Lake Natron and Engaruka basin

Year of compilation: 2001

Site description
Lake Natron is a shallow soda-lake in a closed basin on the floor of the Eastern Rift Valley. It extends 58 km south from the Kenyan border with a mean width of 15 km. Although its surface area can reach 850 km², the maximum depth is only 50 cm. There are considerable seasonal fluctuations in surface area between the middle of the dry season (November–December) and the end of the rains (April–May). The water is highly saline with chloride concentrations reaching 65,000 mg/litre and is unsuitable for direct human and livestock use. The lake’s principal inflow is the perennial Ewaso Ngiro river which rises on the Mau Escarpment in Kenya and flows southwards along the eastern edge of the Nguruman Hills. Seasonal drainage from within Tanzania includes major rivers from the Loita Hills (rising in Kenya) and Longido mountains in the north-west, the Gol mountains in the west, the Ngorongoro Highlands to the south and minor streams from Mount Gelai in the south-east.The surrounding land is dry bush dominated by Acacia thorn-trees, inhabited by pastoralist Masai. There is some seasonal cultivation along the riverbanks and a small settlement in the south associated with a minor soda-extraction plant and a few small tourist camps. Otherwise the general area is sparsely populated, the lack of fresh water in the dry season controlling the populations of both man and livestock. Engaruka is a shallow depression in the Rift Valley 50 km north-north-east of Lake Manyara and 58 km south south-east of Lake Natron. The centre of the depression is a semi-permanent lake covering in excess of 400 ha. Surrounding this lake is a swamp that can extend for up to 3 km, especially to the north and south-east. Beyond this lies a shallow plain which is occasionally inundated over a further 4,000 ha. During dry years the area is a rather featureless plain fringed with low acacia scrub and heavily grazed by herds of Masai cattle and goats.

Key biodiversity
See Box and Table 3 for key species. Lake Natron is the most significant and regular breeding site for the majority of the world population of Phoenicopterus minor. The lake also seasonally holds significant numbers of waterbirds, many of which would probably meet 1% thresholds, but for which data are lacking. Among these are likely to be Phoenicopterus ruber, Plegadis falcinellus, Charadrius pallidus and Calidris minuta. Of particular note is a count of 148,000 Ciconia abdimii in 1995 at Engaruka, and an estimated 60,000 were seen here in January 1998. A number of Somali–Masai biome species reach their western limits in this area, including Emberiza poliopleura, Mirafra poecilosterna and Apalis rufifrons.

Non-bird biodiversity: There are considerable numbers of ungulates in the ecosystem, including Oryx gazella, while Lake Natron is the northern limit for wildebeest Connochaetes migrating north from Tarangire National Park.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
The lake and surrounding land have no protected status, but fall within the Lake Natron Game Controlled Area, designated to regulate the hunting of large mammals. Some form of official protection for Lake Natron and the surrounding woodland is urgently required, so the declared intention to designate the lake as Tanzania’s second Ramsar Site is welcome. Hitherto, the breeding site of Phoenicopterus minor has been protected by its remoteness and the climatic harshness of the lake surface. There are, however, two potential threats. There are plans to build a hydroelectric/irrigation dam on the Ewaso Ngiro river in Kenya. Water would be diverted from other rivers within Kenya and the increased flow used for irrigation in the marshland to the north of the lake. This could result in a dramatic increase in the volume of fresh water reaching the lake as well as chemical run-off from fields of irrigated crops. Changes in the salinity of the lake would destroy the blue-green algae which form the diet of Phoenicopterus minor. In addition, 25 km north of Lake Natron in Kenya is Lake Magadi, the site of an intensive soda-extraction plant. There have been several studies for a similar plant on Lake Natron and, indeed, a small operation already exists in the south-western corner of the lake. One of these studies has proposed the construction of a pipeline to Tanga port to transport the soda ash. Such a scheme would require vast amounts of water and would probably destroy the lake as a breeding site for Phoenicopterus minor.

Conservation responses/actions for key biodiversity
There are proposals from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism to raise the protection status of Lake Natron but the process is ongoing. This will reduce human encroachment and catchment damage. It will also grant protection to the key catchments, nearby woodland and forests. However, there is a need for community engagements so that they are not left out by the new proposed protected area. There have been some efforts by the government of Tanzania, BirdLife International and other NGOs in building the capacity of local communities, local tour guides, village and ward government leaders on ecotourism business operation and management. Their capacity for better protection and management of biodiversity and the ecosystem of Lake Natron has also been built. Tourism Development Plan (TDP) has been developed by stakeholders including local communities. The TDP has set a 10,000 tourist carrying capacity to maintain the ecological integrity of the Lake. Local communities are taking local actions that, if sustainable, would lead to sustainable conservation of the Lake Natron ecosystem. These include the development and implementation of Village Land Use Plans (Engaresero village), rangeland management plan. Local actions for catchment protection and restoration, including tree planting, are in place but need replication and close monitoring. The growth of the community-based ecotourism activities at Lake Natron is commendable and encouraging. There is however a need to replicate the ecotourism model at Engaresero village to villages on the Eastern side of the Lake.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Lake Natron and Engaruka basin. Downloaded from on 29/11/2022.