Flamingos Population Survey Key In Conserving Makgadikgadi Pans

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Conservation scientists from UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Ecosystem Science have found the need to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to accurately count hundreds of thousands of flamingos in the Makgadikgadi pans in Botswana, which are among the largest salt pans in the world.

The survey which commenced three years ago estimates that there are 532,197 flamingos on the northern basin of Sua Pan, the eastern pan in the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana. The researchers used aerial photographs collected in June 2019 to count the flamingos through the Artificial Intelligence method. The Artificial Intelligence survey is expected to make future surveying of numbers of iconic species and potentially other bird and mammal species much easier.

In an interview, UNSW Sydney Professor of Environmental Science Richard Kingsford said the number of flamingos counted in the Makgadikgadi pans exceeded all historical records in the area since the 1970s, and it is the first estimate of flamingos from the area in a decade. He revealed that counting half a million flamingos using machine learning helps establish the significant conservation importance of the Makgadikgadi Pans.

He stated that the vast concentrations of flamingos are spectacular and one of nature’s wonders but also major conservation significance.  Kingsford stated that the survey allows them to tackle the conservation of the Makgadikgadi Pans and its flamingos, an important Bird Area (IBA) including the Nxai Pan National Parks.

“We need to protect the flooding regime, by making sure water from the Nata River in the north and other rivers to the Makgadikgadi Pans, such as the Boteti River are maintained,’’ he said.

Kingsford has stated that from past observations of breeding, Sua Pan is one of the most important breeding sites for flamingos in Africa and for lesser flamingos especially those that are Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species,  the pans are one of only six major breeding sites. He noted that the flamingos observed in June 2019 were feeding, rather than breeding, highlighting Sua Pan’s ability to support huge concentrations of individuals outside of breeding attempts.

‘‘The significance of Sua Pan as a key flamingo habitat in southern Africa and beyond reinforces the need for its ongoing protection. Successful breeding requires very special conditions, including the right amount of flooding to create islands of salty mud for raising chicks, isolated from predators,’’ he said.

According to Kingsford, there is currently insufficient protection of the Makgadikgadi Pans from adventure tourism developments, dam building upstream and other human-related threats. He said that these fragile environments must be protected if they are to conserve these incredible birds, which are an important part of these rare ecosystems and a major tourist attraction.

He expressed that regular monitoring is necessary for ensuring the continued suitability of Sua Pan as feeding and breeding habitat. Kingsford noted that the researchers hope that their machine learning method, used to count birds in aerial photographs, will help this cause, as traditional methods for counting such large numbers are usually tedious and time-consuming.

‘‘This work builds on the collaboration underway between researchers at the University of NSW and researchers and citizen scientists in Botswana,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, Kingsford stated that the conservation scientists used machine learning to estimate the numbers from 3715 photographs taken from a Cessna aeroplane that flew a series of transects across the pans, at a height of 500-600m and speed of 175-195 kilometres per hour.  Kingsford stated that the team needed to control for the overlapping of photographs on the margins and then ‘teach’ the computer to recognise each pink dot as a flamingo, but that was made challenging by turbulence affecting the stability of the plane.

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