With the perspective of an insider, no other wildlife photographer could possibly have as comprehensive a catalog of flamingo images as Claudio Contreras Koob.
Since he was 4 years old, Contreras Koob has been obsessed with the pink flamingos of Yucatán: their vibrant pink feathers, horn-like curved beaks, and elegant, poised necks.
The result of his obsession is a gorgeous new book, Flamingo, published in March by teNeues Verlag in cooperation with the Nature Picture Library. It’s an edition almost as breathtakingly vibrant as its subjects.
Born and raised in Mexico City, Contreras Koob visited the Yucatán Peninsula every year as a youth during school holidays. His father built a house on sand dunes in the fishing village of Chuburná Puerto, where they watched flamingo colonies gather in the lagoons and muddy swamps that stretched for miles behind the house.
“It was a very beautiful sight when we were able to spot a pink-orange mass of birds in the distance,” Contreras Koob said on CNN, which recently aired a story on the book’s publication. “That stayed in my memory.”
As an adult, he has been an award-winning professional photographer for more than 20 years, and an advocate for various projects to protect the environment all over Mexico. Contreras Koob’s most recent expedition led him to the Socorro Islands, part of the Revillagigedo Archipelago UNESCO World Heritage Site off the country’s west coast, where he documented many endemic and endangered species.
In Flamingo, Contreras Koob’s photo “Beak to Beak,” showing a flamingo feeding its newborn chick, was nominated for the Wildlife Photograph of the Year 2020.
The Caribbean flamingo is emblematic of the Yucatán Peninsula, his father’s birthplace. Its image appears on beach towels, pool inflatables, garden furniture, and even on packaging for pink salt. It sometimes appears in Yucatán Magazine’s logo. But little is known about its movements and biology, he says.
With the support of Mexico’s Flamingo Conservation Program, run by Fundación Pedro y Elena Hernández since 2015, Contreras Koob spent several years collecting the images that make up his book. He says the biggest challenge was getting close to breeding birds.
Contreras Koob says his “slow approach” to photography enabled him to gather intimate images of the flamingos. He often wore camouflage, army crawling across the muddy ground to get close to the birds without scaring them.
On some occasions, he took a boat into the lagoons before dawn so the birds would be accustomed to his presence by sunrise, and stayed until after nightfall. “That is tough, with the sun and 40 degrees (heat),” Contreras Koob said in the CNN interview. “It’s very consuming for the body.”
A flamingo’s diet is comprised of algae, shrimps, and mollusks containing large amounts of carotenoids — the same pigments that give carrots, pumpkins, and tomatoes their coloring — and which are responsible for the flamingo’s signature hot-pink appearance.
Ría Lagartos to the east is where the flamingos nest and breed, while on Yucatán’s western border, Ría Celestún is an important feeding site. Additional reserves established by the Yucatán state government mean that almost all the peninsula’s wetlands are protected, says Koob.
Flamingo numbers have been increasing since the establishment of the parks, says Koob. Based on the number of nests at the breeding colony in Ría Lagartos, the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) estimates there were around 30,000 adult birds in 2021.
Flamingo conservation has been a high priority for Mexico since the 1970s and ’80s, when it established two federal wetland reserves on the Yucatán peninsula, later designated as UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.
Contreras Koob is back in Yucatán, working on his next project while staying in his childhood holiday home in Chuburná. This time, horseshoe crabs in the wetlands are his focus, and he hopes he can continue to draw more attention to the wildlife and communities living there.
“For most people, the wetland is like a stinky, dark, creepy place. But it’s full of wonders — and the flamingo is just one of them,” Koob said on CNN.
The book Flamingo (224 pages, 1,886 pesos at Between the Lines, Calle 62 and 53, Centro) is written in English, Spanish and German.