The great white pelicans of Lake Elementaita

Friday May 24 2019

Pelicans at the shoreline of Lake Elementaita in Gilgil, Nakuru County. PHOTO| JOHN NJOROGE


It is almost midday and the sun’s rays are dancing on the waters of Elementaita, forcing the reflection of the cloud-scudded sky to dance as if to the chorus chirping of the birds in nearby trees.

Partly fencing the lake that sits quiet in its slumber and approximately 120km north of Nairobi are hundreds of pelicans that deceivingly look pink from the horizon yet on disruption, they fly away revealing the black detail on the edges of their white wings.

These birds, based at the Soysambu Conservancy where 75 per cent of the lake lies, are very large with very long bills characterised by a down-curved hook at the end of the upper mandible.


Lake Elementaita boasts as the most critical breeding ground for the Great White Pelicans, and has over 450 species of birds.

It is also a haven to thousands of both greater and lesser flamingoes who flock during favourable conditions.


Naturalist Richard Kinpng’eno says the great white pelican is a huge bird with the wingspan ranging from 226 to 360 cm.

“Immature great white pelicans are grey and have dark flight feathers. In flight, it is an elegant soaring bird, with the head held close to and aligned with the body by a downward bend in the neck. In breeding conditions, the male has pinkish skin on its face and the female has orangey skin,” Mr Kipng’eno says.

A bird count done in January 2019 showed that there were over 18,000 pairs of the great pelican that breed at Lake Elementaita.


Parts of Lake Elementaita are largely fresh water that has entered through rivers like River Mbaruk and springs while other parts are alkaline like the other Rift Valley lakes.

“These pelicans fly in the morning to Lake Naivasha to feed on fish and they fly back in the evenings.

They soar and glide easily and regularly circle at height rising with thermal energy currents,” he says.

According to Mr Kipng’eno, Pelicans often breed in large colonies of 40,000 to 50,000 pairs. Nests are usually just a rough pile of twigs on the ground.

Two eggs are laid, which both parents keep warm by taking turns to rest them on their feet.

After 29-36 days, the eggs hatch into bald, helpless chicks which the parents feed from a special liquid that runs down their beaks. The chicks are able to fly when they are 10 to 12 weeks old.

The presence of spirunila algae in the lake are also of international scientific value, and provide critical support to birds, which visit the property in large numbers as part of their migration in response to seasonal and episodic changes in the environment.

Breeding is high during the wet season as the water levels of the Lake are high and rocky outcrops in the eastern sector are flooded to form islets which are ideal for safe nesting.

Pelicans often feed in tightly packed groups, submerging heads and necks in unison.


“Great white pelicans spend a great deal of their time in the water. They usually choose large, freshwater lakes that have small islands that can be used as safe places to nest in,” Conservancy’s security manager, Jeff Mito said, adding that Great white pelicans spend a great deal of their time in the water.

He said that the birds usually choose large, freshwater lakes that have small islands that can be used as safe places to nest in.

Pelicans are found in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. The ones in Africa stay at Lake Elementaita throughout the year, but the others migrate from Eastern Europe to Africa during winter.

The area around Lake Elementaita was designated an Important Bird Area (IBA), a site of global significance for bird and biodiversity conservation, in 1999.

The birds which belong to a genus of large water birds comprising the family Pelecanidae dive into the lake water barraging for fish. Their search for fish creates a breathtaking experience that attracts tourists.

The Soysambu Conservancy, is a 45,000-acre private wildlife and cattle ranch surrounding the shallow, salty Lake Elementaita.

The natural lake formed by the Rift Valley tectonic movements, is part of the formation of the Great Gregory Rift Valley in Kenya.

The region was occupied by pastoral Neolithic, later the Maasai pastoral community who called it “Elementaita”.



  • Males are larger than females and have larger beaks.

  • The little hook on the end of the beak is used for preening (combing) the feathers to keep them in perfect condition for flying.

  • Pelicans are light for their size because of air spaces in the bones and under the skin.

  • Pelicans lifespan in the wild is 15 to 20 years.