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Lake Nakuru National Park

Imagine coming out through the yellow acacia woodlands to see a small group of rhinos fringed by tens of thousands flamingos foraging in the shallow blue waters of the lake, on a background of the biggest euphorbia forest in Africa. Yes, it almost sounds like a fantasy, but in Lake Nakuru National Park it is actually a quite common sight.

Lake Nakurus alkaline water supports the tiny spirulina algae which is the main source of food for the thousands of flamingos and the reason for their pink color. Also the lakes alkalinity makes the shore all white from soda deposits. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

Lake Nakuru National Park was first gazetted as a bird sanctuary in 1960 and upgraded to National Park status in 1968. Lake Nakuru itself is 62 km2 in extent and the park surrounding it is 188 km2. Situated only 2 1/2 hours drive from Nairobi, and due to the lakes extraordinary natural beauty Lake Nakuru National Park is a popular stop over on most safari itineraries, and a visit to Lake Nakuru can easily be combined with a visit to Lake Naivasha and/or Lake Elementeita.

Tourists at lake Nakuru on a backgrund of flamingos
Lake Nakuru is a popular destination for a day or two on most safaris in kenya. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

The ecosystem of lake nakuru

In 1990 the alkaline lake was designated as a Ramsar site and the foundation for the food chain is the tiny cyanophyte spirulina platensis supporting huge numbers of lesser flamingo. The Spirulina Platensis consists of spiral-formed cell chains and to survive and reproduce the algae needs strong sunlight for the photosynthesis, high temperatures and high concentrations of carbon and phosphor.

Great white pelicans
Huge colonies of Great White Pelican (Pelecanus Onocrotalus) live along the lake shore. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

The enormous productivity of the algaes makes Lake Nakuru a veritable soup of nutrients, and when at the peak of production, the Spirulina algae forms a Biomass of 200,000 tons – twenty times the Biomass of the savannah! The main reason for this is the constant supplies of organic minerals, especially sodium carbonate (Na2Co3), which makes the lake hyper-eutrophic.

Great white pelicans at Lake Nakuru
Weighing in at up to 15kg the Great White Pelican (Pelecanus Onocrotalus) is one of the heaviest airborne birds in the world. The biggest bird in the world, the African ostrich, is also found in Lake Nakuru N.P. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

Great white pelicans flying
The air is filled with an amazing sound when hundreds of pelicans fly in big circles using the thermal updrafts to gain height. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

In average the flamingos consume 162 tons of algae per day. The only type of fish in the lake (Tilapia Grahami) feeds on the algae just as the flamingos do and the fish are most numerous around the freshwater streams feeding the lake, which is why the pelicans are most often seen foraging nearby these streams. The approximately 27,000 birds (Pelicans, herons, cormorants, eagles etc.), consume about 5,000 fish a day, and so the spirulina not only is the basis for the flamingos but also the algae becomes the main source of nutrients for the whole ecosystem of the lake. Since 1951 Lake Nakuru has dried up four times but was flooded in 1961.

Great white pelicans at Lake Nakuru
Great White Pelicans on a background of flamingos. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

Usually trees will obtain water and nutrients in an osmotic process related to the concentration of Na2So3 molecules, but since it was alcalic water coming from the lake, this flooding was a catastrophe for the yellow-barked acacias and the beautiful trees consequently died from lack of fresh water. Especially from January to March temperatures on the big mud-flats in the lake can reach 50-600C resulting in a very high degree of evaporation from the lake, and if this continues for a long period of time, the concentration of soda increases even more.

The specialized flamingo

The lesser flamingo is specialized in foraging on microscopic organisms like spirulina platensis. The bird can often be seen with its head in reversed position, making the upper beak act as a small shovel skimming the upper few cm of the water. Like the whale’s baleen, the lesser flamingo has lamellae to filter the water inside its beak, holding back the appropriate size food. The flamingos upper beak is triangular in shape and fits perfectly into the lower beak. Inside both beaks have lamellae consisting of up to fifty fine hairs pr. cm.

Greater flamingos displaying
While the lesser flamingo feeds on algae the greater flamingo (shown above) feeds on small invertebrates – insects, crustaceans, mollusks and worms. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

The tongue being quite thick and meatful, lies in a groove inside the lower beak, producing the effect of a pumping piston. When the tongue is pulled back, water is sucked into the beak and when the flamingo squeezes the tongue outwards again, the lamellae will automatically be elevated, holding back the algaes in the beak. The tongue will then transport the algae further down the throat in a continuous action, happening 17 times pr. second. With an approximate population of about 300,000 flamingos in lake Nakuru, the bird will be responsible of consuming about 180,000 kg of algae every day.

