Eighteen Madagascan pochards – the world’s most endangered duck – have hatched in a captive breeding centre. This brings the world population of the ducks to just 60.
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the groups leading the captive breeding programme, say this “builds hope that the bird can be saved from extinction”.
The precious pochards are being reared at a specially built centre in Antsohihy, Madagascar.
The ducks were thought to have become extinct in the late 1990s, but were rediscovered in 2006, when conservationists on an expedition spotted just 22 birds at a single site – Lake Matsaborimena (or Red Lake), in northern Madagascar.
Durrell and the WWT launched an emergency mission to rescue the critically endangered birds in 2009. The aim was to collect eggs in order to start a captive breeding programme that would safeguard the species.
The conservationists collected 24 eggs from nests at the side of the lake. They initially reared the ducklings from those eggs in a hotel bathroom, while a captive breeding centre was being prepared. The ducks that began their lives in that inauspicious setting have now bred in captivity for the first time.
Dr Glyn Young, a conservation biologist with Durrell, who has spent much of his life studying the Madagascar pochard, said: “The ducklings represent an incredible step forward in the fight to save the pochard from extinction. “The arrival of these ducklings has led to real hope that the birds can one day flourish again.”
‘Last hiding place’
Madagascan pochards remain extremely vulnerable to extinction from a single event such as pollution or a disease outbreak. Scientists are studying the remaining wild population closely, in order to understand the reasons behind the species’ decline and to determine the right conditions for releasing birds back into their natural habitat.
Peter Cranswick, head of species recovery at WWT explained that, although Lake Matsaborimena was the “last hiding place for the ducks”, it was “far from ideal”.
“Our initial investigations suggest there is too little food and this may be leading to the low survival of the ducklings,” he said. “In effect, they are starving to death.”
Nigel Jarrett from WWT, who took part in the 2009 rescue mission, explained that the team hoped to find, or even create, wetlands for the birds that were free from the pressures of fishing invasive predators. He said they hoped to create an environment where the ducks could “survive on their own, and where they can flourish”.
Mr Jarrett added that he shared the joy that his colleagues in Madagascar must have felt on seeing the eggs hatch. “It’s the closest thing to becoming a grandparent without being a grandparent,” he told BBC Nature. “When you see a star-shaped crack in an egg and you know there’s a living baby inside – a duckling that wants to get out.”
The WWT’s Idris Bhatti is currently working with the conservation team in Madagascar – helping Malagasy conservationists to learn the skills needed to breed and rear pochards. He said that “all the effort and hard work checking on the eggs and incubator at least three times in the night and umpteen times in the day” had paid off. “I felt as if I had laid the eggs and incubated them myself,” he said. “I had incubated and watched eggs hatch hundreds of times before, but on this occasion I couldn’t help shed a tear.”
This article was written by Victoria Gill Science reporter, BBC Nature