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Lake Natron

Lesser flamingos, Lake Natron

Image: Owen Newman/naturepl.com

Three-quarters of the world population of lesser flamingos live and nest in East Africa. All depend on Tanzania's Lake Natron as a breeding site. Food is plentiful, nesting sites abound – and above all, the lake is isolated and undisturbed.

In 2006, the Tanzanian Government and the Indian company Tata Chemicals put forward proposals to build a large-scale industrial plant to extract soda ash from Lake Natron's water, via a network of pipes across the surface of the lake. New road and rail infrastructure would also be built to serve the soda ash plant.

Thankfully in May 2008 Tata withdrew from the project. But the Tanzanian Government remains commited and the National Development Corporation, a government agency, is leading a renewed push to reinstate the project.  

We believe that the development and associated infrastructure will displace and scatter the 500,000 pairs of lesser flamingos which nest at Lake Natron. It takes very little disturbance to cause an entire breeding colony to abandon its nests. Additionally, the livelihoods of local communities would also be at risk.

The Government of Tanzania is also proposing to construct a new road through the world famous Serenegeti National Park. Not only will this have an enormous impact on biodiversity in the park it will pass close by Lake Natron, putting additional pressure on the flamingos. 

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The number of birds at this site are staggering - there are thought to be between 2.2 million and 3.25m lesser flamingos in the world, of which between 1.5m and 2.5m are found in East Africa where Lake Natron is the only significant and regular breeding site.

Due to habitat loss and contamination, we are already seeing a decline in the global population of lesser flamingos, so the impact on the species could be disastrous if Lake Natron were to become unsuitable for nesting: 75 per cent of the global population of this Globally Threatened Species would be at risk. We, therefore, need to do all we can to protect this precious place.

Lesser flamingos feed on Spirulina, which is commonly known as blue-green algae (although in fact it is bacteria!). Spirulina sometimes gives Lake Natron a pink colour. It grows only in salty lakes like Lake Natron which is known as a soda lake because of its high concentration of sodium carbonate.

Flamingos live until they are about 40 years old, but only breed every five or six years. Non-breeding birds do not return to breeding sites until they are ready to breed again.

Tourist attraction

The bird spectacle attracts tourists to the national parks of Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia.

The tourist industry around Lake Natron alone is worth US$500,000 per annum excluding associated spending. Visits to the area are likely to increase if the soda ash proposal is rejected.

Lake Natron is a wetland of international importance designated under the Ramsar Convention. The lesser flamingo is classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List 2004.

Visit the Think Pink - save Africa's flamingos website for more information, or to donate money towards this campaign.

Sign up for monthly updates from the Lake Natron Consultative Group by emailing ken.mwathe@birdlife.org

Visit our the Serengeti webpages for more information about the proposed road which will cut through the National Park and pass close by Lake Natron, putting additional pressure on the flamingos.

We believe the development and associated infrastructure will displace and scatter the 500,000 pairs of lesser flamingos which nest at Lake Natron, and therefore must not be built. It takes very little disturbance to cause an entire breeding colony to abandon its nests.

To nest successfully, lesser flamingos require very specific conditions, which Lake Natron provides.

The proposed plant poses major risks to the lesser flamingos from disturbance (including increased populations of nest predators), as well as changes in the water balance and chemistry of the lake.

Soda ash mining also threatens the tourism industry throughout East Africa and the livelihoods of the local people who depend on the lake basin for their sustenance. The legal protection of Lake Natron should be strengthened.

The Government of Tanzania is also proposing to construct a new road through the world famous Serenegeti National Park. Not only will this have an enormous impact on biodiversity in the park (take a look at our Serengeti webpages for more information about this crazy project) it will pass close by Lake Natron, putting additional pressure on the flamingos. 

November 2006

The National Environment Management Council of Tanzania (NEMC) publish a scoping notice for the development. In response, WCST submit a statement that 'in the eyes of conservationists, the implementation of this project will result in an ecosystem catastrophe in the long run'

Early 2007

Concerned institutions and individuals in East Africa form the Lake Natron Consultative Group (LNCG) to raise awareness of the threat to Lake Natron and lesser flamingos. The Group seeks to have the interests of the local communities and the risk to their livelihoods addressed. An intensive awareness campaign through the media sees over 2,000 individuals across the globe sign their petition against the soda ash plant. The Group also hold regular consultations and write letters to senior government officials in East Africa and to Tata Chemicals Ltd, seeking support to have the project stopped. An Update Bulletin on developments around Lake Natron is sent to thousands of individuals and institutions across the globe

