The Madagascar Pochard | The world’s rarest duck

The Madagascar Pochard, an otherwise fairly unassuming small brown diving duck confined to an island off Africa, is at the centre of a fascinating and ground-breaking conservation effort that has captured headlines because the species is recognised as the ‘world’s rarest duck’. In a two-part series The War on Wildlife Project looks at the decline of the Madagascar Pochard and the work now being done by an alliance of conservation partners that has involved the rediscovery of a species once thought extinct, captive-breeding, delicate negotiations with local Malagasy communities, and the restoration of a lake used by 14,000 people.

In Part One we look at the fall and tentative rise of the Madagascar Pochard itself, and in Part Two we have an exclusive podcast with Peter Cranswick, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s (WWT) Madagascar Pochard Project Manager who has been working on conserving the species since its rediscovery in 2006. Peter feels that in some ways this project, which he has termed as “a hastily implemented rescue mission focused solely on a duck [that] has evolved into a genuinely holistic programme for wildlife and people, has demonstrated that conservation needs to refocus its efforts on people if wildlife is to survive the twenty-first century.

(We’d like to sincerely thank Peter Cranswick for providing additional information after the first version of this article was uploaded.)

 

The Madagascar Pochard

In mid-January press-releases from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust announced a major success for a project they’d both been working on for several years. Twelve Madagascar Pochard (Aythya innotata) ducklings had been sighted on remote Lake Sofia, where twenty-one captive-bred adults had been released just a year earlier.

The news was the latest in a remarkable conservation story that began in 2006 – more than a decade after this endemic diving duck had officially been declared extinct! That year biologists from the Peregrine Fund, surveying wetlands in northern Madagascar, were startled to see what they identified as a male Madagascar Pochard in a mixed flock of waterfowl feeding on an isolated volcanic lake. Over the following two days, thirteen individuals were recorded – the Madagascar Pochard had somehow survived and was clinging to existence, albeit in the ‘wrong’ habitat.

 

Habitat Loss

The Madagascar Pochard was probably never more than ‘relatively common’ (and largely confined to the huge Alaotran basin in the central plateau), though historic details are scant. For more than a hundred years after its original discovery, the species had been misidentified as the (once-)widespread and well-known Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca) so few researchers had studied them closely.

Their decline had probably begun, though, in the 1940s and 1950s, and was linked with the degradation of their lake and marshland habitat as huge land-use changes took place across the whole island. Destruction from agriculture and burning laid waste to millions of acres of forests (an astonishing 90% of the island’s tree cover, home to species of lemurs, birds and plants found nowhere else in the world, has now been cleared), and wetland loss has been similarly catastrophic. It’s estimated that 60% of the island’s wetlands have disappeared in the last 60 years.

In the central plateau – once home to the Madagascar Pochard and other declining endemic waterbirds like the Endangered Madagascar Grebe – almost all the remaining wetlands are in poor condition. Exotic plant and fish species have been introduced changing local biodiversity and clogging waterways, many shallow lakes have been converted to agriculture (particularly rice paddies) and are heavily disturbed, and inches of topsoil washing off deforested hillsides has led to extensive silting and loss of the benthic animals the pochards feed on.

Over the course of the twentieth century fewer and fewer pochards were recorded until, in 1991, the last known Madagascar Pochard, a male, was captured by local wildfowlers and taken into captivity. It died alone two years later, and despite intensive searches and a publicity campaign asking for information on sightings, no others were found.

 

Rediscovery and captive-breeding

The rediscovery of the Madagascar Pochard in 2006 at Lake Matsaborimena, in a remote area of northern Madagascar, was entirely unexpected.

Pochards had never been recorded in this particular region before and the remaining habitat wasn’t thought suitable for them anyway. Historically the species had preferred shallow and marshy lakes with small pools surrounded by emergent vegetation. Matsaborimena lacked emergent vegetation and was deeper than lakes the species had previously used – though there was a lack of hunting pressure, and reeds and marshy vegetation on its borders had presumably offered important nesting habitat.

