The Crimson Wing movie: how beauty can help save the world

| 24th September 2009
The Crimson Wing
A flamingo running to build speed for taking to the air. Photo Credit: Anup and Manoj Shah
A pioneering Disney nature film has become a powerful tool to protect threatened flamingos on Tanzania's Lake Natron

There are many ways to try and save the world. Emissions targets, green taxes, fact-filled reports and hard-hitting documentaries are one approach.

Then there's direct action - protests, boycotts and beyond. Much of it focuses on what's wrong with the world and how it can be fixed.

But what about beauty as an approach? It was Dostoevsky who first wrote the enigmatic phrase, ‘beauty will save the world'. In the environmental context, focusing on the wonder of the natural world can potentially have more impact than any amount of reports, tables and figures.

To be moved and awed by nature means we form an emotional connection to it. There is a strong case to be made that for us to want to protect a place or a species, we have to feel connected to it.

Wildlife filmmakers Leander Ward and Matthew Aeberhard's new film may be a testament to Dostoevsky's words. The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos (released in the UK on 25th September) emphasises the beauty and drama of more than a million pink flamingos that annually flock to Lake Natron, a remote soda lake in Northern Tanzania.

More than words

'It's an experiential film, not a conservation one. If there's too much conservation the audience would be put off,' explains co-director Leander Ward. 'Our way of raising awareness was to make a beautiful, cinematic film. We wanted to focus more on nature's inspirational power, rather than the minutiae of everything.'

The film is Disney's first big-screen nature documentary in nearly half a century and the first film to be released under the Disneynature label launched to make wildlife films.

Anyone expecting a conventional documentary will be in for a surprise. It's more about poetic images and music (provided by the British-based jazz and electronic ensemble The Cinematic Orchestra) than words (huskily narrated by Mariella Frostrup), more attune to arthouse films like Baraka than Attenborough.

'We wanted to get away from a film about bird behaviour,' says the film's writer Melanie Finn. 'I hope that people come away with a sense of mystery, not feeling that the birds have been explained or summed up.'

A bird's life

For such a visually and verbally poetic film The Crimson Wing is proving a powerful weapon in the fight to prevent a controversial soda ash mine being built on Lake Natron.

Three years ago the Indian conglomerate Tata Chemicals and the National Development Corporation (NDC), a Tanzanian government funding agency, put forward plans for a large scale industrial plant to extract soda ash from the lake.

The proposed plant would pump 530 cubic metres of brine per hour and produce 500,000 tonnes of soda ash a year, used in glass making, pharmaceuticals, and washing powder. The plan was to site the 1.5km2 plant complex, which would be fully floodlit 24 hours a day, just 3km from the lake.


In 2007, Birdlife International, a global Partnership of NGOs, launched Think Pink: an international, high profile campaign in opposition to the project (see key milestones here).

At the same time, the Lake Natron Consultative Group - a coalition of 49 mainly African institutions was formed to urge the Tanzanian government to abandon the project.

Birdlife International Officer (Africa) Chris Magin says ‘we believe that industrial development would result in the flamingos abandoning Lake Natron as a breeding site. We're using The Crimson Wing as an awareness-raising tool to the Tanzanian public and parliament.'

Preserving nature

The plans are currently on hold. In May 2008 Tata officially withdrew their original proposal. 'They were shocked at the potential negative publicity,' says co-director Aeberhard.

The Wildlife Conservation of Tanzania (WCST), Birdlife's partner in Tanzania, has used the film to lobby against the mine. WCST now has the support of the Minister of the Environment and the film has gained 'an enormous amount of interest from the Tanzanians. The Lake is now seen by many as a source of national pride,' says Aeberhard.

In February and July this year the WCST screened the film to the Tanzanian Parliament. WCST's Chief Executive Lota Melamari said the film was viewed 'with great interest by the MPs.'
'The film has been a powerful communication media to many people. It has shown how much flamingos depend on the unique environment of Lake Natron,' he says.

Natron is a landscape that has rarely been seen or filmed because of its inaccessibility. The filmmakers say that more people have walked on the moon than out on the mudflats in the middle of Lake Natron where the flamingos have their breeding colonies.

Seeing is understanding. 'Unless you see it you don't understand. It's impossible to imagine the magnitude of this place with reports, tables and meaningless figures,' says Aeberhard. You see what's at stake if the mine goes ahead.'

Was the film made with conservation in mind? 'While developing the film we knew that change was coming to Natron. If we made a film we could draw the world's attention and therefore help protect it,' says Aeberhard.

Ward adds: 'I had no idea when we set out to make this film just what was at stake and the potential benefits the film would have from a conservation point of view. If we can raise public interest in this special place whilst encouraging those in power to think twice about the beautiful resource they have before signing a potential death warrant for the area, then I'm proud of that.'