July 2007

Representatives of WCST, BirdLife International and the Group attend the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) stakeholder's meeting in Dar es Salaam and raise strong objections to the project

October 2007

BirdLife Partners from 23 African countries sign a petition against the soda project and send it to the Tanzanian Government. BirdLife International initiate a global campaign to help save Lake Natron. Dubbed 'Think Pink - save Africa's flamingos', the campaign aims to draw the world's attention to the threat that the species faces if the soda ash plant is built. As part of the Think Pink Campaign, conservation organisations, eminent conservationists, flamingo experts and concerned individuals from more than 60 countries write to the Tanzanian government protesting at the project plans. BirdLife International put out regular global press releases on the campaign and generate considerable media interest

November 2007

A group of experts are appointed by the Tanzanian Government and meet to review the findings of a study on the development of Lake Natron for soda ash extraction. They make recommendations on the next steps to the Minister of the Environment of Tanzania. BirdLife International send detailed objections to the proposed development plans

2 November 2007

The Technical Advisory Committee of NEMC did not accept the ESIA for the soda ash project at a meeting in Dar Es Salaam. WCST make a detailed critique of the ESIA to the meeting and present the BirdLife International position, which requests that the project be halted on the basis of the precautionary principle

January 2008

WCST, supported by BirdLife International, and us make a presentation to the Tanzanian Parliamentary Committee on the Environment outlining the case against the project

January 2008

The National Environment Management Council hold a public hearing, in Dar es Salaam, on the ESIA of the proposed project. During the hearing, strong opposition to the project is expressed from over 90% of the members of the public present, from the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators, from a delegation of 12 community members who travelled from villages surrounding Lake Natron, as well as from verbal and written submissions presented by BirdLife International and the Lake Natron Consultative Group. There is wide media coverage of the public hearing, with most coverage being supportive of our position. During the public hearing, the National Development Corporation (NDC) unexpectedly present revised plans for the soda ash plant. Key changes include a shift in the site of the proposed plant from Wosi Wosi to Kitumbeine, more than 32 km away. These major changes should require a new ESIA

February 2008

The Ramsar Secretariat sends an Advisory Mission (RAM) to Tanzania to advise the government on the long-term conservation of Lake Natron vis-a vis the proposed soda ash mining. BirdLife International and Lake Natron Consultative Group make written and verbal submissions to the Ramsar Team, calling for the protection of Lake Natron in perpetuity by rejecting the soda mining plans

March 2008

BirdLife International write to the new Minster for Environment in the Vice President's Office (Dr Matilda Salha Burhani) urging her to reject the proposed project. She sends a reply saying whatever decision the government makes, it will not contravene Ramsar, CBD or other conventions

March 2008

Lake Natron Resources Ltd write formally to the National Environment Management Council to withdraw the current Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) from consideration. The letter states that LNRL will commission a new ESIA for the new proposed site(s) and associated infrastructure. LNRL call on the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism to prepare an Integrated Ramsar Management Plan to inform the ESIA

April 2008

A Team of Tanzanian MPs who sit in the Parliamentary Committee on Land, Natural Resources and Environment are taken on a tour of Lake Natron, organised by WCST. The MPs have several meetings with the local community, including one at Engare Sero Village, which is attended by more than 100 people strongly opposed to soda ash mining. At the end of the tour, the MPs acknowledge the serious impacts of soda ash mining and some pledge to oppose it

April 2008

The World Bank organise a stakeholder meeting in Dar es Salaam where the new project manager for Tata Chemicals Ltd announces that they have asked the government to withdraw the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment report they had submitted for review. Mr Rahul Singh said the investor would move to a new site 32 kms away and would carry out fresh studies

May 2008

The new Environment Minister announces that the government has discarded the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report and will await fresh studies by the investor. However, she states that the new studies must be preceded by the development of an Integrated Management Plan for Lake Natron Basin Ramsar site

May 2008

The Lake Natron Consultative Group hold an international press conference at Hotel Intercontinental Nairobi and renew the advocacy campaign for Lake Natron.

