Kamfers Dam is a sizeable waterbody located just outside the diamond-mining town of Kimberley, in the dry Northern Cape Province of South Africa. Despite its name, it isn’t a dam at all. Perhaps this is where all the confusion and controversy began – the first simple ingredient, forming the basis for what recently rose into a deliciously sweet-and-sour, multi-layered cake of nuanced complexity, baked in the heat of the summer sun, and topped with gloriously ornate, bright pink flamingos?!
Kamfers Dam is actually a pan – a large shallow depression in an otherwise featureless landscape that in the past only occasionally filled with water after rare bursts of heavy rain. Then, over 30 years ago, the nature of the wetland was fundamentally altered when a water treatment plant was installed at its edge, and started pumping processed effluent out into the pan. Suddenly an ephemeral pan became a permanent ‘dam’, almost constantly filled with a warm, spicy mix of liquids and nutrients, coincidentally ideal for supporting super-high densities of blue-green algae – staple forage of the Lesser Flamingo. In response, flamingos switched from itinerant visitors to the pan, nomads that appeared and disappeared as they tracked storm-fronts across the continent, to more permanent residents. And as they began to thrive on this fortuitous abundance of food, conditions were further improved in the mid-2000s when ornithologists custom-built a breeding island, specially designed to accommodate the flamingos’ strange clay-turret nests, and located out in the middle of the dam where it was cooled and protected from land predators by an open expanse of watery mud.
The area around Kamfers Pan is so flat that as one examines it from the shoreline, everything from the cracked, grey mud at your feet, through the shiny expanse of water, to the golden-grassed savanna beyond, is compressed into thin layers of contrasting colours and textures. Space is foreshortened, with the content of each layer condensed into two, simple dimensions, seeming to bring the far horizon to within touching distance of an outstretched hand. Anthropogenic change has introduced a new, flamboyant layer to the historic composite of earth-tones. Kamfers Dam has emerged as one of only a handful of places where the globally threatened Lesser Flamingo has ever been known to breed, and one of only 2-3 places on the planet where these birds have nested with any regularity. It now supports a teeming population of more than 80 000 of these birds. They present a pink and white pin-stripe of stalking elegance, glistening in the shimmering hot haze of midday or glowing in the softer light of evening, each constituent bird popping out against the burnished royal blue of the water. A victory for conservation that is as rare and resounding as it is breathlessly spectacular. But in the years since, the story of Kamfers Dam has continued to unfold, culminating in the last 2-3 weeks in such a convoluted narrative, rendered opaque by so many subtly or directly conflicting strata, and diverted by so many pressing human agendas, that the real way forward, nature’s way, was almost lost.
The economic and social ills of a country in crisis served to destabilise what was a momentary equilibrium, causing problems at the dam that should really have been detected and managed by the designers of the flamingo experiment but weren’t. Collapsing infrastructure compromised the inflow of water to the dam, leaving the breeding flamingos high, dry and exposed. People from the burgeoning city of Kimberley, and then from around the world, responded with both charity and empathy. Locals swooped in to rescue thousands of fluffy flamingo chicks, apparently left abandoned to the elements by their stressed parents, and the hapless young birds became the dumb recipients of an awkward mix of sincere devotion, rampant media attention and syringed foods. What followed was a rehabilitation effort perhaps overly influenced by tugged heart-strings and not sufficiently informed by science and experience. Animal welfare, husbandry, research and conservation organisations jostled for decisive control of the situation instead of achieving constructive synergy through respectful teamwork. Government agencies stood nervously aside. Mining concerns continued to use precious water to sustain their lucrative operations while simultaneously planning, executing and paying for efforts to protect the birds and restore ailing and neglected municipal infrastructure. And everyone, through a cosmopolitan mix of prayer, finger-crossing and hand-wringing, hoped for the strange forces of climate change to ease, the drought to break, and rain to finally fall.
So a situation in which nature was given a little nudge, and then a leg-up, to compensate in a tiny way for the relentless pounding she is taking everywhere and all the time, was plunged into entropy. National and inter-personal politics, institutional power struggles and overly expressive egos, capitalism, cynicism, nepotism and even shades of racism, both literally and figuratively polluted the waters. Caregivers were blinded by love, scientists by statistics, conservationists by their undying faith in the value of knowledge, commentators by conscious or subconscious bias, and reporters by hype and misinformation. In short, nearly every conceivable human vice and weakness combined to add an unwanted, obstructive layer to an already complicated reality, and the situation several times threatened to spiral out of control.
Remarkably however, it seems that nature has ultimately won through. In the last few days rain has come, relieving pressure, cooling tempers and soothing souls. The passage of time has lowered defences and opened minds, the various conflicting agencies of vested human interests have found pattern, and the cacophony of raised and jumbled voices has somehow found concert and harmony. And the flamingos? Well, as expected, the roller-coaster of life continues for them – breeding birds at the colony are still stoically incubating their eggs, while the thousands of healthy young birds are growing, spending their days forming and un-forming noisy but surprisingly organised creches out on the dam. In fact these chicks are now so numerous that they are starting to introduce a new layer to the observer’s side-on view of the dam; a sooty-brown layer of gawky cuteness, blessed with a naïve but profoundly strong purity of spirit.
And as the sun rises on another scorching day at Kamfers Dam, it slides shyly behind a small cloud beating by on the breeze. The resulting stolen moment of relief from the building heat is a portent of storms in the afternoon, and its thin shadow intensifies reflections of feeding flamingos. There are thousands of them, scattered from shore to shore, each paying synchronised homage to itself. Out among the adults a band of chirpy youngsters, walking in single file and arranged from biggest to smallest, makes an excited sortie from the breeding colony. They move fast, striding out or jogging, stooping forwards and flapping their stubby, featherless wings. Then they slow and stop, standing together and gazing around in wonder at their world. As the sunlight returns and strengthens, it envelopes each downy body in a glowing halo of gold.
Maybe, just maybe, everything will be alright. For now.