The lake that turns life to stone!

Dhaka, Tuesday   07 April 2020


The lake that turns life to stone!

 Dhrubo Ekramul

 Published: 10:28 PM, 11 October 2019   Updated: 09:24 AM, 12 October 2019

File Photo

File Photo

A bird statue lies at a dead tree branch in the lake area, it seems like someone has made it. But in the lake, who made it? Actually, it’s not an artificial statue, it was alive. Is it magic or folktale? No, it is real and there are scientific reasons behind. 

The ghastly salt Lake Natron lies in northern Tanzania, near the border with Kenya. It is one of the most serene lakes in Africa. The lake basin is approximately 65 km long, and 22 km wide although on average only 20% of this is ever covered by water. Arriving there you will see the shores of this lake are covered with thousands of intact petrified bird and animal corpses that have washed ashore. The birds appear to have been preserved almost perfectly, feathers and all. Nature forced them to be transformed into this form.

The beauty of Natron is really incomparable. The rare red color makes Lake Natron very unique. The color varies from orange to red, to pink and is produced by the bacteria and other microorganisms. Even it is compared with Laguna Colorada of Bolivia.  

But, the danger is hidden behind the beauty. Lake Natron is one of two alkaline lakes in that area of East Africa. The water comes from mineral hot springs and a river, but the lake doesn't drain out to any sea or river. The alkaline water in Lake Natron has a pH as high as 10.5 and is so caustic it can burn the skin and eyes of animals that aren't adapted to it. The water's alkalinity comes from the sodium carbonate and other minerals that flow into the lake from the surrounding hills. The waters can reach temperatures as high as 140 degrees Fahrenheit. It can very easily chemically burn animals not adapted to the sodium carbonate-rich conditions.

But when animals die and end up in the water, something odd happens. It seems like living animals turned to stone instantly on hitting the lake. But what actually happens is that the corpses of animals that died in the lake are sometimes preserved by the sodium carbonate minerals and other salts that were used by the ancient Egyptians for mummification - calcifying their bodies.
Do the birds or other animals intentionally come down the lake? No, often, migrating birds crash into the lake’s surface. Highly-reflective, chemical dense waters act as a glass door, fooling birds into thinking they’re flying through empty space. Even once a helicopter pilot tragically fell victim to the same illusion, and his crashed aircraft was rapidly corroded by the lake’s waters.

Lake Natron's alkaline waters support a thriving ecosystem of salt marshes, freshwater wetlands, flamingos and other wetland birds, tilapia and the algae on which large flocks of flamingos feed. Amazingly, 2.5 million flamingos make Lake Natron their home and it is considered one of their only breeding grounds, making preservation of the lake an environmental concern.

Photographer Nick Brandt has captured a number of haunting images of the lake and it's nature in a book titled "Across the Ravaged Land," which touches so many people about the brutal beauty of nature. He discovered the remains of flamingos and other animals with chalky sodium carbonate deposits outlining their bodies in sharp relief.

Lake Natron enjoys the presence of freshwater springs throughout the year. The juvenile birds move towards freshwater in large groups not only to drink the water but also to wash their feathers. Availability of food is a prerequisite for successful breeding of the flamingos. The alkaline nature of the water at Lake Natron makes it possible for flamingos’ primary food (Spirulina platensis) to thrive at the lake. Without the concentrated water (brine), Lesser Flamingos would not find enough food to enable them remain at the lake for breeding. Suitable substrate for nest. 

During dry seasons the colonies can be more spread out and follow the cracks in the soda ash (trona) where suitable mud can be accessed. Lake Natron has suitable and secure areas for the young or ‘crèche’ to move, feed and obtain fresh food and water.
The communities that live around Lake Natron Basin are largely Maasai and Batemi (Sonjo). Smaller groups such as the Rangi, Chagga, Pare and Waarusha are also present. These communities live in villages such as Ngare Sero, Pinyinyi, Magadini, Gelai, Engaruka and Wosi Wosi.

Finally, the Lake Natron is remarkably interesting to scientists because organisms do thrive in this extremely hostile environment. There are, however, concerns about the lake’s preservation. Currently, there is no legislation to protect the lake and its unique ecology. This could impact the survival of the local flamingo population.