The world’s rarest ducks have bred in the wild, reaching a milestone in a project to establish a new population sooner than expected, conservationists have said.
With a speed that has surprised scientists, Madagascar pochards that were bred and reared in captivity and released a year ago on Lake Sofia, in the north of the African island nation, have produced ducklings.
A total of 12 Madagascar pochard ducklings – two broods of eight and four baby birds – have been sighted on the remote lake where 21 of the birds known locally as “Fotsimaso” were released in December 2018.
Their release was the first step in a long-term project to establish a new population of the waterbirds, which were thought to have gone extinct until a chance discovery of 20 birds on a small remote lake in 2006.
Eggs from the birds were brought into captivity and reared in a rescue mission in 2009, with a breeding centre established in Antsohihy, the regional capital, while the search began to find a wetland home for a new wild population.
Lake Sofia was chosen and the birds have responded to their new home by breeding a year after release – defying expectations as diving ducks normally breed for the first time at two years old, conservationists said.
Most of northern Madagascar’s wetlands are severely degraded due to human activity, including agriculture, the loss of water quality as trees are cut down and introduced species of fish.
Conservationists from Durrell, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Asity Madagascar and the Aga Khan Foundation, in partnership with the Madagascar Ministry of Environment, have been working to improve Lake Sofia to provide a home for the ducks.
They are also working to develop sustainable livelihoods and environmental benefits for the 14,000 people who live in villages around the lake.
Durrell’s wetlands manager, Felix Razafindrajao, was part of the team to discover the ducklings, said: “I am happy and proud, as well as a little surprised, that our released birds have produced ducklings within one year.
“After much hands-on effort to rear birds in captivity, and to transport and release them at this remote location, it’s fantastic to see the ducks take this next critical step for themselves.”
WWT’s project manager Peter Cranswick added: “Reintroduced animals normally take a while to settle into their new site, and first breeding attempts are often unsuccessful, so this is a wholly unexpected but very welcome development.
“It took several years for the local communities around the lake to give this project to restore the lake and reintroduce pochards their endorsement.
“Now the ducks have given it their endorsement too.”
He said the conservation team was not yet “counting our ducklings” as there many challenges ahead as the adults were young, inexperienced and reared in captivity.
The young also face the challenge of finding food in a lake that is in poor condition – and have already been observed taking food off feeding platforms provided by project staff.
And with cyclone season under way, it is crucial the birds grow and develop their first full feathers to provide waterproofing and warmth.
Mr Cranswick said: “There is a long way to go – and there will be many setbacks along the way – but this is a major milestone achieved two or three years ahead of schedule.”
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