But how many were there, and was this small flock all of the survivors? Extensive survey work began immediately. The total world population of the Madagascar Pochard was soon estimated at between twenty and twenty-five individuals, and they appeared to be confined to just two small lakes close to each other (it was later learned that birds were using three of a group of four small lakes). Researchers couldn’t actually be certain of the exact numbers because of the possibility of ‘double-counting’ (some of the birds may have been moving unseen between the two sites), but clearly this was a bird with a tiny population that could be wiped out by even a small change in its circumstances.

Monitoring of the wild birds revealed that the situation was even more precarious than first thought. The remaining adults had failed to fledge any chicks (over the following two years survey work determined the young birds were starving to death, unable to dive deep enough to catch food). An emergency captive ‘safety net’ breeding programme had to be put in place immediately. But could that be done without the rearing facilities that would typically be used for such attempts?

There really was no time to wait. As Peter explains,

We knew that there was massive chick failure at Matsaborimena in 2009. That’s when [WWT aviculurist] Nigel Jarrett and I went out to check out how we’d get birds into captivity. We spoke to the Peregrine Fund team at the lake who had been doing some monitoring, but their data had not made it to the outside world. I literally looked through their notebooks, and it was then Nige and I realised the situation was even more precarious than we thought – there were not just 20 birds, but all their ducklings were dying. We came back to Slimbridge, and on my first day back, having explained the situation to our Directors, we changed our plan. Instead of having a year to plan how to get the ducks into captivity – which is what Nige and I were tasked with – we agreed to go back as soon as we could. We went three months later – which was the minimum to get sufficient odds and ends together.”

 

Early successes

In 2009 Durrell, WWT and Malagasy government partners recovered three clutches of eggs from wild nests. The team literally reared some of the world’s rarest birds in a “pokey hotel with rats and spiders” (where Peter took this image of Nigel Jarrett with a male Madagascar Pochard): first in a bathroom, then in its gardens!

Appropriate Infrastructure was needed and it rapidly followed. In 2011 the first-ever captive-bred Madagascar Pochard ducklings hatched at a purpose-built breeding facility at Antsohihy, in Madagascar’s Sofia Region. Eighteen ducklings hatched during the year, increasing the global population of Madagascar Pochard by 35%.

If the Madagascar Pochard population was ever going to recover to a point that it was potentially self-sustaining (and not indefinitely conservation-dependent) an alternative natural location had to be sought though. Work began to find a lake – any lake – where the pochards might have a better chance of breeding successfully. Based on their size, depth, location, and altitude, twenty-six lakes within what was thought to be the pochards’ former range were surveyed, but almost all were severely degraded or were being used unsustainably by local people. Finally, one site researchers looked at seemed to be suitable: Lake Sofia, in the north-west of the island, wasn’t perfect but with work – and buy-in from locals – it might offer the Madagascar Pochard a chance of long-term survival.

 

Safeguarding the Future

Uncovering a potential refuge for a Critically Endangered species (especially if it is sub-optimal habitat) is just the start of the recovery process. You can’t simply round up the last individuals of one of the world’s rarest species, translocate them, and hope they will stay put, find food, and reproduce and fledge chicks. The project to save the Madagascar Pochard moved into a new phase. Efforts began to restore Lake Sofia, and a plan was hatched to transport ducks safely to the remote and barely accessible site (the lake can only be reached via a twelve-hour drive along unpaved tracks). To ensure that released birds survived on the lake (which was still in poor condition), the team designed and then built the world’s first floating aviary, allowing birds to acclimatise to their new home and reduce the chances that they left the site.

But there was yet more to consider. While initial work had concentrated on the ducks, it had also become apparent that unless local people – many of them extremely poor and dependent on the lake themselves for water, fish and crop irrigation – were also engaged in the recovery project it wouldn’t succeed. Whatever conservation work was done to restore Sofia had to also benefit villagers.

