Lake Natron's Flamingos Nest Near Waters Almost As Corrosive As Bleach

Lake Natron is one of the harshest environments on the planet. Photograph: A Perfect Planet, Screen Grab/Silverback Films 2018

Extremophile is a word used to describe organisms that can thrive in environments that would surely kill other living things. Be it heat, salinity, or altitude, they are found across the globe and David Attenborough’s most recent collaboration with the BBC, A Perfect Planet, exhibits one such animal in stunning 4K Ultra HD. The characteristically pink feathers of Lake Natron’s flamingos sit in sharp contrast to the canvas of Tanzania’s famous soda lake, which reaches a pH of almost 12 – close to the strength of household bleach. The otherworldly environment sits in the wake of Ol Doinyo Lengai, a volcano that overlooks the home range of these hardcore birds.

The soda lake gets its causticity from sodium carbonate and other minerals that flow into the lake from the surrounding hills making the water a strong alkaline. It would prove a deadly dip for humans, burning the skin and eyes of most animals and spelling death for those who lingered too long. Despite this, a group of flamingos have adapted to breed amid the inhospitable conditions of Lake Natron and now thrive in their millions.

Life isn't easy for a flamingo chick in Lake Natron. Photography copyright Darren Williams/Silverback Films 2019

It’s the most significant breeding site for Lesser Flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) triggering uproar from conservation groups when plans were put in place to build a soda ash factory at the site. These plans have since been abandoned by the Tanzanian government in favor of the birds’ protection, who live a life like no other in the strange red waters of Lake Natron.

For A Perfect Planet’s first episode, Volcano, a crew were flown out to Lake Natron with an unusual bit of kit in tow: one hovercraft. The unconventional mode of transportation was needed to hover the camera crew out to their hides (some of which saw filmmakers knee-deep in salt-laden water that crystalized on their leg hairs) over the razor-sharp soda flats that surround the lake.

The chicks march together like a walking crèche. Photograph: A Perfect Planet, Screen Grab/Silverback Films 2018

“Lake Natron is not just remote, it’s also one of the world’s most toxic and caustic bodies of water. The only safe way to reach and film a nesting colony, out in the centre, is by hovercraft and that isn’t something you’ll find locally,” said producer Huw Cordey in a press release about the BBC series

Reaching a flock of birds that sit in the center of such a deadly landscape is no mean feat, and in practice was one that required the help of the local Maasai tribe to assist with repairs to the hovercraft's many shredded skirts. The resulting footage reveals the perilous life cycle of these flamboyant birds, whose chicks are sent off in the flamingo equivalent of a nursery group to march in the face of carnivorous marabou storks.

A lesser flamingo chick's fate is near-sealed once seperated from the group. Photograph: A Perfect Planet, Screen Grab/Silverback Films 2018

“Two million lesser flamingos live in East Africa and all depend on Lake Natron – a hostile volcanic soda lake – to breed," said Cordey. “It’s one of the planet’s great natural history spectacles and it was top of our list to film for this episode. Unfortunately, the flamingos only nest on the lake when the water levels are low enough for the centre to dry out, and this may happen just once every five years or so – though nobody knows for sure."

A Perfect Planet continues this Sunday at 8pm GMT on BBC One in the UK. Find out where you can watch it around the world here

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