This week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the Alaotra grebe (Tachybaptus rufolavatus) extinct. CI’s Frank Hawkins recalls his personal experience with the water fowl, and emphasizes our ability to prevent other species from meeting the same fate.
Eleven years ago, I was paddling across Lake Alaotra in central-eastern Madagascar in a local dugout canoe, in the company of a team of Malagasy bird researchers, looking for any sign of diving waterbirds.
The main target for our search was the Alaotra grebe, a mysterious small diving bird that had not reliably been seen for at least fourteen years previous, despite a considerable amount of searching. Seven years earlier, a search effort across the lake had revealed no sign of this bird or of its equally mysterious ecological partner, the Madagascar pochard [Aythya innotata], a reddish-brown duck with a white eye. Apart from a few anecdotal accounts, both species had been entirely restricted to the lake.
While Mark Pidgeon, a researcher who had roamed the lake extensively in the early 1990’s, had seen a range of diving duck and grebe species, our visit in 1999 revealed none of these birds at all. Our team conducted detailed interviews with local fishermen, who told a sad story. Both the Alaotra grebe and the Madagascar pochard had disappeared from the lake in the previous ten years because adults had been caught in fine-mesh gillnets, and the young had been predated by snakeheads, a vicious predatory fish, introduced to Madagascar in the mid-1970s, allegedly as a personal gift of Kim Il Sung. We saw not a single diving waterbird during our 1999 visit, and since the Alaotra grebe was functionally flightless – its wings being too short for prolonged flight – its prospects looked decidedly bleak.
The single ray of hope for the species was the remote Lake Amparindriambahavavy, visited in 1993 by Mark Pidgeon. At that time, the lake had lots of grebes, many of which were too distant to identify but could possibly have been the elusive Alaotra grebe. Alas, when I returned to Madagascar in 2009, I organized a trip to this lake with another team of Malagasy bird specialists. The lake held a range of other interesting waterfowl, but not a single grebe. The last possible refuge for the species was struck off the list. Alaotra grebes had gone the way of so many other vulnerable wetland and forest species, and disappeared for good.
A very interesting corollary to this sad story came a few years ago, when the other mystical denizen of Lake Alaotra, the Madagascar pochard, was rediscovered by a team working for the Peregrine Fund in northern Madagascar. This beautiful duck had been lost since 1991 when the last one was captured at Lake Alaotra. Unlike the Alaotra grebe, this bird could fly, and so had found itself a refuge remote from fishermen’s gillnets, and the depredations of introduced killer fish.
A captive breeding program run by Glyn Young of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has already had spectacular success in providing a safety net for the species’ survival. The current population of this species in the wild is less than 20. Still, it has at least – very narrowly – so far escaped the fate of the poor Alaotra grebe.
Frank Hawkins is Vice President of CI’s Africa and Madagascard Field Division.