May 2008

Tata Chemicals Ltd officially withdraw the soda ash project in its original form. This is contained in a statement released to the Hindustan Times of India. In withdrawing the project, the Tata Managing Director said: 'The Company is not in a position to take a view with regard to resumption ‘til it has a chance to examine the final approved Ramsar Management Plan currently under preparation for Lake Natron.' The Hindustan Times story titled Green Groups halt Tata Plant in Tanzania also carried a quote saying, '…the original Environment and Social Impact Assessment….. should be treated as withdrawn'

June 2008

A team from Lake Natron Consultative Group are invited to the East African Parliament headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania, to brief the Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources and Tourism on the Lake Natron issue. The team comprise WCST, Ilkisongo Pastoralist Initiatives, BirdLife International and the Journalists Environment Action Team. The team have a fruitful engagement with the Members of Parliament. Two submissions are made: that the House passes the bill on the Management of Natural Resources in East Africa, and that the Lake Natron issue be debated. Both these requests are granted

June 2008

The National Development Corporation (NDC), Tata Chemicals Ltd partner in Tanzania, release a press statement saying it is keen to proceed with the soda ash project. NDC supports the proposed project claiming it would not be harmful to lesser flamingos, and would bring many benefits to the people. NDC blame the woes currently facing the proposed project to the sustained campaigns by local and international organisations to have the project stopped

July 2008

The Lake Natron Consultative Group issue a comprehensive statement critising the National Development Corporation's position on the Lake Natron project. The Group, including the BirdLife International Africa Partnership, maintains that shifting the location of the project could not mitigate the possible negative impacts on lesser flamingos and would cause more damage to the landscape through the factory's extended ecological footprint

August 2008

Staff from BirdLife Africa Partnership Secretariat join a team of Tanzania's Wildlife Division in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) to discuss the development of a Lesser Flamingo Action Plan (LFAP). The LFAP will be crafted within the framework of an Integrated Management Plan for Lake Natron

September 2008

The report of the Ramsar Advisory Mission (RAM) on Lake Natron, Tanzania is officially released. Among other things, the report calls for the withdrwal of the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, the development of an over-arching plan for Lake Natron, and the establishment of a regional cross-border conservation project linking Tanzania with Kenya

September 2008

12th Pan African Ornithological Congress meeting in South Africa passes a resolution urging the Government of Tanzania to protect Lake Natron as the world's most important lesser flamingo breeding site. The 250 scientists from all over the world ask the government to consider the disruption the proposed soda ash mining is likely to cause on the breeding of this highly sensitive species

October–November 2008

Lake Natron is discussed during the 10th Meeting of the Ramsar Convention (Ramsar COP10) in Changwon, South Korea. The conference passes a resolution asking the government to file a report indicating the extent to which the Ramsar Advisory Mission recommendations had been implemented

June 2009

The Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania screen 'Crimson Wing', the Disney film on Lake Natron flamingos, to the Tanzanian Parliament

July 2009

We welcome the withdrawal of the current, inadequate and now inappropriate Environmental and Social Impact Assessment

September 2009

The Crimson Wing film is now on release in the UK and featured in 'The Ecologist'. The RSPB publicises the film to members and free tickets for advance screenings 'sell' out immediately

September 2009

The Tanzanian Government disown an advertisement seeking suppliers of soda ash mining equipment for Lake Natron and deny that the project has been given a green light

September 2009

The local community vow to protect Lake Natron. Speaking at a meeting at Ngare Sero Village, Elder Lasoi Ole Nareshoi vowed to protect the lake for 'ourselves, our children and our children's children'. The Chairman of Ngare Sero Village Christopher Ndurway added that the community stood to gain more by promoting tourism. 'We stand to gain more by conserving this lake and its resources and sustainably using it for many years to come. A soda ash factory is of no use to us'

December 2009

Membership of the Lake Natron Consultative Group reaches 50, a huge increase from only five institutions in June 2007

February 2010

A Single Species Action Plan (SSAP) for Tanzania's lesser flamingos is in preparation. A workshop brings together government, NGOs (including BirdLife), local community and academics to discuss a draft. The aim of the plan is to stabilize the size and distribution of the national breeding and non-breeding populations at 1.5 million birds in key sites by 2019, through local national and regional action. Tanzania has 13 sites that are important for lesser flamingos. Nine of these, including Lake Natron have no formal protection. The plan takes a holistic view of the threats and needs of lesser flamingos from the time they are hatched at Lake Natron to flying away to other lakes within Tanzania and other parts of East Africa

May 2010

Tanzania’s National Development Corporation (NDC) is still keen to have soda ash mined at Lake Natron. The NDC has commissioned a hydrological study to examine if there is sufficient water to allow soda ash mining – one of the areas that generated intense criticism in the initial proposal

May 2010

The Tanzanian Government is in the process of creating two Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) at Lake Natron involving Longido and Ngorongoro Districts. These will empower the local communities to benefit and participate in the management of the resources. A meeting held in May started work on a strategy document to provide a road map for how the WMA process will be finalized. The WMA designation is very welcome and we believe it should be expedited with the involvement of all stakeholders

