Cruel Conditions of Lake Natron Turn Animals Into Statues

Lake Natron, located on the border of Kenya in northern Tanzania, does a pretty good job of making itself stand out as one of the most mysteriously cruel and beautiful natural phenomena in the world.

This salt water lake is fed through its main tributary, the Southern Ewaso Ng’iro River, as well as mineral-rich hot springs that bubble up on the periphery. It has recently attracted attention for the macabre remnants of animals it has been leaving behind. Nick Brandt, a photographer who shoots exclusively in Africa–he directed the video for Michael Jackson’s Earth Song there in 1995–captured photographs of preserved bat and bird carcasses on the shoreline. Animals that become immersed in the water die and then become calcified, petrified.

“I could not help but photograph them,” he says. “No one knows for certain exactly how they die, but it appears that the extreme reflective nature of the lake’s surface confuses them, and like birds crashing into plate glass windows, they crash into the lake.”

The scenes he captured are profoundly remarkable, but so are the harsh conditions of this place.

Temperatures in the lake can reach up to 60 degrees Celsius (or 140 degrees Farenheit), and its alkalinity is between pH 9 and pH 10.5. As freshwater evaporates on the 402 square mile lake, it leaves behind high salt concentrations. In fact, the water of Lake Natron is so rich in dissolved sodium carbonate that if you placed your hand beneath the surface it would feel almost gelatinous to touch.

The sodium carbonate at this location has come from volcanic ash, accumulated from the Great Rift valley.

Unless you happen to be an alkaline tilapia (Alcolapia alcalica), an extremophile fish adapted to the harsh conditions, or a Lesser Flamingo (Hoenicopterus minor), it is not the most comfortable place to live. Surrounded by escarpments and volcanic mountains, one of which is active, this far from idyllic place is the only regular breeding ground for this species of flamingo in East Africa. Approximately 2.5 million individuals breed here each year.

“Large breeding events involving over a million [lesser] flamingos are not unusual if conditions at Lake Natron are suitable and if the flamingos are in good health,” explained Ms Ward, a PhD research student studying the relationship between East African lakes and lesser flamingo populations at the university’s Institute of Complex Systems Simulation (ICSS) and geography departments.

The corrosive environment of the lake and isolation allows the birds to breed without interference from predators.

Brandt’s new collection of photos featuring animals in east Africa, Across the Ravaged Land, is published by Abrams Books. One of this brilliant photographer’s goals is to record a last testament to the wild animals and places found in Africa before they are destroyed by the hands of man.