Around 200 rescued juvenile birds await repatriation to Kamfers Dam after they were rescued when the dam dried up.
Feathers are flying over the fate of around 200 juvenile lesser flamingos rescued from Kamfers Dam that are being housed at three facilities in Gauteng.
They are among 2043 lesser flamingo chicks and pipping eggs rescued in a nationwide rescue effort last January after being abandoned by their parents when Kamfers Dam, outside Kimberley, started to dry up. “After the rescue, we received feedback that 1021 chicks survived and later on that 799 juveniles were being hand-reared. As agreed by all stakeholders, these birds would be repatriated to Kamfers Dam,” said BirdLife South Africa chief executive Mark Anderson and conservation biologist Tania Anderson of the Save the Flamingo Association.
“After acclimation and quarantine at a facility built for this purpose in Kimberley, 550 were ringed and 20 fitted with trackers to monitor their movements, just before they were released at Kamfers Dam from May to September last year. In October, we received news that 195 juveniles were still at three facilities – Lory Park Animal and Owl Sanctuary, National Zoological Gardens (NZG) and Montecasino Bird Gardens. This is a quarter of the flamingos reared.”
This was the last time, they said, that BirdLife South Africa and the Flamingo Action Group received any details on the juveniles in captivity from the facilities or the Gauteng rehabilitation co-ordinator, John Werth, executive director of the African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA).
The Flamingo Action Group is led by the Northern Cape Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs, Land Reform and Rural Development, formerly DENC, which is guiding the repatriation of the rehabilitated juveniles to Kamfers Dam.
Kamfers Dam, an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, is one of only four breeding sites for the near-threatened lesser flamingo in Africa and one of five in the world.
The Andersons have worked to protect Kamfers Dam and its flamingos for nearly 30 years. The Northern Cape department said it issued a permit for the import of 76 healthy flamingos to Kimberley in March. “We managed to negotiate with SA Express for reduced rates to fly the flamingos back and the Flamingo Casino committed to sponsoring the flights. There was, however, no co-operation from the facilities in Gauteng and we were eventually overtaken by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
With the easing of travel restrictions between provinces, “we again commenced discussions to resuscitate the flamingo repatriation project”. It is continuing to “implement compliance, monitoring and enforcement action …. This is because the facilities have not been co-operative and failed to abide by the department’s request to return the flamingos back to Kimberley since last November.
“We want to put it on record that the flamingos have no avian pox; they have not been imprinted; no flamingos have deformities and the department does not support any captive-breeding programme of flamingos.”
It supports BirdLife South Africa’s campaign for the flamingos return. “The initial agreement upon the issuing of permits by the department to the Gauteng facilities, was that after the healing process, the flamingos will be returned to Kimberley for release at Kamfers Dam. A condition stipulating this was included in the permits.”
Werth said: “Yes, there are still birds in three PAAZA-accredited facilities in Gauteng. These include non-releasable birds (eg. deformed feet or legs and beaks), pox-infected birds and healthy birds that did not meet the veterinary requirements for release during the initial phase of repatriation and required a longer period of captive care. All these scenarios are as per the original repatriation plan, which was agreed to by all parties at a national meeting convened by relevant national and provincial authorities in March 2019.
“Regarding the pox-infected birds, this type of pox is different to that previously recorded in wild flamingos from Kimberley. These birds will require veterinary clearance from the NZG/Onderstepoort before they could be considered for release.”
“The introduction of a potentially novel pox virus into the wild population is not in the best interest of flamingo conservation. It needs to be noted that all the pox birds are kept at one dedicated facility.”
“With reference to the ‘required a longer period of captive care’ DENC was first notified on August 14, 2019 and again on November 25 that there were between 45 to 65 birds that met the release criteria at NZG ready for collection by DENC.”
“To date, these and other official communication to DENC have gone unanswered and the birds that were ready are still resident at NZG, the only facility for export from Gauteng. In addition, as per requirements, all relevant updates have been submitted by PAAZA on behalf of the accredited facilities via the correct official channels to the relevant authorities.”
The department said it became aware recently of a permit granted by GDARD to Lory Park to breed the flamingos but was never consulted. Lory Park said it does not have such a permit and has no intention to breed the birds.
Plans for a captive-breeding programme appear to have been mooted in a March 20 meeting last year of the lesser flamingo veterinary information session to use birds considered non-releasable for propagation, according to Tania Anderson.
“The minutes say: ‘… the current flocks in captive facilities are going through a bottleneck and can benefit from new blood. … ex-situ breeding has a role in in-situ conservation’.”
A department official noted that on July 1 this year it was informed that “a decision was taken by the facilities in Gauteng that the flamingos will remain in captivity for the purposes of a breeding and research programme”.
“This raises many questions,” said Tania Anderson, “such as why is a breeding programme necessary when there are enough lesser flamingos in captivity globally and no genetic bottleneck. Where will the chicks go?”
But Werth said there were no such plans as the lesser flamingo is listed as near threatened and would not meet the criteria to establish an African conservation programme.
“The most important fact that has been omitted is that it was the private sector who approached the ‘in a controlled environment’ wildlife sub-sector for assistance. This situation arose because the private sector could not handle the situation they had created – hundreds of chicks needing specialised care!”
PAAZA said ex-situ facilities, especially zoos and aquaria, “dedicate their lives and resources to saving wildlife”. As of July 31, no financial relief has been forthcoming “despite many verbal commitments by DENC”.
Tania Anderson said the agreed-to repatriation plan drawn up by GDARD stated that the flamingos are either released at Kamfers Dam, euthanised or permanently kept at one accredited facility.
