Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) – Since he was four years old, photographer Claudio Contreras Cope has been obsessed with flamingos: their vibrant pink plumage and elegant, well-balanced necks.
Cope, born and bred in Mexico City, would visit the Yucatan Peninsula every year during school holidays.
His father built a house on the dunes in the coastal village of Choperna, between the sea and the wetlands, and together they watched colonies of flamingos congregate in the shallow lagoons and muddy wetlands that stretched for miles behind the house.
“It was a very beautiful sight when we could see a mass of pink and orange birds in the distance,” says Cobb.
The Caribbean flamingo is a “symbol” of the Yucatan Peninsula, where his father belongs, Cope says, and it appears on beach towels, garden furniture and even pink salt packs.
Despite their popularity, in Yucatan and beyond, little is known about their movements and biology, Cope says.
Now, decades after first seeing this “iconic bird”, Cope shares his passion in his new photography book “Flamingo”, which was published last month.
Cope hopes his bird selves will help others “fall in love” and inspire them to take an interest in the wetlands in which they live.
It was Cobb’s childhood passion for nature that led him to study game biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where he took a course in precision photography and discovered “what the language of photography can do,” he says. he.
Cope joined the International Association of Conservation Photographers, which asked him in 2009 to document chick flamingos in the Yucatan.
With support from the Flamingo Conservation Program in Mexico, Cope spent several years collecting the photographs that make up his book.
He points out that the biggest challenge for him was getting close to the birds, saying, “If you bother one of them, it starts screaming and it flies away.”
Cobb refers to his “slow approach” to photography, which enabled him to collect intimate portraits of flamingos.
He often wore camouflage clothing to approach the birds without frightening them.
On some occasions he took a boat to the lakes before dawn so that the birds would get used to his presence at sunrise, and he would stay until after dark.
Beautiful in pink
Unlike humans, flamingos are well adapted to their harsh environment.
Flamingos congregate in groups, usually living in brackish water, but some live in alkaline “soda lakes” filled with water high in sodium carbonate, which can irritate or burn the skin of most animals.
Flamingos encounter few predators or other birds that compete for food.
Flamingos need to consume 10% of their weight per day, so it is important to have long, uninterrupted feeding times.
Flamingos’ diet consists of algae, shrimp and molluscs that contain large amounts of carotenoids – the same pigments that color fruits and vegetables such as carrots, squash and tomatoes – and are responsible for their distinctive pink appearance, Cope says.
Wetlands are threatened
Conservation of flamingos has been a top priority for Mexico since the 1970s and 1980s, when two federal wetland reserves were established in the Yucatan Peninsula, later designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.
The additional reserves created by the Yucatan local government mean that almost all of the peninsula’s wetlands are protected, Cobb says.
Flamingo numbers have increased since the parks were established, and based on the number of nests in the breeding colony in Lagartos Reserve, the National Commission for Nature Conservation estimates that there will be about 30,000 adults in 2021.
However, Cope believes that these reserves do not provide complete protection.
Agricultural chemicals used in highland areas flow through underwater river systems and pollute wetlands, and although the reserves are supposed to be protected from urban development, Cobb says there are still cases of illegal construction and pollution.
Climate change and sea level rise are threatening the flamingos’ habitat.
And while the nest colony is closed to tourists, up to 50,000 visitors come to see flamingos in Célestin each year, which can disrupt their eating habits.
Authorities have introduced regulations to limit the number of tourists, Cope says, adding that it is too early to say whether a restriction on the number of visitors will suffice.
Now Cope is back in Yucatan and staying at his youth home to photograph wetlands.
This time, Cope is focused on documenting the horseshoe crabs, and he hopes it will continue to draw more attention to the wildlife and the communities that live there.