University of Leicester eBulletin

Backpacking Flamingos in Bid for Survival

May 2003

Scientists search for missing 'backpacker'

Backpackers are notoriously difficult to keep in touch with - nomadic, unpredictable, moving long distances overnight, gathering in immense crowds and often only contactable by means of expensive communications systems.

The same is true - strange as it may seem - of lesser flamingos, in particular four 'backpacking' males which in 2002 initiated a University of Leicester, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Earthwatch Institute research study. Although three birds have faithfully 'checked in' regularly, one errant bird has gone missing with its communications equipment in tow causing a flutter of activity in tracking it down.

Thanks to new funding from the Vodafone Foundation and the Darwin Initiative of the UK government, researchers led by University of Leicester biologists Dr David Harper and Dr Brooks Childress will be able in 2003 to extend the project (started in October 2002) to fit minute backpack satellite transmitters on 4 more flamingos, to provide a solid base for tracking their movements across primary feeding lakes in East Africa.

This pilot study is being undertaken to attempt to answer the many unsolved questions surrounding the lesser flamingo, Phoeniconaias minor, and thereby increasing its chances of survival.

Dr Harper explained: “The project involves fitting solar-powered transmitters to four more lesser flamingos. Each backpack weighs 35-45g. Our first six months study initially monitored the effectiveness of this method of tracking flamingos’ movements and habits; this second phase will use the best type of transmitter to provide continuous data on the birds' whereabouts.

“Long term, this pioneering Pan African project will make it possible for conservationists to gather vital information on the frequency and pattern of the birds' movements, routes taken, stopover places and habitat usage. This information will be linked to individual lake’s food abundance and regional climatic conditions by the ground research to take place monthly by Kenyan partners funded by the Darwin Initiative. In the longer term movements will also be linked with breeding activity at the single lake where they are irregularly successful - the inhospitable wastes of the harshest soda lake on the planet, Lake Natron in Tanzania - and the possibility of trans-continental migration down to Botswana.”

While television has made us all familiar with the sight of hundreds of thousands of flamingos feeding on the alkaline lakes of East Africa, the lesser flamingo has an uncertain future because of its dependence on this single breeding site and the infrequency of favourable breeding conditions. Populations have also been hit by unexplained mass deaths on Kenyan feeding lakes over the past decade, which came to the attention of the world’s press when Dr Harper initiated this study in 2000 at Lake Bogoria.

Dr Harper added: “The use of backpacks in monitoring flamingos is expected to have a significant effect on the conservation of the species. For the first time researchers will understand better how the flamingo uses the various lake habitats in its range, which will, in turn, enable conservationists to influence government decisions on issues such as land use and water allocation.”

In addition to the University of Leicester and the Earthwatch Institute, the pilot study has been supported by the Max Planck Research Centre for Ornithology, Germany, the International Flamingo Foundation, BirdLife Belgium and the Peter Scott Trust for Education and Research in Conservation. The Darwin partners are the University of Nairobi Zoology Department; the National Museums of Kenya Ornithology Department, the Kenya Wildlife Services and the Lake Bogoria National Reserve.

Note to editors: For more information please contact Dr David Harper, University of Leicester Department of Biology, telephone +44 (0)116 252 3346, mobile +44 (0)7779622082, email

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Last updated: May 2003
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