Efforts began to convince local communities (initially sceptical that the visitors were conservationists at all, but were from gold mining companies) that improving local conditions for the ducks would improve them for people as well. It became increasingly apparent that on-site teams had to do everything they could to maintain a balance between their interest in the Madagascar Pochard and their support of local villagers. Several years of delicate negotiations got underway – which is the point that Peter Cranswick was making when he stated that this remarkable project “had evolved into a genuinely holistic programme for wildlife and people“.

 

Peter and I take that up in the podcast that makes up Part Two, but first here is the press-release that WWT sent out announcing the exciting news about those twelve ducklings…

A pioneering conservation project, to save the world’s rarest duck, has hit a key milestone well ahead of expectations.

A total of 12 Madagascar pochard ducklings have been sighted on Lake Sofia, a remote site in northern Madagascar, where 21 captive-bred pochards, known locally as ‘Fotsimaso’, were released by conservationists at Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in December 2018. This is the first step in a long-term project to establish a new population.

This magnificent discovery of two broods – of eight and four – has defied expectations as diving ducks don’t normally breed for the first time until two years old.

Durrell’s Wetlands Manager, Felix Razafindrajao, who was part of the team to discover the ducklings commented, “I am happy and proud, as well as a little surprised, that our released birds have produced ducklings within one year. Despite the release techniques being a world-first, it’s clear that our methods and the careful preparation and planning have worked to save the Fotsimaso. After much hands-on effort to rear birds in captivity, and to transport and release them at this remote location, it’s fantastic to see the ducks take this next critical step for themselves.

WWT’s Project Manager Peter Cranswick added, “Reintroduced animals normally take a while to settle into their new site, and first breeding attempts are often unsuccessful, so this is a wholly unexpected but very welcome development. It took several years for the local communities around the lake to give this project to restore the lake and reintroduce pochards their endorsement. Now the ducks have given it their endorsement too!”

The species was thought extinct until a chance discovery by our partners, The Peregrine Fund, of 20 birds on a small, remote crater lake in 2006. A rescue mission in 2009 brought the birds into captivity, and a breeding centre was established in Antsohihy, the regional capital. The search began for a suitable wetland that could successfully home a new wild population, and Lake Sofia was chosen.

In 2018, twenty-one pochards – hand-reared at the breeding centre – were the first released into the wild. With most of northern Madagascar’s wetlands severely degraded due to human encroachment, Durrell, WWT, Asity Madagascar and the Aga Khan Foundation, in partnership with the Madagascar Ministry of Environment, have been working to improve the condition of Lake Sofia so that it’s not just a suitable home for the ducks but provides for local communities and other wildlife that depends on it.

Durrell’s Project Manager, Dr Glyn Young said, “This is a remarkable step in this project to save and restore the Madagascar pochard. When we started in 1989 and found no hope for species’ survival until 2006, things looked very bleak. But we never gave up and I am so proud on behalf of our partnership and for all of our Malagasy colleagues that this pivotal milestone offers hope that the pochard may one day be widespread across Madagascar’s wetlands.”

A monitoring team, based at the lake to carefully track the 2018 released pochards for the last twelve months will now be observing the ducklings. The young face many challenges, not least to find food in a lake that is in poor condition. Already, they have been observed taking artificial food provided on feeding platforms by project staff. With cyclone season underway, it is crucial that the birds grow and develop their first full feathers that will provide waterproofing and warmth as the weather deteriorates over the coming month.

Restoring Lake Sofia is key to the ducks’ survival. This is part of a broad programme of work, to develop sustainable livelihoods for the local communities, so that the lake can flourish and that villagers can benefit from the lake.

Mr Cranswick said, “We celebrate each time we cross a threshold in this project, and the first breeding in the wild is very significant. But it only reminds us that the next huge task has begun, and it will take several years of learning from these birds before we can be confident that we understand their needs fully and how to restore the lake.

“So we are not yet counting our ducklings – there are many challenges ahead, particularly given the adults are young, inexperienced and reared in captivity.

“There is a long way to go – and there will be many setbacks along the way – but this is a major milestone achieved two or three years ahead of schedule!”

 

  • Images copyright WWT and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
  • Header image copyright Durrell Madagascar