Expedition Mahimborondro: A place to feel the clouds
The island of Madagascar is widely regarded as a “living laboratory” in which evolution has sculpted an extremely diverse and specialised biota over millions of years. The birds of the island are no exception to this trend, and it currently hosts 282 species, of which a staggering 115 are endemic to the island. Of these, 35 are considered globally threatened to some degree. Madagascar also hosts 84 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) and seven Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs), further illustrating its importance for global bird diversity. The high levels of endemic species is a strong motivation for increased conservation efforts on the island, as species lost here, will be lost forever. Madagascar is a country of spectacular biodiversity and unrivalled endemism, yet it is now facing environmental degradation on a massive scale. Unfortunately, to date nearly 90% of Madagascar’s original habitats have been destroyed, illustrating the need for increased conservation efforts in, and support for, this region. In contrast to this sad picture facing Madagascar’s biodiversity, the story of the Madagascar Pochard (Aythya innotata) provides a refreshing positive outcome for conservation.
Against seemingly impossible odds, this species was rediscovered after being declared extinct and now, thanks to a targeted conservation effort, has increased its population nearly tenfold over the last decade. In 2006, Réné de Roland Lily-Arison (principal partner on this project), a Malagasy ornithologist and current director of The Peregrine Fund’s Madagascar program, happened upon a small patch of forest hidden in the remote mountains of north-eastern Madagascar. There, on a tiny crater lake in the forest, Lily rediscovered a small flock of nine Madagascar Pochards. Today, the population of ducks on this single lake, Lac Matsaborimena, has climbed to nearly 40 individuals, and a successful captive breeding program has been started in the nearby provincial capital. With a total world population of less than 150 birds, however, the Madagascar Pochard remains one of the rarest waterfowl on earth. Furthermore, the remote patch of forest where the pochard survives has proved to be a ‘lost world’ that is home to several of Madagascar’s most enigmatic and poorly-known species. Among others, this includes one of the rarest species of eagle on earth (Madagascar Serpent-eagle Eutriorchis astur), a large owl that went missing to science for much of the twentieth century (Madagascar Red Owl Tyto soumagnei), alongside other rare and threatened biodiversity.
This project is centred surveying the remote forest patches described above, as well as providing technical support before, during and after the field surveys, in the form of drafting fundraising proposals and conservation action plans to our local partner. This will be coupled with capacity development for colleagues at the partner institutions in Madagascar, including The Peregrine Fund and the BirdLife International partner – Asity. Whilst the expedition is designed to be a standalone project, it is our aim that the outputs will help to support and bring further recognition to the ongoing conservation efforts in the area.