Flocks of flamingos taking off
Flamingos taking off from Lake Nakuru. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

The patterns of migration of the flamingos are quite mysterious and sometimes they depart on long journeys at night between the different alcaline lakes in the Rift Valley and so you can never be sure at which lake they are to be found. As a rule of thumb, they never breed in Lake Nakuru though, preferring lake Bogoria or lake Magadi in the south of Kenya as the best place to built their mud-nests in which they can lay their egg (female flamingos have never been recorded to lay more than one egg) and raise their chicks.

Flamingos flying in formation
Flamingos flying in beautiful formations. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

Other species in the park

Apart from being one of the major feeding sites in Kenya for both lesser and greater flamingo, the park boasts another 450 species of birds and 56 species of mammals including white and black rhino, lion, giraffe, huge herds of buffalo, baboon, waterbuck, impala, warthog and many others. The park is also known to be one of the best places in Kenya to see leopards and it is the only place in the country to find the beautiful Rothchilds giraffe.

Rothschild Giraffes
Rothschild Giraffes browsing in the acacia forest fringing Lake Nakuru. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

Another characteristic animal in the park is the waterbuck – often standing alone or in small groups between the trees or on the shore of the lake. As their name indicates, they are only found close to water, making a lake environment like Nakuru the perfect spot to thrive for them.

Waterbuck at Lake Nakuru
The habitat around Lake Nakuru is perfect for waterbucks. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

Another large animal that roams the forests along the wide shores of Lake Nakuru is the African buffalo. Buffalo are the heaviest species within the Antelope family (Bovidae) with males achieving a body weight of up to 800kg and females up to 750kg. The buffalo is often characterized as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa and the reason for this is its sometimes shrewed and cunning behaviour. The manager of Marsabit Lodge call them “criminals” because the buffalo sometimes sneak up behind people to attack them. Hunters often speak in awe about the buffalos amazing stamina and even after having been shot with a bullet in the heart, a buffalo can still run a surprisingly long distance to attack the hunter before it collapses.

Buffalo at Lake Nakuru taking a dust bath
Buffalo taking a dust-bath on the dry lakeshore. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

Since Lake Nakuru is only about 20 km fra Nakuru town, it has been decided to fence it in and thus there can not be any elephants in the park but it is among the best places in all of Africa to see Rhinos, mostly white rhino but sometimes you also encounter black rhino in the park.

Rhino in Lake Nakuru National Park
A white rhino mirrored in a small stream supplying freshwater to the lake. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

The populations of rhino have been severely declining all over Africa during the past 30 years and many places in Kenya there used to live many rhinos – both white and black but nowadays they are hard to come across most places.

Rhinos at lake Nakuru
A white rhino mother rests while its young one explores. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

Even in the Masai Mara one have to be lucky to see a black rhinoceros or hook-lipped rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis). Black rhinos with their finger-like lips are adapted to feed on tress and bushes, easily camouflaging its huge body behind branches and leaves, whereas the white rhino is adapted to feed on grass. Its broad snout (thereof its name which is a derivate of Wide – not white) – is basically designed as an effective lawncutter, and therefor the white rhino is much easier to spot on the open plains but still a rare sight in most parks, exept in Lake Nakuru National Park where the tall fence protects it from poachers.

Young baboon
Young baboon at the viewpoint. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

Baboons are African and Arabian Old World monkeys belonging to the genus Papio, part of the subfamily Cercopithecinae. There are five species of baboons and they are actually some of the largest non-hominoid members of the primate order; only the mandrill and the drill found in western and central Africa, are larger. Baboons are ground dwelling or terrestrial and are found in open savannah, open woodland and hills across Africa. Their diet is omnivorous, but mostly herbivorous; yet they eat insects and occasionally prey on fish, shellfish, hares, birds, vervet monkeys, and small antelopes if they can catch them. But baboons can be surprisingly fast. At the campsite in the Park they are often bold enough to run close by people and grab some food.

Even lions live in lake Nakuru National Park though they are relatively few and not so easy to spot. Except the above mentioned elephants, Lake Nakuru National Park – on top of being a world class birding paradise it has the whole range of big African wildlife and it is one of the best places in Kenya to spot the most beautiful but also most elusive predator in kenya – the leopard!

The leopard is one of the rarest and most elusive animals in Africa, but Lake Nakuru National Park offers the visitor quite good chances to spot one. Photo © Mikkel Grabowski

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