Limbs aching, still recovering from malaria, a fraction of his normal body weight and scrapping his way inch by inch through thick jungle, Ash Dykes was not necessarily at his most enthusiastic when his Malagasy guide started excitedly pointing at what he thought were a pair of normal ducks.
The 2015 National Adventurer of the Year award winner for Wales was nearing the end of a five-month odyssey that was to see him become the first person to walk the length of Madagascar – a journey of some 1,600 miles covering the ascent of the country’s highest and most isolated peaks. Although he did not realize it initially he was likely looking at one of the world’s rarest birds – the Madagascar Pochard.
"My 50-year old guide had wanted to visit this area all his life and heard rumors that the pochard was there," Dykes told DW. "For us to stroll upon it after hacking through this thick jungle, literally like covering only a metre every hour, it was like a scene from Jurassic Park. It was crazy, absolutely crazy."
It has not yet been ascertained if Dykes had definitively seen birds from the known population, but another possible sighting is a boost for the various organizations working to save a duck that was believed to be extinct until 2006.
The remote site where Dykes spotted the bird was roughly 40km from a volcanic lake near the town of Bemanevika, in the far north of the country, where a population of around 20 to 25 Madagascar Pochards are able to cling on in the wild. They are able to do so largely because of the dense jungle and isolation of the area.
"There are no pressures there from humans," Peter Cranswick, who heads up the Wildlife and Wetland Trust’s (WWT) project in Madagascar, told DW. "Unfortunately that’s the fate that has befallen all the other decent lakes that in theory should be good for pochards."
Finding a new home
Relatively common until as recently as the 1930s, pochard numbers declined so drastically that a sighting in 1991 was believed to be the last. It was, until biologist and national project director for the Peregrine Fund, Lily-Arison Rene de Roland, came across one 15 years later through the tried and tested combination of luck and thorough research.
He says the distinctive pale eyes of the bird led him to believe he was looking at a pochard. At the time he was researching Madagascan raptors. He was not looking for a duck that was declared "probably extinct" in 2004 and was last seen some 300km south of where he found it.
The pochard is now very much a conservation priority. A collaborative effort led by the Peregrine Fund, which works with WWT, the Durrell Conservation Wildlife Trust, Asti Madagascar, and the IUCN as well as local Malagasy communities and the Madagascar government, has seen the instigation of a captive breeding programme that has so far resulted in about 75 birds.
The current location of the wild population is far from ideal and a painstaking search over many years has now finally yielded a new location named Lac Sofia in the far north where conservationists hope to slowly reintroduce the species over a number of years.
The lake is thus far the only suitable site, a reality indicative of the inherent problems facing the species. A process of trial and error has shown that the ducks simply cannot survive in the majority of Madagascar’s wetlands due to a lack of suitable food and end up starving to death.
"Ultimately it’s very much about creating the conditions for them to survive," says Cranswick. "Just putting them on a lake does not make a conservation project. We know if we put a pochard on just any lake then the likelihood is it won’t survive."
The pochard’s prospects are so grim and potential homes so limited because the majority of Madagascar’s wetlands have simply been “trashed”, according to Lance Woolaver, head of species conservation and research at Durrell Madagascar, who has worked in the country for many years on a number of projects.
The 'development duck'
The species is one of the few diving ducks in Madagascar, which means it relies entirely on food stocks within lakes for its survival and now often cannot see the bottom as social pressures have seen deforestation and ashy sediment form on the bed. Introduced fish species such as tilapia are big feeders and have not only endangered many native species but squeezed the pochard’s traditional invertebrate food source.
Ash Dykes spent much of his five month slog through Madagascar promoting numerous conservation efforts, including projects to protect one of the world’s rarest animals, the northern Sportive Lemur. However, despite describing the country as "breathtakingly beautiful," he saw first-hand just how much ecological threats such as illegal logging and forest clearance as well as climate change have taken their toll on the island’s natural environment.
"The forested and mountainous areas have all been stripped right back to make way for paddy fields," he says. "That’s taken off massively, chopping down trees and just burning them… We even got caught in a forest fire and just had to scramble out of there."
Working with communities and encouraging them to invest in the management of their own resources and environment has been central to the species action plan for the Madagascar Pochard. After an initial suspicion and sheer bafflement at such international concern over a mere duck, both Cranswick and Woolaver say the relationship with residents near Lac Sofia, along with the Madagascar government has been so successful that the pochard has now been dubbed the “development duck."
"Most people around the lake were aware of the project," Woolaver told DW. "But it was only once we were talking about helping to solve some economic problems that it become something like a regional mascot. There was almost an over-enthusiasm from an ecotourism perspective."
Ash Dykes is now back at home, putting back on lost weight and preparing for future challenges in other world firsts. But his information on the pochard will help teams working there further understand the bird.
In the next five to 10 years the coalition of organisations working on the duck hope to reintroduce dozens of pairs into the wild on Lac Sofia. The desire is to one day hand management over entirely to local communities and use the project as an example of how conservation can go along with development in Madagascar.
The breeding center which until now has been kept isolated for security reasons is also destined to be opened to the public. Hopefully one day it will not just be intrepid Welsh explorers and committed biologists who can see this rarest of ducks.