In January, the Dallas Zoo was part of an unprecedented rescue effort after 1,800 lesser flamingo chicks were abandoned at their nesting grounds due to severe drought. But the work was far from over. Animal care professionals have worked tirelessly over the past four months to nurse the chicks back to health, and this week the Dallas Zoo helped lead a team in Kimberley, South Africa in the release of 49 of those chicks back into the wild. The rescue, rehabilitation, and release of these birds has never been done before, until now.
The drought affected Kamfers Dam in Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, causing adult flamingos to abandon their nests, leaving thousands of eggs and chicks behind. With only four breeding colonies of lesser flamingos in Africa and one other in India, Kamfers Dam is one of the most important breeding locations for this species in the world.
The Dallas Zoo led the effort to funnel emergency funding to South Africa in coordination with the Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA), sending more than $52,000 from U.S. zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). In addition, AZA-accredited institutions sent 53 of their top U.S. animal care experts and vet teams to help in the mission. The Dallas Zoo contributed $18,500, sent ten of its staffers, and funded the trips for five additional experts to lend their support. Harrison Edell, Dallas Zoo’s Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Conservation, is there now to assist in the release.
“We’re feeling intense relief right now knowing a release of this magnitude has never been done before,” said Edell. “It was a massive undertaking to rescue these flamingos, get them healthy, prepare them to reenter the wild, and then watch them go. The zoo community really stepped up to make this happen and help keep these birds alive.”
The 49 birds were the first group to be released back into Kamfers Dam after they were deemed the most fit for the initial release. Animal caretakers have worked around-the-clock to keep the hundreds of birds alive.
“It’s been a delicate balance – since January, we’ve worked hands-on with the chicks to keep them fed and healthy, but as they’ve grown, we needed to be hands off to ensure they did not imprint on us. We needed to know that they were not interested in people, and only birds, before they were cleared for release,” said Edell.
Each bird also went through a physical health exam, and was given a leg band and microchip before the release. A few chicks will remain in human care, including one that is blind and a few with wing injuries. Those not fit for survival in the wild will become ambassadors of their species at PAAZA-accredited zoos.
Hundreds more flamingo chicks are set to be released in the coming weeks.
“It’s been incredible to release our first flock and see them walk toward the other 20,000 wild adult flamingos at Kamfers Dam, and just fit right in. We hope they continue to thrive,” said Edell.
More AZA experts will travel to South Africa to see the final releases through, and U.S. officials will continue to be a sounding board on the project to ensure future success for all of the birds.
Lesser flamingos are currently listed as near threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Species (IUCN), primarily due to habitat destruction and climate change. It is the smallest species of the six species of flamingos in the world. They’re found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of India.