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December 11, 2018

Flamingoes can teach us importance of sticking together

ONE FOR THE TEAM: The grouping strategy was working for the flamingos.
ONE FOR THE TEAM: The grouping strategy was working for the flamingos.

There was a time when Lake Nakuru National Park was the talk of the touring world. What with more than two million flamingos at a single location?

That was the highest concentration of a single species of birds in the world. Tourists came from around the globe to witness such unusual sights.

Former President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was not left behind either. He constructed a shed along the shores of the lake, at the site where the largest group of the flamingos had taken up residence. Now the park is a pale shadow of its former self.

The birds did not die. They just moved house. They may be spread out in different locations within the lakes of the Rift Valley, but indeed, they still are a large group wherever they may be.

Because that is what they have to do to continue staying alive. Just before the flamingoes left for their new locations, I had the chance to witness some rare scenes showing the benefits of staying together in a group, as the flamingoes do.

As scavengers of the Lake Nakuru, there were several clans of hyenas living around the lake. They used to clean the shores of dead flamingoes.

With such congestion of two million birds, some went to sleep on the dry land and never woke up to get back to the water. The hyenas gradually increased in numbers.

But they could not have any visible effect on the numbers of the birds. The new breed of hyenas started having different ideas about their daily diet. They did not want to be seen as lowly scavengers cleaning up the lake shores. They wanted something fresh with warm blood. They began hunting down flamingos inside the lake.

At first they tried the trick on the injured ones. Flamingoes have very frail legs. Since they are wading birds, their feet are webbed. This usually forces them to land in water as shock absorbers. Those who have the bad lack of landing on the hard ground without knowing break their weak legs on crash-landing.

These were the first to go when the new clan of hyenas started hunting for fresh meat. The hunting expeditions were very successful in the beginning.

But as in all animal life, as the hyenas learnt to hunt, the birds also were slowly learning coping strategies to counter the new threat. They started moving along the lake in a tighter group, leaving no space between individuals. They seemed to move like a wave.

The weak ones, especially those who had broken legs were kept well hidden inside the group. When hyenas went for the hunt, they could not pinpoint an individual flamingo to kill.

It was as if there were no longer injured birds. So they tried to hunt the healthy ones by running right inside the group and causing a lot of chaos so that the healthy birds would fly and leave the injured ones straggling to lift off. Sometimes the hyenas were successful but most times they lost the hunt.

The grouping strategy was working for the flamingoes. The general rule in the wild is birds of a feather flock together. There are exceptions to the rule, as with some sharks, or leopards. The leopard may thrive as a loner but he has very few enemies to worry about.

If togetherness is primarily for safety purposes, the leopard will not need another eye to watch over him. If it is for hunting purposes, his lonesome lifestyle has given him elaborate ideas on how to successfully hunt alone.

But he cannot be said to be as successful in life as hyenas or hunting dogs that live in groups and hunt together. For them, it is all for one, and one for all. In order to work, a society must hang together.

Unless the groupings are to be fluid, unreliable and anarchic, they need a defined structure.

So deeply rooted are animals societies that if they are artificially suppressed by anything whatsoever, they soon reassert themselves and reestablish the grouping with very little effort, driven by the sole desire to survive.

Steve Kinuthia is a veteran professional safari guide and the proprietor of Bushman Adventures Limited. [email protected]

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