Comfortable and Furious

The Crimson Wing (200)

Lake Natron in northern Tanzania creates an impossible habitat better suited to perhaps Venus or Precambrian Earth, where nothing survives with the exception of ancient bacteria and the magnificent Lesser Flamingo. Located on the eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley, this is a shallow lake that is assaulted by the intense sun and fed by volcanic mineral-rich springs. With the intense evaporation of the shallow lake that never exceeds a few meters in depth, it is salty and alkaline to the point of being toxic to all but extreme Archaea organisms called Halobacteria that thrive in the hot, basic water. Despite these conditions being incompatible with all but the most extreme forms of life, the Lesser Flamingo has made this its home, and breeds nowhere else on Earth.

It makes some sense, considering that the center of the lake is devoid of predators, and the endless supply of algae means no one goes hungry. As the subject of Crimson Wing, the flamingoes make for a charismatic subject, supported by a lovingly photographed landscape and fairly well-written commentary. This is an unusual place, but one strength of the well-crafted biodiversity documentary is the idea that there is no ‘usual’ location. Like the windswept snowy desert of Antarctica, the barren mountains of Ethiopia, and the sterile open ocean, this place is both inhospitable and yet sustains a wealth of life. This paradox is the very essence of seasonal Africa.

As volcanic ash coats the landscape, it provides extraordinary richness to the region, making the neighboring Serengeti plains among the most productive and diverse on Earth. In Lake Natron, the combination of trapped water (draining from surrounding marshes) and intense heat creates a lake so thick with alkaline salts that one could float on top. As the sun reaches its peak intensity, the salt residues congeal into plates, forming and sliding together fast enough to spring an island out of seemingly nothing before your eyes.

As this arresting image takes shape, the camera captures an endless string of flamingos arriving to prepare for the mating season. The compositions are extraordinary, and on a high-definition player would be suitable for the wall. As more than 2 million flamingos gather, they engage in behavioral rituals to decide whose game is strong in visually confusing and hypnotic promenades. The birds craft nests out of hot and poisonous salt. When the singular chick emerges to join a throng of bewildered youth, the moment is a beautiful one. Not for being cute, but in the defiance required to have survived this first of many tests.

And the tests are grueling. The chicks must grow and become coordinated fast, as there is no food on this salt flat. The salt itself seems to desire reclamation; it adheres to the legs of the slower chicks, creating shackles of stony density that fells the weak and unlucky. Maribou storks arrive to menace the colony, with only a handful massacring hundreds of the chicks. This is the way at the top of a food chain – it takes immense numbers to sustain an apex predator. And those predators grow rapidly in number as the adolescents and guardian flamingo adults run for the edge of the salt island. Hyenas and baboons are more than aware of this helpless bounty. Perhaps this sustained attack is what drives these ungainly chicks to the skies in the hundreds, then thousands.

What raises this feature above the average is the ability to capture these intuitive moments. As one chick is devoured by a mongoose, another looks to the air after several peers who have discovered the ability of flight; it strives mightily towards the clouds, above all that they know. Throughout this film, one is given a strong sense of a complex system at work with disparate factors culminating in this odd spectacle. The violent volcanic tumult, the rains and the marshes, the sun and heat, the primitive flora of algae, and the riot of fauna that have adapted to this unique ecosystem are entwined in continuous adaptation.

The images reflect an otherworldly landscape; blood red waters, a volcano spewing a mile-long cone of ash upon the veldt, and wide lens shots that beggar belief of the sheer numbers of birds these lands support. In between these cinematic vistas lie more intimate moments that belie strong social connections between individual birds and a harsh environment that requires extraordinary skill and luck to survive.

This is a journey that will last forty years, as the Lesser Flamingo tends to survive in the wild. Crimson Wing indulges in a poetic comparison – “Borne of salt, they possess the sky and burnish crimson as the flames of the phoenix… their lives are a continual transformation and even in death their forms shift to something other.” Fitting, as with all animals the flamingo is part of a cycle, living off one system while sustaining another, all eventually returning to the earth. But first, this new generation will join their elders in a nomadic existence that spans eastern Africa. In the end, they all return to the Lake of Fire, simultaneous cradle and proving ground.

Lake Natron may be facing its final days; there is considerable interest in extensive logging on the borders of the ecosystem that will degrade the land and likely destroy the marshes. Chemical companies have expressed an interest in building a soda ash plant that will essentially stripmine the lake and turn the alkali flats into detergent. The chance that the Lesser Flamingo will survive the total removal of its breeding ground is remote. Perhaps this is the greatest test of any species, the ability to defy the efforts of humankind. Adaptation of this kind is very difficult, requiring radical behavioral and biological changes within a single generation rather than millions of years.

Ultimately the test falls to people, and our ability to thrive while refraining from destroying that which is our livelihood. The tourism industry around Lake Natron is robust, and likely the only source for foreign currency for the tour operators and other infrastructure that would be forced to evacuate if the chemical industry is able to break ground. Whether the test of shortsighted exploitation versus long term sustained industry will be passed remains to be seen; this test reaches far beyond the Lake of Fire.

Birdlife – ‘Think Pink’ campaign to save the lake

Wildlife Conservation Society – Tanzania section