Flamingo Research and Conservation in the Americas
Four flamingo species are found on the American continent. The Caribbean flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber ruber) is found primarily in the coastal wetlands of the Caribbean basin, with a small isolated population on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Three species are found in southern South America: the Chilean flamingo (P. chilensis) has a broad distribution throughout wetlands extending from central Peru to the southern tip of Argentina, and James' and Andean flamingos (Phoenicoparrus jamesi and P. andinus respectively) are primarily found in the high-altitude saline wetlands of the Central Dry Puna in the Andes, but their range also extends into lowland wetlands of central Argentina, especially during the winter months when some of the high-altitude habitats become unavailable. Coastal Caribbean wetlands and their bird diversity are threatened by development, destruction or conversion of habitat, and human disturbance. Both the Andean and the lowland wetlands are threatened by agriculture, mining, industrial projects, and unregulated tourism. Flamingos are a good flagship species for wetland conservation, as they are recognizable and charismatic, and because of the landscape scale at which they use wetland resources, moving from one wetland to another over the course of the year as local conditions change.
Through Associate Director Dr. Felicity Arengo, the CBC is working on flamingo and wetland research and conservation throughout the Americas. In the Caribbean, Dr. Arengo is working with Dr. Nancy Clum, Assistant Curator of Birds at the Wildlife Conservation Society's Bronx Zoo, to coordinate the Caribbean Alliance for Flamingo Research and Conservation. The purpose of this initiative, which was launched in August 2006, is to coordinate flamingo activities at a regional level in the Caribbean. Local conservationists in some flamingo range countries (e.g., Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico) have been carrying out long-term research, management, and conservation activities, but there are gaps in basic population and habitat status in other areas. Additionally, because individual flamingos range over several countries, localized initiatives need to be networked and integrated into a regional vision of ecological research and conservation. The Caribbean Alliance is currently recruiting participants and is planning its first meeting for the end of 2007.
In South America, Dr. Arengo is working with the Grupo de Conservación de Flamencos Altoandinos-GCFA (High Andes Flamingo Conservation Group), an international initiative comprised of scientists and conservationists (from government agencies, non-government organizations, universities) from the four flamingo range countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. This initiative was launched in 1997 to address flamingo research and conservation issues at a regional scale in all countries where they occur. Dr. Arengo has provided technical support to the GCFA since 1998. Research and monitoring activities spearheaded by the GCFA have provided the first reliable estimates for the two rarer species, the Andean and James' flamingos, such that we now have a solid baseline from which to detect trends and changes in population numbers. Estimating these populations required mobilizing over 80 volunteers to count flamingos in over 220 wetlands over a 400,000-km2 area in a one-week period. These comprehensive censuses were carried out from 1998-2000 in both summer and winter, and in 2005 the census was repeated to start detecting population trends. Members of the GCFA have been effective in organizing training workshops (to date over 140 people have received training in monitoring habitat variables and bird censusing) and supporting local park guards in protecting nesting colonies and increasing monitoring of reproductive activity. The GCFA has implemented a flamingo chick-banding program, coordinating banding codes, disseminating information, and centralizing the banding and resighting data.
Currently, Dr. Arengo's research focuses on determining Andean flamingo movements and habitat use using satellite telemetry. Since 2003, fourteen Andean flamingos have been tagged and location data mapped and four birds are currently still transmitting data. Results from this study show that flamingos are much more mobile than previously thought, and have moved over 1,000 km in only a few days. They are also using a diverse array of habitats, including shallow salt lakes, rivers, and freshwater wetlands. This information is feeding directly into the South American regional strategy for wetland conservation under the auspices of Ramsar, an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources, and also into the design of a network of priority wetlands for the conservation of flamingos. To date the GCFA has held one workshop with delegates from priority wetland sites to evaluate the conservation status of their sites and coordinate regional activities.