So just what is at stake?

  • An otherworldly wilderness

Viewed from above, the landscape looks like a different planet. Harsh and remote, lying at the foot of a volcano known as 'The Mountain of God,' Natron is a shallow, alkaline lake, 40 miles long and no more than six feet deep. In parts of the lake the water can be as hot as 60C. At certain times of the year, algae blooms turns the water deep shades of red. In other seasons, it diminishes and dries into a parchment of salt. Not much can live on lake Natron except for flamingos and the spirulina (algae) on which they feed.

  • A heaven on earth for flamingos

Lake Natron is the chosen breeding ground for more than two million Lesser flamingos - 75 per cent of the world's population. There is no other lake in Africa - no other lake in the world - where flamingos gather in such numbers. Natron is the only place they breed in East Africa and now there is a major industrial threat to that lake.

  • The lake is not protected

It's not even a national park. It's a Ramsar site - a non-binding intergovernmental treaty that seeks to preserve key wetland areas so it's very vulnerable to development.

  • 'Near Threatened'

Lesser Flamingos are classifed as 'Near Threatened' on the 2009 IUCN Red List. The main threat is identified as the soda ash plant at Lake Natron.

  • Negative impacts

Birdlife says that to nest successfully Lesser Flamingos require very specific conditions. No other site provides these. The proposed soda ash plant poses major risks from changes in the water balance and chemistry of the lake and from disturbance - aircraft or vehicle movements, human presence, pollution (noise, dust and light). Depletion of freshwater springs could also cause chicks to die of thirst.

  • Local people don't want it

In 2008 local people from Lake Natron voiced their concerns at a public hearing held on 24 January in Dar es Salaam Tanzania. There was strong opposition to the proposed development.

  • The precedent: Mining Lake Magadi, Kenya

The Lake Natron Consultative Group state they would not to like to see the Kenyan soda ash mining experience at Lake Magadi replayed in Tanzania. 'In spite of being in operation for over 100 years, soda ash mining in Kenya has not benefited the local community. Government reports show that Magadi Division is one of the poorest in the Kajiado District and in the country, in spite of massive investment by Magadi Soda Company (which has now been acquired by Tata Chemicals Ltd).'

The Group says the project has caused 'displacement of local communities from their land, environmental degradation, poor health and now an acute shortage of fresh water after the construction of the second plant.'

  • Tourism

Tourism is the biggest foreign exchange earner in Tanzania says Chris Magin from Birdlife International.

'If equivalent sums of money were spent on low impact tourism and small scale development it would have a far greater impact on the economy.'

Tourism and conservation are 'one and the same thing in Tanzania' says film co-director Aerberhard.

  • Alternatives

There is no real need to mine Lake Natron. The vast majority of the world's soda ash (also known as sodium carbonate) is made using the Solvay process, a chemical manufacturing process using salt brine and limestone.

  • Still under threat

The threat of soda ash mining remains. Although Tata withdrew its original Environmental and Social Impact Assessment 'ESIA' report (deemed 'initial, inadequate and inappropriate' by Birdlife), the NDC responded by commissioning a new ESIA and Integrated Management Planning process for the site. The process is ongoing.

In August this year BirdLife raised fresh concerns. A Tanzanian Government Agency is seeking to buy mining equipment for a large-scale soda ash extraction from Lake Natron.

'It is hard to establish the current situation as information is not forthcoming from Government,' says Chris Magin from Birdlife.

'According to an email circulated by Lota Melamari (Chief Executive of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania - WCST) on the 27/08/09, the Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism in an interview with the BBC, has not ruled out the construction of a soda ash mine.'

  • The need for knowledge

But what's really needed before any decisions regarding management of the lake is knowledge. Aerberhard who, since finishing filming has spent a year working on the conservation issues, says that 'any development at Natron is a problem because there is no core data on populations, or on what triggers breeding. What's really needed is serious long-term study. The precautionary principal must apply. If the mine goes ahead it's safe to say Lesser flamingos are threatened with extinction.'

There has been discussion about Disney helping to fund the research, but nothing has been decided.

What next?

What happens next remains to be seen. The Crimson Wing has certainly helped protect the area by showing the lake and its hundreds of thousands of flamingos to be a site of natural beauty rather than a natural resource.

As co-director Ward says, ‘My own experience is that seeing a film can change your life, the way you look at things and your sense of what you can achieve. We want to give people the awareness that what we have is special. We have fewer and fewer wildernesses. We've just framed one.'

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living editor


Take Action

Follow up on issues through Birdlife - visit Think Pink's 'Get Involved' page to find out what you can do.

The Crimson Wing premieres in the UK on September 25th. Find out more here.

Donate to WCST - Birdlife's partner in Tanzania. They have a tiny budget so direct donations are very helpful.

Watch the trailer:


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