With more than 60,000 flamingos and only about a thousand people some 380 miles southeast of Nassau, Inagua is probably the best place in the world to see these reclusive scarlet-feathered birds in their natural habitat. That habitat consists of the island’s remote salt marshes. Described as an “immense watery prairie”, Lake Rosa is a huge wetland that occupies much of the 184,000-acre Inagua National Park, which in 1965 became the second nature reserve assigned to the fledgling Bahamas National Trust. The history of the park is inextricably entwined with the survival of the flamingo, which a traveller named G. J. H. Northcroft described in 1900 as the “king” of Bahamian birds. In his book, Sketches of Summerland, Northcroft noted a disturbing trend:
“Formerly plentiful on the larger islands (the flamingo) is now becoming scarce. The reckless way in which the young are taken, often when just hatched, and the older birds shot for their flesh or wings or captured for sale as curiosities, is lamentable. This wholesale destruction — as cruel as it is short-sighted — is causing the flamingo to go the way of the dodo.”
Although The Bahamas later passed a law to protect wild birds like the flamingo, when Robert Porter Allen, of the National Audubon Society, surveyed the Caribbean in 1950 he found that many flamingo nesting sites had already disappeared — crowded out by expanding human populations. On Inagua itself he reported that their numbers had dwindled to about a thousand.
But here, Allen realized, was a breeding population surviving in isolation from which long-abandoned colonies elsewhere in the region might one day be replenished. His visit to Inagua set in motion a train of events that led to one of the region’s greatest conservation success stories. But it was a story that would never have been told without the active involvement of one particular Inagua family — the Nixons.
Two brothers from Matthew Town — Sam and Jimmy Nixon — had guided Allen into the upper lakes region of Inagua to search for the elusive birds. And in 1952 Allen arranged for the Audubon Society to hire them as flamingo wardens. The Nixon brothers spent their entire lives working for the Bahamas National Trust, which was created in 1959 partly to oversee protection of the Inagua flamingos. When Allen retired in 1960, his position as the Audubon Society’s research director was taken over by Alexander Sprunt, a former Texas wildlife warden. And he also spent the rest of his life working with the Nixons and the BNT to ensure the survival of Inagua’s flamingos.
Sprunt and the Nixons, together with others from the BNT, carried out regular banding studies on the Inagua flamingos for years. As a result, scientists learned a lot more about the rate of mortality, the composition of flamingo populations by age, and the movement of these birds throughout the Caribbean, particularly between Cuba and Inagua. The three men shared an unbreakable bond over more than 40 years. In 1995, during an 80th birthday celebration for Sam, Sprunt told a newspaper reporter: “The Nixons have virtually ended flamingo hunting on Inagua. They’ve been an ethical anchor and an educational resource for the people. And if it hadn’t been for them, I doubt if there would be any flamingos left.”
Sam and his brother Jimmy won many similar accolades over the years. And their warden’s role has now been assumed by Jimmy’s nephew, Henry Nixon. Sam passed away in 1986, Jimmy and Sprunt in 2007. Largely uninhabited until the mid-19th century, Inagua’s relative isolation makes the island a unique environment for birds, with more than 200 species wintering here. And it is impossible to separate Inagua’s flamingos — which over the past 50 years have been rescued from near extinction — from salt. Salt production had been a long-established industry in the southern islands, dating from 1848, when Nassau merchants formed the Henagua Salt Pond Company. Over the intervening years the salt pans changed ownership many times, but since 1954 the operation has been known as Morton Salt (Bahamas) Ltd.
Happily, this industry lives in delicate balance with the flamingo refuge. As one writer put it: “Algae, fostered by flamingo droppings, grows in the salt pans and darkens the water. This hastens evaporation by absorbing more sunlight. Then tiny brine shrimp begin feeding on the algae, cleaning the water. And the flamingos feed on the shrimp until the salt is ready for harvesting, leaving everybody tickled pink. Morton and the flamingos were made for each other.”
And thanks to the hard work of men like Allen, Sprunt and the Nixons, visitors to the Inagua National park today can share the same experience described by an American naturalist during a much earlier visit to the island: “The lake gave the sensation of great expanse,” wrote Gilbert Klingel in the 1930s. “It seemed to sweep away into infinite distance..Not far away were two diminuitive islands, mere vestiges of vegetation in a liquid world. Nestling between these was a long thin line of pink—the flamingos at last!”
For more information visit the Bahamas National Trust at www.bnt.bs?
Originally published by