Keeping old flames alive

A flock of Greater Flamingoes in Thol Lake Bird Sanctuary in Gujarat
Greater flamingo – Thol Lake Bird Sanctuary, Gujarat
Photo: Tejas Soni / Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2012

As mysterious as they are beautiful, the six flamingo species known to man have fascinated artists and scientists in equal measure down the ages. The Egyptians believed they were living representatives of the sacred god Ra, while the Romans relished their fleshy tongues, evolved to pump water out of well-fashioned bills while retaining filtered foods.

Living fossils, evidence positively dates flamingos to the late Eocene-Early Oligocene (35 to 30 million years ago) and recently, in north-eastern Spain’s Ebro Basin, researchers were astounded to find an 18-million-year-old fossilised flamingo nest (quite unlike the mud-nests that they build today!) with five eggs in it.

The exquisite-looking birds are truly primordial and truly confusing. Some scientists suggest they are related to ibises and spoonbills. Others claim they are closer to avocets and stilts. But, surprisingly, new molecular evidence seems to point towards grebes as their closest relatives.

Watching flamingos in the wetlands of Keoladeo Ghana, Bharatpur in the late 1970s with Dr Sálim Ali, I got one of my finest lessons in humility. I asked him whether the filter-feeding mechanism of flamingos and whales represented an example of convergent evolution. A full minute later, just as I was beginning to imagine he had not heard me, he turned to me and said: “You could probably say that. But it is best that you find out more when you get back to the Society in Bombay. Somehow the more I learn, the less, I discover, I know.” This from a man who brought the magic and the fragility of ‘Flamingo City’ to public notice and lobbied to protect these miraculous birds from all manner of developmental threats.

Rich and powerful Romans killed countless flamingos because they relished their fleshy tongues. But poets in Rome were in awe of flamingos, and named them after the Latin for flame… flamma. Today, rich and powerful industrialists, more powerful than the Romans of yore, have declared a virtual war on wetlands, without which flamingos cannot survive. And those carrying the conservation baton that Dr Sálim Ali handed down, are raising flags of resistance, enlisting the young in a life or death mission to keep the old flames alive.

First appeared in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, February 2013

Bittu Sahgal
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Bittu Sahgal

Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Asia, India's premier wildlife and ecology magazine.