“Now it seems Montecasino, Lory Park and maybe the NZG, are going to keep some and use them for education purposes … This was not agreed by all stakeholders and donors involved.”
It’s “disconcerting” that many of the Lory Park birds still have recurring pox lesions. “These should have healed long ago. This ‘very different’ subclade of poxvirus should have been verified by an independent virologist.
We kept asking for that so we know it is definitely a different one to the one present in the flamingos in the wild in Kamfers Dam and the implications.
Kimberley vet Dr Donovan Smith, agreed. “We were able to treat most birds very successfully … Birds that had severe lesions were taken back to Pretoria on instruction from PAAZA and Dr Katja Koeppel (Onderstepoort).
“What I’ve seen here with regards to pox in the flamingos is that the lesions are more severe during times of stress, for example when food availability is low. To my knowledge, once a bird has had the virus, its body should build up enough immunity to prevent future infections, or at least to the same strain.”
Response from Lory Park
“On January 24 our park manager was part of the initial team that were asked to assist with the lesser flamingos at the Roodeplaat facility. Lory Park had no initial hand in the rescue and only became aware of the event once the birds were in Gauteng and assistance was needed.
“Our staff assisted at the Roodeplaat facility for three days and then returned to the park to assist with flamingos moved to us. “Lory Park first received 60 birds on January 26 from the Roodeplaat facility. Lory Park received a large amount of birds with medical conditions as we were able to care for these individuals.
When the first pox lesion was seen, Lory Park offered our facility, as a registered quarantine facility, to assist with these birds and isolate them from healthy individuals.
“We subsequently moved healthy individuals to facilities that were able to take them to further reduce the possibility of spreading the pox virus. All healthy individuals that met their veterinary requirements were returned to the dam during the releases that took place.
“This included birds that had mild pox, that had healed and had been free from any lesions for up to six weeks. Lory Park as an accredited facility is accountable to PAAZA and GDARD only and no other organisation, hence the meeting held on July 26, 2019.
“GDARD requested all releasable birds were to be moved to NZG where they would be returned to the dam. This was done. It was discussed to great lengths as what to do with the remaining pox birds at our facility. It was here that the decision was made that as the pox virus is a different subclass to the one currently found on the dam that it would not be viable to release these individuals. Many of these birds also have some form of disability due to the pox virus, such as one eye.
“The current 93 birds housed with us are all compromised in one way or the other, many still have reoccurring pox lesions. Our birds are provided with heat and shelter throughout the year, they are health checked weekly and those birds that require it, are treated medically daily. They have become incredibly dependent on us.
“Lory Park has no intention to breed these birds. We currently hold a keeping permit which is renewed yearly. This is until our facility has finished building the permanent exhibit for the birds. A dedicated education centre is almost complete, which will form part of the new exhibit for the flamingos. This centre will be used to create awareness around flamingos in SA worldwide. As an education-based facility, our goal is to educate as many people as possible around these incredible birds.
“A stud book was created through PAAZA, which is an essential data base for these birds and can track all movement, deaths and births. We also report any activity with our birdsdirectly to GDARD. It is essential to know that DENC have been communicated with regarding all these birds and any meetings since August 2019. It is also of importance to note that the Flamingon Action Group is simply an advisory body not a governing one.”
Response from Montecasino Bird Gardens
“On January 24, 2019 one of the senior staff members at our Bird Gardens was part of the initial team that went through to the facility in Roodeplaat to assist with the first group of lesser flamingo chicks that were brought there from Kimberley.
“The team that arrived on the first evening (comprised of individuals mainly from Lory Park, Montecasino Bird Gardens, National Zoological Gardens (NZG) and Onderstepoort Veterinary Campus) worked over that weekend to stabilise the birds.
A number of staff members from the Bird Gardens assisted at Roodeplaat for a week. “Montecasino Bird Gardens initially received 42 chicks on January 31, 2019. Thirty more chicks were received on February 9. Two more groups of chicks arrived on February 19 and February 25, respectively. A large number of the birds received by the Bird Gardens (after the initial group which came straight from Kimberley) was received from Onderstepoort as the birds had severe medical problems and required ongoing treatment, which Montecasino could provide by our on-site vet, as well as the assistance of three local vets.
Staff members from the Bird Gardens (the same five individuals who made up the core rearing team) also spent time in Kimberley assisting with the preparation for the releases. The overall success rate of chicks reared at the Bird Gardens was 78% with 98 of these being returned to Kimberley and 20 being sent to NZG with 18 remaining at the Bird Gardens.
These remaining 18 are not suitable release candidates. They are all compromised in some way due to various medical conditions. They are all still being weighed every three to four weeks as any drop in temperature has been documented to negatively affect their weights drastically.
“They are all provided with a sheltered area to sleep at night as well as supplementary heating. They are all also very used to people and a few actively approach staff when they enter the camp to feed or clean. This is unfortunately predominantly due to long-term daily treatments they received for serious medical issues.
“Montecasino Bird Gardens is accountable to PAAZA and GDARD only and no other associations, organisations or groups, hence a meeting between the three facilities still housing the birds, PAAZA and GDARD was held on July 26, 2019.
“We were requested to send any releasable birds to NZG where they could be housed prior to release in Kimberley. Twenty birds were sent to NZG. In the meeting, we motivated to GDARD that the remaining 18 birds continue to be housed at the facility due to their various medical conditions that make them unsuitable for release.
“This motivation was accepted and the Bird Gardens was granted a permit by GDARD to keep the birds who will spread awareness and educate the gardens’ visitors on the plight of the lesser flamingo.
“Lastly, it is important to note that a stud book was established through PAAZA, which essentially is a database of any movement, deaths and births recorded at any facility, including ours and holds all facilities accountable.”