Madagascar pochard (Aythya innotata)
Mohamed bin Zayed Species project number 182518663
Establishing a new wild population of Madagascar pochard at Lake Sofia to help save the species from extinction
The primary objective of this project is to establish a population of Madagascar Pochard on Lake Sofia to help prevent its extinction in the wild.
The project aligns with the goals of the IUCN conservation plan for Madagascar Pochard, agreed by Government, NGOs and local communities in Madagascar, to increase the range and numbers of the species, while also providing benefits for people who live around the wetlands that support pochards.
The tiny remaining wild population, around 25 birds, survives at just one small site in the north of the country, near Bemanevika. The habitat is unsuitable for pochards, however; too cold and too deep for ducklings to feed, most starve before fledging. A captive population was established in 2009, to avert imminent extinction. A biosecure breeding centre was built in the regional capital, Antsohihy, and now houses 120 birds.
After extensive searches and surveys, Lake Sofia was chosen in 2013 as the site for reintroduction. Around 50 km from Bemanevika, the lake is central to the lives of 12,000 people that live in its catchment, many of whom rely on the natural resources of the lake and its catchment.
Like nearly all Malagasy wetlands, Lake Sofia is heavily degraded – but it has more potential than most for restoration. We have been working with local communities for five years to put in place measures that enhance their livelihoods, while adopting practices that are sympathetic and sustainable for the site and its wildlife (eg addressing the impacts of agriculture, fishing practices and disturbance). Management of the lake’s resources has been transferred from Government to the local village associations, and the site has recently been designated a Ramsar site (Ramsar is the intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources).
There are many challenges to releasing Pochards at Lake Sofia. It is 200 km from Antsohihy, the last 60 km in particular being very rough, dusty or muddy. The journey takes a minimum of 12 hours and access by vehicle is only practical from August to November – after the rains in December, the road is effectively closed for six or more months. As it was unclear if birds could be transported to the lake without compromising their condition, two rearing and transport strategies have been adopted so that moving birds does not affect their early development:
1. Hatch birds at the breeding centre and move them as one-day-old ducklings (they do little but sleep on their first day) to Lake Sofia and rear them at the lakeside. This required aviaries to be constructed at Sofia. We also had to overcome lack of running water and power and biosecurity risks.
2. Rear birds at the breeding centre, then move them at nine weeks old to the lake (once fledged). Lakeside aviaries house the birds for 2-4 days after the journey. We check their condition and welfare, vaccinate them, fit rings and other marking before releasing them onto the lake.
We have focused considerable effort on soft-release methods and close-order management after release. It is critical that Pochards do not leave Lake Sofia after release – there are no other suitable sites so it is likely that they will not survive elsewhere – so we have “anchors” at the Lake to encourage them to stay. The lake almost certainly has insufficient natural food for Pochards, so we have designed floating feeding stations to provide artificial food to Pochards on the lake, while limiting access by the other ducks present. We have designed novel floating aviaries, enabling birds to be housed on the lake itself for an extended period. This enables them to become acclimatised to the site, increasing the chances that they remain at the lake after release.
Lakeside aviaries, floating aviaries, floating feeding stations and loafing rafts were assembled and positioned on the lake between June and November 2018. 10 birds were moved to Lake Sofia as day-old ducklings, and 11 as 9-week-old fledglings. Despite problematic journeys, complicated by early rains, all birds coped well with the moves to the lake, and adapted quickly to the lakeside aviaries. The 21 birds were housed in floating aviaries for three days, quickly learning to use the feeding stations provided inside the aviaries, before the doors to the aviaries were opened in early December.
The Pochards ventured from the aviaries over the coming days and began showing natural behaviours. All 21 moved around the release area of the lake, associating with the 1000 wild ducks (Red-billed Teal, Meller’s Ducks, Fulvous and White-faced Whistling Ducks). They are using some areas regularly and have been seen repeatedly diving for food, flying freely, on the marsh with the other ducks, returning to the floating aviaries regularly for food, to loaf or roost, using the loafing platforms and using the feeding stations.
The birds have been deliberately reared to be familiar with people – in particular, so that they do not panic when we refresh food in the floating aviaries, but are not so tame as to be drawn to local fisherfolk. Whilst some birds initially wandered to far parts of the lake and one closely approached a fishermen, they soon returned to the release bay.
A post-release monitoring team continues to undertake detailed studies and assessments of the birds. A key aim for this first year of releases was that sufficient birds remain as an ‘anchor’ for birds we release in 2020, so that the next cohort of native birds are drawn to and learn from the 2019 releases. So far, the signs are all positive; two months after release all but two of the birds are being seen regularly.
The first releases, to trial the new methodology and infrastructure, were overseen by very experienced aviculturists and scientists from WWT and Durrell, based in the UK and Jersey. They have mentored and trained the Malagasy team of aviculturists, vets and post-release monitoring technicians, who will lead the releases over the long term.
Restoration of the lake will take considerably longer but will reap benefits for wildlife and people alike. The Madagascar Pochard is proving a valuable flagship to energise and coordinate the many parties – conservation and development organisations, local communities, regional authorities and Government – in this initiative and to raise awareness further afield.
Project 182518663 location - Madagascar, Africa