creeks bringing untreated waste from millions of people in the slums of
"In Porbandar, the city which is the birthplace of
Mahatma Ghandi, in Gujarat to the north of Bombay, I watched 8,000
standing knee deep and happily filtering-feeding in the water alongside
rubbish, cowpats and wastewater running in from surrounding houses and
"In western India and Gujarat in particular, people love flamingos - it is the state's national emblem."
Harper was funded by the Darwin Initiative and now plans to write a
full grant proposal to link with Indian universities and conservation
groups to better understand how flamingos can thrive in waste water and
how the peoples' love of these birds can be turned into a love of
Dr Harper added: "Bombay is on very
low-lying land that once was just a few islands in the estuary, but now
about 20 million people are crammed into this city. They need the
estuary and all its ecology to help clean up their wastes and even
protect them against flooding. We are planning to use the flamingo to
help people understand the benefits of mud and mangroves - less pretty
but far more useful to them"!
In Africa, Dr Harper and members
of his team have satellite-tagged birds to find exactly where they go,
studied their feeding and their behaviour and why sometimes several
thousand die suddenly. His wife, Maureen, has used them as a teaching
theme in schools near their lakes and written stories about them for
the pupils. They have been funded by the UK Darwin Initiative, part of
the British Government, which sends specialists from this country to
help other countries, richer in biodiversity, protect their priceless
Dr Harper said: "The deaths of lesser
flamingos in East Africa over the past 15 years have sometimes been
blamed on poisoning from mankind's industries or the consequence of too
much fertiliser or human wastes in the lakes.
"But people who
blame human wastes should go to India to see how well lesser flamingos
thrive and how pink they grow, when they are surrounded by heavy
industry and by water so polluted I could smell it a mile away!"
University of Leicester. March 2008.