It is at Lake Sofia where we hope to make a home for the Madagascar pochard, the world’s most endangered duck.
Madagascar pochards are diving ducks. They spend almost all of their time on water and crucially, they feed underwater. This means wetland health and suitability is key to their existence. The wetlands across the Madagascar highlands are in ruins. Widespread degradation caused by deforestation, overfishing and pollution, has had huge implications for the animals that depend on them for food and shelter. Until a surprise discovery in 2006, Madagascar pochards were thought extinct. With around 20 of these little birds left, discovered on a remote lake, there was a small glimmer of hope. An operation to save the species was quickly launched to stop them disappearing all together.
Affectionately known as the ‘Mad poch’, the duck was barely scraping survival on the lake. After researching why the wetland was failing the poor bird, WWT found factors including water quality, temperature and sedimentation were affecting its ability to feed. These are often symptoms of local communities using poor farming and water management as they struggle against poverty.
WWT and Durrell collected several clutches of Madagascar pochard eggs which were then hatched in captivity, or more accurately the bathroom of a hotel room.
At one point, 25 per cent of the world’s population – seven chicks – were living in a cardboard box with a plastic ice cream tub serving as a swimming pool. As we hatched new individuals one by one, we gave them rolled up balls of socks as “friends” until each was big enough to join a duckling creche.
What began as a conservation mission using a basin to house seven chicks, is now a fully-fledged breeding facility in Antsohihy, called the Fotsimaso Interpretation Centre for the Madagascar Pochard. It was officially opened in 2017 by Princess Anne and Madagascar’s President Rajaonarimampianina. Now over 100 Madagascar pochard thrive there.
If the birds were to be successfully released into the wild, they needed a suitable wetland to live on. Lake Sofia was identified as the only wetland with potential in the region and although far from ideal, WWT began working with the communities to gradually improve the wetland for people and wildlife, through education and sustainable fishing and agricultural practices.
With a long-term community project in place to promote healthier wetlands for everyone, the reintroduction of the Madagascar pochard into the wild was given the go ahead.
To accommodate the diving ducks’ water-based needs, floating salmon farming cages from Scotland were adapted into half-way homes for the ducks. These cages usually float just under the water surface, but we came up with the idea of inverting them to float on top, becoming convenient aquatic aviaries to which the birds can return for food and shelter as they get used to life on the lake.
With their temporary homes all set up, some 21 Madagascar pochards were successfully released onto the lake in December 2018. It is hoped they will remain on the lake and eventually breed.
WWT’s specialist breeding work has become only a small part of wider, holistic work to improve Madagascar’s wetlands for people and wildlife. But seeing the ducks back in the wild is proof that wetland conservation is succeeding in making this part of the world a better place to live.
Two broods - of eight and four – were sighted on the lake, confirming to us that the released birds had bred.
This magnificent discovery defied our expectations as diving ducks normally don’t breed for the first time until they’re two years old. Reintroduced animals normally take a while to settle into their new site and the first breeding attempts are often later than usual, given their new circumstances. Even then, the first attempts often fail because the birds are inexperienced and have had an unusual upbringing having been reared in captivity.
We’ve still got a long way to go, however. It will take many years to restore Lake Sofia, but these are promising signs for one WWT’s most ambitious projects.
25 Madagascar pochards are found surviving on a remote lake in the north of the island that we suspect is too deep for ducklings to feed.
Surveys show only 6 females survive at the lake.
Eggs are brought into captivity to protect against extinction.
We scour the island for a suitable release site and choose to focus our efforts on Lake Sofia. The site has potential, but we have many issues to address before the lake can be a suitable home for the pochards.
We conduct surveys to understand the needs of the ten thousand people that live around and rely on Lake Sofia for water, irrigation, fish, materials and other resources.
We receive enthusiastic support from authorities, communities, and a development agency to improve the lake, addressing poverty and environmental damage. Education plans are developed to build awareness of and pride in their natural surroundings.
We invented the world’s first floating aviary and tested it at Slimbridge using Baer’s pochards and tufted ducks, close cousins of the Madagascar pochard.
July - Floating aviaries are installed in Madagascar ahead of planned release.
October - Pochards transported to lakeside where they’re homed in temporary aviaries and trained.
December - First chicks released onto Lake Sofia.
January - The ducklings grow up and have ducklings! 12 were recorded on the lake.
This is a collaborative project of WWT, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, The Peregrine Fund, Asity Madagascar, and the Government of Madagascar.
To date the project has been generously supported by: the Darwin Initiative, Mitsubishi Corporation Fund for Europe and Africa, Fota Wildlife Park, BBC Wildlife Fund, a private donor, the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Aviornis UK, Synchronicity Earth, British Airways Communities & Conservation Programme (BACC), WWT and Durrell members and many generous individuals.