Thousands of flamingos die in Turkey’s shrinking Lake Tuz

·6-min read

Videos and photos posted online show thousands of carcasses of baby flamingoes, scattered across the dried-up sands of Lake Tuz, in central Turkey. Since July 10, visitors to the lake, a popular summer destination, have been shocked by the desolate scenes at the lake, and environmental activists have implored the government to do more to protect the lake’s wildlife in the face of drought and water shortages.

A video posted on Twitter on July 13 shows the extent of the damage to Lake Tuz’s flamingo population. The camera pans over the lake bed, which is devoid of water and cracked in the sun. Thousands of bodies of dead flamingos are strewn across the stretch of land.

These images were taken by a wildlife photographer in the area, Fahri Tunç, who also took close-up photos of the flamingos, which were dried up and bleached by the hot sun.

Lake Tuz, which means “Salt Lake” in Turkish, is Turkey’s second-largest lake, and one of the world’s largest hypersaline lakes. Its high salt content makes it an ideal breeding ground for some migratory bird species, including the flamingos which are usually present in high numbers in the spring and summer. In 2019, more than 20 thousand flamingo chicks hatched in Lake Tuz.

In the summertime, the lake is a popular tourist destination, sometimes known as the “pink lake” for its rosy hue, a result of increased salt levels and a type of algae present in the waters. Tourists from around Turkey and abroad visit Lake Tuz to take pictures of the flamingos, pink waters and sunsets reflected in the lake’s surface.

‘It was just like a desert’

Our Observer, Istem Donmez, is an environmental engineer and sociologist who lives in the capital Ankara. He visited Lake Tuz on Saturday, July 10 with a group of friends who are amateur photographs:

At Lake Tuz, where we normally go to photograph the flamingos and the sunset, the view was far below our expectations and, frankly, very sad. Our team, a group of amateur photographers who regularly went to the lake to take pictures of flamingos in 2017 and 2018, went to the region last week with the same expectation. There were no live flamingos, we only saw dead birds.

The water of the lake was all gone and there wasn’t even a reflection of water when you take a photo. In various places, there were dead flamingos, both large and small, on the bed of the lake. One of the people in my group is from Sereflikochisar [Editor’s note: a town neighbouring the lake], and when he saw the lake he said that normally there would be water here and you couldn’t walk on it. But it was just like a desert. We were all very disappointed and, unfortunately, we returned home after only photographing the sunset.

Approximately five thousand baby flamingos died at Lake Tuz this year, according to the BBC. Some have blamed the unprecedented mass deaths on the low water levels at the lake, saying this is a result of climate change-induced droughts and poor irrigation techniques.

‘The decrease in human mobility due to the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the flamingo population’

Mustafa Cemal Darilmaz is the dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Aksaray University. He specialises in aquatic species. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers why the population of flamingo chicks born at Lake Tuz this year died off.

Flamingos care in a ‘breeding colony’ manner, of feeding by filtering, and they raise their chicks in a nursery. The hatched baby flamingos need parental care and cannot fly. The decrease in human mobility due to the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the flamingo population. The high number of flamingos coming to Lake Tuz this year has caused some flamingos to establish nurseries on outer parts of the lake. [Flamingos in] the outside nurseries lost their lives, because they could not be fed, as a result of the rapid withdrawal of water by evaporation and their parents leaving the area.

In summer (from March), the lake dries up until autumn. This process is repeated every year. There is no obvious difference between last year and this year.

Despite being Turkey’s second-largest lake, Lake Tuz is not at all deep: it’s average depth is around half a metre. The lake’s water levels typically recede in the summer – making the lake into an expansive salt flat, and a source for salt mining. Some locals have reported that the lake has shrunk by about 10 km this year.

Lake depletion blamed on drought and irrigation

However, some parts of Turkey have recorded higher-than-usual temperatures this year, which, coupled with decreased precipitation, has led to decreased water levels in several lakes. Drought and pollution were blamed for widespread seagull deaths at Istanbul’s Lake Kuçukçekmece this month.

Locals have also blamed the lake’s depletion on increased water usage in the region. Canals that feed into the lake have been diverted by villagers in order to bring water to their fields. A video taken by Fahri Tunç shows one of these dams built to divert water in a canal.

A video originally posted on Twitter on July 13 shows one of the canals that feed Lake Tuz. The canal has been blocked by a dam.

According to the photographer, who has been following the flamingos in Lake Tuz for several years, farmers used to irrigate their fields using pipes to take water from the canals. However, when they started building dams to divert and collect water, the lake was severely impacted and flamingos began dying, Tunc told Turkish media Gazete Duvar. Several projects are under way to promote more efficient, water-saving irrigation techniques in Turkey’s Konya region.

Turkish Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Bekir Pakdemirli has said there is no connection between agricultural irrigation and the flamingos’ deaths. Meanwhile, according to Dr. Darilmaz, new waters should not be directed into Lake Tuz, as this would interrupt the natural ecosystem of the lake. He adds that rainwater and melting snow are the main sources of the lake’s water.

If water flow is provided to Lake Tuz from a different source, the chemical structure of the lake water will change, and the micronutrients that live in the water and which are the food source of the flamingo will be destroyed. Therefore, this route should definitely not be preferred. Lake Tuz has a natural formation and natural ecosystems should not be interfered with from outside.

The government of Konya Province, which borders the lake to the west, announced on July 14 that they had launched an investigation into what had happened to the flamingos, as well as potential measures to prevent future deaths.

Lake Tuz has been submitted to UNESCO as a potential World Heritage Site. In 2000, the lake was designated as a special protected area by the Turkish government.

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