The Madagascar pochard, believed to be extinct for 15 years, has been brought back from the brink and given a new home on Lake Sofia in a remote area of northern Madagascar.
The 21 ducks were released onto the lake in early December and are now said to be adapting very well to their new surroundings. The release comes after years of preparation from conservationists at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust (WWT), The Peregrine Fund, the Government of Madagascar and other partners.
Durrell’s Head of Birds, Dr. H. Glyn Young said:
“The idea that we could be releasing pochards into the wild only 12 years after rediscovery pays remarkable testament to the dreams and hard work of many people from Madagascar, Jersey and the UK, who have worked tirelessly to see this remarkable bird get a chance of survival in a changing world. The restoration programme at Lake Sofia will encourage others in Madagascar to no longer look at the Island’s wetlands as lost causes. They may once again be centres of biodiversity while continuing to support communities of people who also depend on them.”
The Ducks Decline
Back in 2004, at a British Ornithologists’ Club symposium at the Linnaean Society in London, the Madagascar pochard (Aythya innotata) was declared ‘possibly extinct’. Despite numerous attempts to find the bird, an individual of the species had not been seen in over a decade.
From when the species was first described in 1894 at Lake Alaotra, up until the 1930s, the pochards were considered to be a relatively common bird in the area. However, rapid human development resulted in the decline of the birds and the pochard appeared to have completely disappeared from the lake by 1960.
In 1989, Durrell and WWT mounted an expedition to Lake Alaotra to undertake a thorough survey of the lake and surrounding marshlands, but no pochards were found.
Two years later, a lone male pochard was captured by fishermen at Alaotra in 1991. This individual, believed to be the last of its species, sadly died in captivity around 18 months later.
An extensive survey of Madagascar lasting 18 months was carried out in the hopes of finding any last remaining populations of the pochard, but no more were found.
15 years later, in November 2006, a small group of Madagascar pochards were found by conservationists from The Peregrine Fund (TPF) on Lake Matsaborimena in north-western Madagascar. TPF, along with Durrell and WWT, began to study this single population which consisted of just 20-25 ducks.
It was discovered that, despite more than 100 eggs hatching out annually, the population was not gaining in number as the vast majority of chicks were dying within 3 weeks of hatching . They believed the main reason for this high mortality was starvation as the habitat surrounding Lake Matsaborimena was not ideal for diving ducklings. The water was thought to be too deep for them to dive and the density of invertebrates in the lake, which they rely on for food, was very low. As ducklings can not dive as well as older ducks, it seemed this population relied entirely on the health of the adults.
In 2009, the decision to launch a captive breeding program was put into action and three clutches of eggs were taken from the wild. 24 ducklings became the founders of the captive breeding program in Madagascar.
A New Home
Many sites were surveyed to locate a suitable habitat to release the captive bred pochards. Most of Madagascar’s wetlands are currently in a very poor state, having been severely impacted by human activity. Eventually, Lake Sofia was deemed to be the best suited.
As Madagascar pochards spend almost all of their time on water, conservationists came up with the plan of creating the world’s first floating aviaries converted from Scottish salmon-farmed cages. These floating aviaries were trialed in 2017 in the UK before being shipped to Madagascar and assembled on Lake Sophia last summer.
The 21 ducklings hatched in October and, shortly after, began the 200km journey to Lake Sophia across dirt roads. They were reared in lakeside aviaries before being transferred to the floating aviaries in early December. The pochards spent a week in the floating aviaries to become accustomed to their new surroundings before eventually being released onto the lake. The birds are reported to be settling nicely into their new home while still returning to the safety of the aviaries to feed and roost.
To help ensure the long term survival of this species, conservationists are working with local communities to help restore the condition of Lake Sofia, not only for the pochards, but also for other native wildlife and for the people who rely on it for their livelihoods.
WWT’s Head of Conservation Breeding, Nigel Jarrett, said:
“It takes a village to raise a child, so the old African proverb goes, but in this case it has taken a village to raise a duck. We have been preparing for this moment for over a decade. The logistics of working in a remote part of Madagascar – where access to the lakes by vehicle is only possible for three months a year – have been an enormous challenge, requiring us to come up with novel approaches. Working with local communities to solve the issues which were driving this bird to extinction has been essential to giving the pochard a chance of survival. If we can make this work, it will provide a powerful example not just for of how save the planet’s most threatened species, but how communities can manage an ecosystem to benefit people and wildlife, especially in areas of significant poverty.”