Adventures in Madagascar

My wife, Rina Nichols, and I have a long history with Wildlife Preservation Canada.  I was selected as the 8th Canada’s New Noah, fulfilling my dreams after reading Gerald Durrell’s books as a child.  After completing the New Noahs program I was the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation’s Echo Parakeet Coordinator and Field Program Coordinator for three years before returning to Canada.  I then undertook a PhD. program at York University and thanks to WPC’s support I worked in the Dominican Republic with the Ridgway’s Hawk, and Rina was WPC’s Species Recovery Biologist until the new chapter of our adventures began.

In 2009, Rina and I moved to Madagascar with our two little boys Glen & Jeremy, so that I could begin work as Scientific Coordinator for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Madagascar Programme.

Rina and I are not strangers to Madagascar, having worked there in 2001-2002, during which time we discovered the wonders of Madagascar’s unique wildlife and culture.  We were most impressed with the people of Madagascar, particularly the local Durrell team, most of whom were old friends and still working for Durrell when we returned in 2009.

I am responsible for coordinating all the research management activities for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Madagascar. The project here is Durrell’s largest overseas conservation programme.  Part of the challenge facing me during the first year in Madagascar had been visiting all nine sites and the 45+ staff, meeting the local teams, learning how the projects work, and finding solutions to the obstacles facing conservation efforts.

The job is very rewarding, but challenging.  Even the logistics of travelling to the field sites can be quite daunting!  Most of the field sites require an average of 2-3 days travel by planes, boats, taxi-brousse and oxcart, with a healthy dose of hiking, just to arrive on site.  Rice and beans and fish are daily staples and the mid-day heat is stifling.  Bandits, crocodiles and malaria are common encounters during fieldwork.  But the local Durrell field teams are highly dedicated and skilled people, and a pleasure to work with, making things much easier for me during my travels.

I became involved in the conservation efforts for one of the world’s rarest birds, the Madagascar pochard (Aythya innotata). The pochard was thought to have gone extinct, to have disappeared forever.  In 2006, a small population of fewer than 20 birds, only six of which were females, was rediscovered by Lilyarison Réné de Roland of the Peregrine Fund on a lone, isolated mountain lake in northern Madagascar. Although the Peregrine Fund have been protecting the lake and the birds, the species was still in a precarious state and facing the severe risk of extinction due to such a small population size at a single location.

In 2009, a joint team of Durrell, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, and Peregrine Fund went to the lake to collect eggs from the wild to begin a captive breeding program, as a safety net, and as a founder population for future reintroductions.  I was part of the team that collected eggs from the wild nests. In order to avoid transporting the delicate eggs over extremely difficult roads, we hatched the eggs by the lakeside in canvas tents using portable incubators.  We then transported the newly hatched ducklings for seven hours over ridiculously bumpy roads (I use the term loosely!) to temporary rearing facilities in a town called Antsohihy.  In the end, 24 eggs were collected from the wild and all hatched successfully and were transported to the rearing facilities, effectively doubling the world population for this species in one mission.  It was an extremely intense and emotional experience; finding the nests, collecting and hatching the eggs in the forest by the lakeside, and then transporting the ducklings through rivers and over crumbling bridges to finally reach the temporary sanctuary of the rearing facilities.

And this was one of many challenges the programme has had to face.  Due to the urgency of the extinction risk, the eggs were collected before a captive rearing facility had been built.  This meant that the young ducklings needed to be reared in a modified hotel room in Antsohihy and then transported again to temporary captive facilities at Durrell’s Chelonian Captive Breeding Facility in Ampijoroa.  Even this was not without some drama as bandits had targeted our staff in Antsohihy and went one night to their hotel to rob them.  Fortunately the robbers were not that bright, and went to the wrong hotel.  The team was alerted and able to evacuate early and move the ducklings to the Durrell Facility at Ampijoroa.

Now that the establishment of birds in captivity has reduced the likelihood of imminent extinction, the next goal is the construction of a dedicated captive breeding facility, where young can be produced for re-establishing wild populations.  For some time, the pochards were being kept within modified side-necked turtle enclosures at Ampijoroa, which are not ideal.  In addition to the lack of space for accommodating breeding pairs, there is a high risk of contagious disease from nearby domestic birds in adjacent villages, and from wild nesting colonies in a nearby lake.  My challenges were  to scout out an ideal site that has adequate water and access, yet is isolated enough to reduce risk of contagious diseases.

Over the next several years, my experiences with avian re-introductions (Pink Pigeons and Echo Parakeets as a New Noah in Mauritius, California Condors in California, and Eastern Loggerhead Shrikes with WPC) will be put to the ultimate test in the recovery of the world’s rarest bird, the Madagascar pochard.