A view of the shoreline. Note the tall reeds that provide a home for fish…and sometimes crocodiles (not at this beach though!).
There are all kinds of species that have evolved around the lake. In class we discussed some of the implications about declining lake levels due to dams for irrigation in the Omo river (in Ethiopia) and climate change. What will happen to the environment and communities of people surrounding the lake? There is no straight-forward answer. We do know that human activities and declining lake levels are impacting keystone species. A keystone animal is a species that contributes more than its own body mass to an environment. For example, hippos feed on vegetation around the lake margins and their dung adds nutrients to the system. This keeps some vegetation in check, while ensuring there are enough nutrients for more vegetation to grow. All sorts of aquatic organisms feed on this vegetation, moving all the way up the food chain. So, changes in hippo populations can have drastic impacts on the entire ecosystem. Hippos and Nile crocodiles are keystone species for the Lake Turkana.
The health of the Lake Turkana ecosystem is of dire importance to its surrounding animal and human communities. Fishing contributes a huge proportion of the economy surrounding Lake Turkana. Fisheries operate on local and global commercial scales. Fish, such as Nile Perch and Tilapia, are dried and smoked and sent all over Kenya and other countries in Africa. Some of this fish is even sent across continents to Europe and North America. Check the prices of Nile Perch (if you can find it) back home – it’s pricey stuff when it’s exported internationally. The TBI students often have the treat of these fresh fish for dinner at least once or twice a week – we are spoiled!
A sound scientific understanding of the ecology of Lake Turkana and its surrounding areas is pertinent to the health of wildlife, but also of the economy. Future generations of scientists need to investigate the impacts of human activities (dams, irrigation, agricultural and human waste, etc.), climate change, and declining lake levels on Lake Turkana ecological systems. Maybe some of our students will have the opportunity to do such science.
But in the meantime, the students enjoyed a refreshing swim in the lake.