The greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) is one of Afghanistan’s recently declared Protected Species and is also considered to be one of the most important wetland birds for the country. Adults vary in color from a striking pinkish-white to white with pink legs, and all have a bright magenta streak on their wing coverts.
Greater flamingos are highly adaptable shallow-water wading birds that breed on saline flats and in shallow coastal waters within Central Asia. They are also found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, southern Europe including the western Mediterranean, and across Asia to Sri Lanka. They are gregarious birds that are seen in large flocks on their wintering grounds. Flamingos breed in local, discontinuous but relatively dense colonies, creating mud nests in which to lay their eggs. Breeding patterns are irregular and highly variable between individuals, appearing to be in direct relation to the surrounding environmental conditions. Precipitation patterns and run-off from springtime snow melt are critically important to the flamingo’s breeding success, which can have implications in an arid and drought-prone country such as Afghanistan, particularly as climate change takes effect.
Migration patterns of greater flamingos are also largely dependent on the surrounding environmental conditions and vary between individuals. Specifically within Afghanistan, this flamingo is considered a breeding visitor in the eastern wetlands (namely Dasht-e-Nawar and Ab-e-Estada wetlands). Both are the only two sizeable wetlands between the northern Amu Darya and southern Helmand river basins, and their size and shape vary throughout the year, depending almost entirely on spring snow melt and winter rainfall (and groundwater to a certain extent).
Dasht-e-Nawar wetland is surrounded by the peaks of the Koh-e-Baba range in the province of Ghazni. The whole area encompasses around 600 km2, containing meadow plains, mudflats, brackish ponds and lakes including the largest of all – Ab-e-Nawar. Given the numbers of breeding flamingos in Dasht-e-Nawar (their highest-elevation breeding haunt anywhere in the world at 3,050 m), the wetland was declared a Waterfowl and Flamingo Sanctuary in 1974 by the Directorate of Wildlife and National Parks, and recommendations for the protection of the site were subsequently developed. However, protection measures have never been implemented.
Ab-e-Estada is also an extremely important staging area in spring and autumn for a variety of migratory waterfowl including (historically) the critically endangered Siberian crane (Grus leucogeranus). The lake forms a 290 km2 saline wetland in the southern foothills of the Koh-e-Baba and Koh-e-Pahman ranges. At low water levels, Ab-e-Estada is surrounded by mudflats that extend up to 7 km. Flamingos tend to arrive here at high water levels in late March/April and depart when the levels decline in late September or early October. Ab-e-Estada was also declared a National Flamingo and Waterfowl Sanctuary in 1974, and 10 game guards were appointed to stop the hunting and raiding of the nesting colonies. However, the wetlands currently enjoy no institutional protection, and the guards have long since disappeared.
Recent evidence from Ab-e-Estada suggests it may no longer provide suitable habitat for the greater flamingo. When survey teams from UNEP visited the area in September 2002, the lakebed and inflow rivers were found to be completely dry and, according to local people, the lake had dried every year since 1999. A well that had been dug at its north end revealed the water table to be around 3 m below surface level and at least 30 pumps on the side of the lake were extracting water for the surrounding crops. Moreover, the total human population in the area in 2002 was around 5,000, many of which were active waterfowl and flamingo hunters. Numbers of residents are very likely to have increased since then with the return of displaced communities, putting further pressure on the already-depleted water resources here.
Being sensitive to slight changes in ecological conditions and not breeding for several successive years if environmental factors are not suitable, greater flamingos have been suffering from these declines in water levels. Inflowing waters are often diverted for agricultural irrigation purposes, leaving the wetlands hyper-saline, dry or unproductive. Drought conditions prevent the flamingos from feeding successfully, since they are bottom feeders and therefore rely on a good source of aquatic plants and small invertebrates within the mudflats. The flamingos are also affected by harsh climatic conditions such as heavy rains and winds, and high levels of human disturbance from egg collection and hunting. The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan is also having an effect on water bird populations. Noise disturbance from frequent low-flying aircraft is a threat, and in July 2009, a plane crashed not far from the breeding site of flamingos. When coalition forces sealed off the site, they disturbed the colony by firing at least one rocket at it, perhaps to deter birds from flying towards helicopters. The colony was abandoned and WCS teams later found dozens of dead unfledged chicks of slender-billed gulls (Larus genei), common terns (Sterna hirundo) and greater flamingos.
Given these increasing threats and the lack of evidence since 1975 to suggest flamingos were continuing to breed in the area, it was a very encouraging sign when WCS survey teams observed flamingos breeding in Dasht-e-Nawar during 2007. The team first visited the site in the spring of 2007 and observed between 70-80 adult and immature greater flamingos present on Ab-e-Nawar lake, which had water levels almost 1 m high. No breeding behavior was observed here until August, when teams observed 98 unfledged greater flamingo juveniles in one crèche and 20 juveniles in another. The team also visited an island with typical flamingo nests made of truncated mounds of mud, some of them bearing non-hatched eggs. Other immature and adult birds were present in the southern and eastern reaches of the lake, with the survey team estimating a total flamingo population in Dasht-e-Nawar of 850 individuals. Considering surveys carried out between 1960 and 1975 estimated spring/summer populations here at between 1,300 and 12,000 individuals, with a maximum of 400 chicks in 1975, the breeding activity of flamingos in the area appears to have significantly decreased.
Interviews with inhabitants around Dasht-e-Nawar revealed local perceptions of the flamingo’s status in the area. Forty-nine percent of respondents replied that flamingoes were present in Dasht-e-Nawar every year; however nearly 80% of interviewees believed that flamingo numbers had indeed decreased dramatically in the last 10 years or more, due to repeated droughts and a chronic lack of water in the basin.
These observations from WCS’s site visits confirmed that, despite the pivotal threat to flamingo populations from diversion of inflowing waters, Dasht-e-Nawar is still of exceptional international importance for Afghanistan’s avian fauna. Furthermore, it is perhaps the last breeding haven for the greater flamingo across the highlands of Central Asia.
With the recent listing of the greater flamingo on Afghanistan’s Protected Species List, this affords the bird legal protection from all hunting and trade. WCS has also been working towards the inclusion of both Ab-e-Estada and Dasht-e-Nawar in the country’s National Protected Area System Plan, which would preserve both of the sites as important waterfowl sanctuaries and encourage the return of the greater flamingo to Afghanistan’s wetlands once again.