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Lake Natron: The Alkaline Tanzanian Lake That Turns Animals into Stone

3 min read

In a remote part of northern Tanzania in Africa there is a mysterious lake in the eastern branch of Africa’s Great Rift Valley with water that is so caustic that it can burn the skin and eyes of unprepared creatures. Its shores are littered with the calcified corpses of a variety of birds and bats that had met their untimely demise after crashing into the deadly lake.

Lake Natron: The Alkaline Tanzanian Lake That Turns Animals into Stone

Lake Natron is a salt lake located in northern Tanzania, close to the Kenyan border, in the eastern branch of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. It is around 60 km long and is fed mainly by the Ewaso Ng’iro River.

The alkali salt crust on the surface of the lake is also every so often colored deep red or pink by the salt-loving microorganisms that live there.

The haunting lake was first photographed by photographer Nick Brandt who stumbled on the lake in 2011 on his way to shoot photos for a new book on the disappearing wildlife of East Africa.

“When I saw those creatures for the first time alongside the lake, I was completely blown away,” says Brandt. “The idea for me, instantly, was to take portraits of them as if they were alive.”

Lake Natron: The Alkaline Tanzanian Lake That Turns Animals into Stone

A bat © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery, NY

It is not entirely clear how the birds die. One theory that has been suggested by Brandt is that “the extreme reflective nature of the lake’s surface confuses them, causing them to crash into the lake,” Brandt writes in his new photo book Across the Ravaged Land. “The water has an extremely high soda and salt content, so high that it would strip the ink off my Kodak film boxes within a few seconds. The soda and salt causes the creatures to calcify, perfectly preserved, as they dry.”

“Discovering these animals washed up along the shoreline of Lake Natron, I thought they were extraordinary — every last tiny detail perfectly preserved down to the tip of a bat’s tongue, the minute hairs on his face. The entire fish eagle was the most surprising and revelatory find,” Brandt, who photographed these calcified animals in 2010 and 2012, told The Huffington Post in an email Wednesday.

The creatures, he said, were “rock hard” from the calcification.

“There was never any possibility of bending a wing or turning a head to make a better pose — they were like rock,” he said, “so we took them and placed them on branches and rocks just as we found them, always with a view to imagining it as a portrait in death.”

Lake Natron

A fish eagle © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery, NY

“The notion of portraits of dead animals in the place where they once lived, placed in positions as if alive again in death, was just too compelling to ignore,” Brandt said of his decision to photograph the animals. “I took these creatures as I found them on the shoreline, and then placed them in ‘living’ positions, bringing them back to ‘life’, as it were. Re-animated, alive again in death.”

Despite its inhospitable environment, the lake is not lifeless. It appears to contain a stable ecosystem consisting of a population of endangered flamingos, some species of fish, and algae. These organisms may be evolutionary descendants of animals who lived on the lake before its current chemical environment arose. They may represent the only survivors who were able to successfully adapt as the lake acquired its uniquely hostile characteristics.

Lake Natron was designated a Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention in 2001 according to Article 2 of the Ramsar Convention.


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