In the pink of health

Lesser flamingos in India show a shocking feeding pattern, surviving on human and industrial wastes.

Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2008.142 Published online 12 March 2008

Thousands of lesser flamingos merrily feeding in the Porbandar sewage lake

© David Harper

Picture the majestic flamingos eating human and industrial wastes for survival. A British ecologist studying the elegant pink birds off the coast of Gujarat has reported just that. The report, though earlier known among local ornithologists, now rubbishes earlier theories blaming fertilizers and industrial effluents for the death of lesser flamingos in East Africa over the past 15 years.

David Harper of the Department of Biology at University of Leicester, his wife Maureen, an environmental science teacher, and Gieseppe Crosa of Italy's Insubria University have been on the prowl in Jamnagar and Porbandar closely looking at the various feeding sites of lesser flamingos in India.

Harper, who has been studying the pink birds for nine years in the lakes of east Africa, says he was shocked to see the feeding habits of the lesser flamingos 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 Mumbai. This is absolutely different from Africa, where lesser flamingos only live on inland soda lakes and are never seen at the coast," he says.

The ecologist extensively photographed this 'unusual' phenomenon as 8,000 lesser flamingos stood knee deep happily filtering-feeding in the water alongside rubbish, cowpats and wastewater from surrounding houses and factories.

David Harper collecting sample food of the flamingos

Harper, funded by the Darwin Initiative of UK, spent over a week in Gujarat with Bhavbhuti Parasharya, an Anand University ornithologist and expert on the species in Gujarat and Rajasthan. As he made careful observations on the species, he found they were very different in their habits from those he was used to watching for hours in Kenya and Tanzania. "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, are almost untouched by man’s activities," he says.

The team met experts from the Gujarat Environmental Education & Research Foundation and the state Forestry & Wildlife officer to understand this phenomenon better. Harper has mooted a collaboration proposal with Anand laboratories in genetics, pesticides and trace metals on a joint course in biodiversity conservation and development.

As part of his research on the flamingos breeding in the Rann of Kutch, Harper studied from satellite images, the hydrological conditions which make for their successful breeding. "In Mumbai, I interacted with Ashima Narain, the maker of the 2005 film 'In the Pink' about the flamingos of Sewri Bay as

Flamingo people: (from left) David Harper, Gieseppe Crosa, Maureen Harper & Bhavbhuti Parasharya

well as Bombay natural History Society and Conservation Action Trust. The exposure has led me to believe that there is considerable opportunity for joint research, education and conservation using lesser flamingos as the 'icon' for wetland conservation & restoration," he says.

Harper 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 everything natural.

In Africa, 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. "It now seems that the earlier theories on death of lesser flamingos due to waste-feeding will have to be re-examined," he contends.