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One of the lesser-known 'soda lakes' in Kenya's East Rift Valley, Lake Elementaita is becoming a major eco-tourism destination. As one of the three saline lakes that make up the Kenya Lake System of the Great Rift Valley, Lake Elementaita is one of the main feeding lakes for the Lesser Flamingo. Only ten miles away, Lake Nakuru gets the most visitor attention to see the flamingos, but those same flamingos regularly travel to Lake Elementaita and Lake Bogoria farther north as a part of their feeding routine. The unique chemical composition of the saline lakes creates ideal conditions for the growth of spirulina, a green algae that is the only food source for the Lesser Flamingo. These three saline lakes lie aligned within the Rift Valley and share water sources from the fault fissures below. Where Lake Nakuru is famous as the breeding grounds for the Lesser Flamingo, Lake Elementaita can claim that honor as the breeding grounds of the Pink-Backed Pelican. As most of the lakeshore has been in private hands for the past century, it has escaped the notice of the tourism trade until very recently.
A RAMSAR site since 2005, Lake Elementaita is extremely shallow, with an average depth measured in inches in most areas. Two main inflowing rivers, the Kariandusi and the Mereroni, both flow from the eastern escarpment. More water is introduced by springs, both fresh water and hot saline, bubbling up at the south end of the lake. Some of this water has been proven to come from Lake Naivasha, a fresh-water lake a few miles to the south. The springs create a wetland complete with reed beds where tilapia breed. As the climate is semi-arid, with rainfall only during two short rainy seasons in spring and fall, evaporation affects the size of the shallow lake considerably. Not understanding this tends to lead to panic among ecology fans when the lake's surface decreases dramatically. In 2009, some foreign news reports stated with alarm the lake was in danger of drying up completely, which is not unusual for Lake Elementaita. By 2011, a local charity cycling event had to change its route due to the lake water covering the nearby road. The tenuous nature of these lakes is why all three lakes in the Kenya Lakes System are so important to the 100+ species of migrating birds that depend on them. Some of these include the yellow billed stork and marabou stork, African spoonbill, black winged stilt, black-necked grebe, gull billed tern, little grebe, grey-headed gull and pied avocet. Bird-watchers are especially thrilled to see the huge flocks of birds, large and small, take to the skies on their way to the next lake in the system.
There are no permanent settlements directly along the lake, likely due to the constantly-changing shoreline. One small village exists along the road south-east of Lake Elementaita. Minor household agriculture and livestock-rearing occur near the lake, and locals harvest salt and bathe in the warm springs. Two conservancies hold the rest of the lakeshore and surrounding territory in a protected state; the larger is the Soysambu Conservancy. Covering two-thirds of the shoreline, the Conservancy is home to over 12,000 native animals, including cheetah, water buck, jackal, leopard, lion, zebra, warthog, gazelle, eland, buffalo and giraffe. A number of low, rugged, lava-rock islands in the shallows are the nesting site of the Great White Pelican. At hatching time, the rocks are completely covered with the downy grey fledglings of 8000 breeding pairs of birds. As the fish resources in the lake aren't numerous enough to support these broods, their parents fly to other nearby lakes to bring back fish in their beak pouches for the young to eat. The natural ecosystem is a delicate balance; the introduced tilapia are thought to have reduced the amount of green algae as food for the flamingos, as better fishing has encouraged many other birds to visit the lake to fish. Scientists are carefully studying the ecosystem to learn how to best protect it.
Soysambu Conservancy is a working cattle ranch, established in the 1870s. The owners live on the ranch and have dedicated their land and resources to preserving the natural ecology of the lake and its surrounding areas and to bettering the lives of local inhabitants. Working with the Kenyan government and non-profit groups, the conservancy not only protects the rare and endangered species within its borders, but also offers educational seminars to local inhabitants on better ways to make use of their scarce resources. The conservancy provides lunch to two schools located near the lake, and with the Kenya Wildlife Service sponsors charity events such as the 'Cycling with the Rhinos' event to generate funds to repair electric fencing at Lake Nakuru National Park. As part of the plan to provide a source of income to locals while opening up Lake Elementaita's scenic vistas to the wider world, a number of lodges and camps have been developed to offer lodgings to visitors.
The status of Ututu Conservancy is unclear as there is little published information. It appears to encompass much of the 9000-acre Elementeita Badlands, also called the Ututu Forest. The eventual plan is to produce a continuous band of protected land as a wildlife corridor between Lake Elementaita and Lake Nakuru National Park. The Badlands area is primarily brush-covered lava flow surrounding spectacular peaks and extinct volcanoes. Lava tube caves in the area show evidence of prehistoric human use and were used as hiding places for local residents during the violence that followed the 2007 elections. The surrounding highlands reach up to 7440 feet above sea level and are an inviting climb for adventurous visitors. Some of the eco-tourism groups focus on these extinct volcanoes and lava cave exploration. Nearby, the Kariandusi Museum is an important pre-history site where Louis Leaky discovered stone hand-axes and cleavers in 1929. The land is somewhat inhospitable to its inhabitants but very inviting to guests of the half-dozen lodges and camps in the area. Some of the lodges are quite luxurious, while others offer a more native and spartan choice of thatched huts or tents.
Less than two hours by road north of Nairobi, Lake Elementaita makes an excellent base for visiting the many game parks, national parks and preserves located in this part of the Rift Valley. The Soysambu Conservancy is only open to 'guests'; usually admittance can be arranged through the lodges around the lake. Opportunities to enjoy a different, more natural safari vacation are becoming rare as Kenya becomes more commercialized. Lake Elementaita may be one of the last, best places to experience the primitive landscape that was once common in the Great Rift Valley. Come and enjoy the lava outcropping, escarpments and ancient volcanic peaks above the soda lake carpeted with bird life. A camera is absolutely necessary.
*Surface area shown in the statistics reflect the lake's area when full. The actual mean depth of the lake is less than four inches in most areas.
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