June 2010

BirdLife receives a grant for a two year project to support conservation activities at Lake Natron. The project will focus on strengthening a local community conservation group (Site Support Group) to promote conservation at the local level. The project will also initiate a number of community projects to contribute to poverty alleviation and improve the livelihoods of the local community through sustainable conservation of natural resources. Working with Government at national, district and village levels, the project will also contribute to the enhanced conservation of the lake ecosystem through the development of an Integrated Management Plan and Wildlife Management Areas

June 2010

The Tanzanian Government relaunch a proposal to build a super highway across Serengeti National Park in Tanzania through Lake Natron. The road, which would link Tanzania with Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo, was discussed with the World Bank 20 year ago but rejected due to environmental reasons. Now conservationists, the Tourism industry and concerned citizens believe the road threatens the greatest wildlife migration on earth, that of millions of Wildebeest and Zebra, which move between Serengeti and Maasai Mara in Kenya. If this road were built through Lake Natron, it would put immense pressure on the most important breeding site for lesser flamingos in Eastern Africa due to massive traffic

June 2010

The Lake Natron Soda ash project remains on the radar of the Tanzania Government as the National Development Corporation (NDC) says it intends to conduct 'a techno-economic study of the Lake Natron Soda Ash deposits, to explore its viability for commercial exploitation'

September 2010

It emerges that the NDC has commissioned a team of consultants from Dar es Salaam (University Consultancy Bureau) to undertake 'gap analysis studies' on information for the Lake Natron soda ash project – identifying 'what has been documented and what gaps exist that need to be filled before further work is done'. This team has visited a number of institutions in Tanzania and Kenya seeking information, raising suspicion and concern that in reality the consultants may actually be gathering data and information to inform another Environmental and Social Impact Assessment

September 2010

For the first time, it comes to light that the NDC was mandated by the Tanzania Government through a cabinet paper to go ahead with the soda ash plant project way back in 1996. This underscores how committed NDC is to justify the project and find a new co-investor

April 2011

The President of Tanzania orders the Ministry of Mining and Trade to fast track the Lake Natron soda ash project saying the country cannot continue to be poor while its mineral resources remained unexploited

October 2011

The Director of Environment in the Vice-President's Office, Dr Julius Ningu, says the Tanzania Government position on Lake Natron is to maintain the ecological system so that flamingos continue to breed, and that damaging human activity is prohibited in the area. But at the same time, the Tanzania National Development Corporation and an investment bank undertake a field inspection to look at the prospects for mining

March 2012

The Tanzanian Minister of Trade and Industry, Mr Cyril Chami, says the government is in talks with Tata Chemicals Ltd to set up a $450 million soda ash factory within the Lake Natron basin, in the Engaruka area

May 2012

The Lake Natron Consultative Group is five years old. The Regional Commissioner of Arusha, Mr Magesa Mulongo, states that the regional government is committed to fast-tracking the construction of a soda ash factory at Lake Natron, and that the project would create job opportunities and play an important role in boosting the country's economic development

June 2012

Tata Chemicals deny any involvement in the current project reiterating that they withdrew from the project in 2009. We submit a brief to the Ramsar Convention in advance of its meeting in Romania

August 2012

A new Cost Benefit Analysis report finds that soda ash mining at Lake Natron is not economically viable. It shows that the projected return on investment over the next 50 years would be a loss of between $44,354,728 and $492,142,797. It also found that support for the project is low with 84 per cent of 175 local community respondents consulted strongly opposed to the project.

March 2013

We hear reports of enhanced exploration of soda ash at a site known as Engaruka which is 40 km from Lake Natron and part of the same ecosystem. The NDC has commissioned core sampling to determine areas rich in soda ash. A team of geologists is drilling holes up to 60 metres and taking samples. Up to seven sample sites have been seen plus more open-type exploration excavating bigger holes. This is causing concern among the local community as it is affecting grazing and cultivated land.

March 2013

There are reports that 6 companies have submitted bids to NDC for the soda ash mining project.

April 2013

We brief the Ramsar Convention on recent developments urging them to contact the Tanzanian authorities for more information.

June 2013

The National Development Corporation (NDC) continues with exploration of soda ash at Engaruka near Lake Natron. Geologists take core samples to see if the soda ash there is suitable.

November 2013

An eight month Government study looking at how flamingos use Lake Natron concludes that soda ash mining would almost certainly wipe out the Lesser Flamingo population.

March 2014

Local groups representing 18,000 Engaruka residents convene a press conference in Arusha condemning the Government plans for soda ash development.

March 2014

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) shortlists Lake Natron for an initial tourism assessment study as part of its global Destination Flyways project and visits Lake Natron.