Playing the long game to save the Madagascar pochard

Image © Iñaki Relanzon

By |2019-05-22T09:46:58+00:00February 26th, 2019|Alternative Livelihoods, Biodiversity, Captive Breeding, Community, Freshwater, Species|Comments Off on Playing the long game to save the Madagascar pochard

The Madagascar pochard is a small, brown duck. If you saw one bobbing about on the surface of a local pond, you might not pay it much attention. It might not land a part in Madagascar, the movie. But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that the pochard is a beautiful bird – graceful and elegant with a beady eye. It also happens to be the rarest duck in the world.

Nigel Jarrett, (WWT Head of Conservation breeding) with an adult pochard © WWT

Madagascar, the fifth largest island in the world, is home to a unique collection of charismatic but highly threatened species. It makes up less than 0.5 per cent of Earth’s landmass, but contains around 5 per cent of its biodiversity. The majority of its species – more than 80 per cent – exist nowhere else on Earth. But for all its natural beauty, Madagascar also suffers from chronic poverty – around 75 per cent of its population live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank – and pressure on the environment and natural resources is intense.

The Madagascar pochard is one of its less celebrated species, but its plight mirrors that of countless others on the island, the causes often the same: slash and burn agriculture, deforestation, increased sedimentation of rivers and wetlands, pollution, invasive species and over-exploited natural resources. As habitats disappear and food sources dwindle, species populations become fragmented and vulnerable and their numbers start to decline towards extinction. But for the pochard, there is light at the end of the tunnel: a long-term collaboration has dragged them back from the brink of extinction, at the same time proving what is possible with the right combination of partnership, patience and local community participation.

A surprise discovery

The Madagascar pochard is so rare that for many years it was thought to be extinct, another victim of the ecological devastation that has ravaged vast areas of this island nation. Then in 2006, a team from US NGO The Peregrine Fund rediscovered a small population living on a remote crater lake in the north of the country. This last remaining population of ducks had been pushed out of their natural habitat and were struggling to survive. Used to finding food in shallower, marshy habitats, the depth and temperature of this crater lake meant that the young could not feed and were unable to survive. At this stage, the future looked bleak for the Madagascar pochard. With so many other charismatic species on the island under threat, what hope was there for an unremarkable diving duck?

Saving a species from extinction is not easy. It doesn’t just take a clever idea, a significant sum of money, or a committed and passionate team. Normally, it requires all of these things and more. Despite little being known about the birds – they are so rare that there has been very little scientific study carried out – our partners the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust realised that without urgent action the Madagascar pochard would very soon go extinct. Taking eggs from this last remaining population, they established a captive breeding programme. 23 birds were successfully raised from this first clutch of eggs. Since that initial effort, 114 birds have been bred, more than quadrupling the initial population. The success of the captive breeding programme has even attracted some high powered visitors, among them the President of Madagascar and HRH Princess Royal.

A new home

Meanwhile, the painstaking process of finding a new home for the birds began. Since humans first set foot on the island, around 90 per cent of Madagascar’s forests have disappeared. In just the last few decades, it has lost an estimated 60 per cent of its wetlands. Sustained and unsustainable pressure on the environment has meant that much of the island’s unique wildlife has already been lost or pushed to the brink of extinction. The team had to be sure that any new home they found for the pochards was not already too degraded.

Lake Sofia, in the northwest of the country, was identified as a suitable location, so the vital work began to build relationships with local people liv