3 July 2011

East Africa: Lakes Nakuru, Bogoria, Elementaita Now On World Heritage List

Nairobi — Kenya's conservation efforts were last week rewarded following the inclusion of the delicate wetland ecosystem of lakes Bogoria, Nakuru and Elementaita into the Unesco World Heritage List.

The World Heritage Committee last week put the three lakes on the prestigious list, which means that Kenya will benefit from global conservation funds for the protection of what is known as the Kenya Lakes System found in the Rift Valley. The three lakes were recognised for their unique universal value to humankind.

Bogoria, Nakuru and Elementaita are Kenya's three most important lakes that providing unique biodiversity and sustaining 75 per cent of the globally threatened population of Lesser Flamingos, Lesser Kestrel and White-headed Vulture among others. This exceeds the global threshold for congregations, making the Kenya Lakes System a critical site for the conservation of Lesser Flamingos in the world.

Dr Idle Farah, director-general of the National Museums of Kenya, who was part of the Kenyan delegation that applied for and defended the inscription of the three lakes, said the world is continuously recognising the role Kenya is playing in conservation, and was optimistic that the country is likely to have more sites put on the list.

The Kenya Lakes System now becomes Kenya's fifth heritage or landscape site to make it to the World Heritage List. The other four sites are Lamu Stone Town, the Kaya Forests, Mt Kenya National Park and Lake Turkana National Park.

Fort Jesus in Mombasa and Thimlich Ohinga Cultural Landscape in Nyanza, are among sites with potential of making it to the list. Once listed, sites cease to be the sole property of the host country and become global property.

The three lakes form an important stopover site for migratory birds flying from other sites in Europe, Asia and South Africa. It is part of a global network of Important Bird Areas, migratory flyways and wetlands of global significance.

Besides, the zone supports significant populations of threatened mammal species like the black and white rhino, the African wild dog, lion, cheetah, and leopard.

However, human activities such as farming, deforestation, poaching and mass tourism threaten these fragile ecosystem, which calling for elaborate conservation programmes.

Except for Lake Bogoria, which has a maximum water depth of 13 metres, both Elementaita and Nakuru are shallow lakes with the deepest parts being 1.5 and three metres respectively, meaning environmentally-degrading human activities could lead to their drying up.

The World Heritage listing is the first phase of a serial national and transnational nomination of sites within the Great Rift Valley covering several countries in the region. The three lakes are part of a system of lakes in Eastern Rift Valley that have a unique volcanic landscape, and share a common geological history, and associated ecological features.

The lakes' geothermal heated waters contribute to the unique aquatic habitats that support unique assemblages of flora and fauna. Within this branch of the Great Rift Valley are Lake Tanganyika and several smaller lakes like Lakes Edward and Albert. Lake Malawi lies in the Eastern Rift branch.

The Kenya Lakes System is not only geologically and hydrologically connected, but shares similar ecological zones, and is an international bird area and is a key area of waterfowl of global importance, as well as a Ramsar site.

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance is an inter-governmental treaty that provides the framework for national and international co-operation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. The treaty was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971.

The East African flamingo populations migrate between the Rift Valley lakes in Kenya and Tanzania, breeding and feeding. Lake Elementaita is a key breeding site of the Great White Pelican population.

Up to 8,000 Great White Pelican breed here when the water levels are high and the rocky outcrops in the eastern sector are flooded to form islets on which the birds can safely nest. The presence of diverse aquatic communities of micro flora provides a stable food base for the Lesser Flamingo population.

The micro flora are an important component of the food chain and the overall ecology of the East African alkaline lakes system. The extremophile bacteria found within the Kenya Lakes System has immense potential for the development of pharmaceutical products as well.

The three lakes have been internationally recognised as wetlands of international importance under the Convention on Wetlands 1971. This recognition emphasises the importance of the proposed property as a priority area for conservation of unique and threatened species and habitats.

Under national law, Lake Elementaita is protected as a National Wildlife Sanctuary while Lake Nakuru is a National Park and Lake Bogoria is a National Reserve. The three sites have additional protection as Ramsar sites.

The listing of the three sites as World Heritage Property would significantly enhance their ecological integrity and improve conservation status.

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