Harteman Wildfowl, presented by Jan Harteman
The pink-headed duck is (or was) found in parts of the Gangetic plains of India, Bangladesh and in the swamps of Myanmar. Is it dead or alive? It's a quest.
This Pink-headed duck has not been conclusively seen in the wild since 1949; it was always considered rare, and is likely to have declined severely through a combination of hunting and habitat loss. However, further surveys are needed of remote wetlands in northern Myanmar where there has been a possible recent sighting and credible local reports were received in 2006. Any remaining population is likely to be tiny, and for these reasons it is treated as Critically Endangered (IUCN Redlist 2012).
Rhodonessa caryophyllacea was locally distributed in the wetlands of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and occurred rarely in Nepal, with most records from north-east India and adjacent Bangladesh. It was always considered uncommon or rare and was last definitely seen in the wild in 1949, surviving until around the same time in captivity. Recent "sightings" and positive leads from a series of questionnaires about its possible continued existence in north-east India were the result of confusion with Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina. Five searches in Kachin State, Myanmar, between April 2003 and December 2006 gained a possible sighting (in 2004), two credible reports from local fishermen and during the 2006 survey focused at Nawng Kwin and the grasslands and oxbow lakes along the Indawgyi River the team gathered the most convincing reports to date from a local fisherman that the species still occurs in the area (Tordoff et al. 2008). Further searches took place in January 2008 in northern Kachin State, focusing on the three sites from which there had been recent reports or claims, but the team failed to find convincing evidence of the species's continued existence there (Eames 2008).
Any remaining population is assumed to be tiny (numbering fewer than 50 individuals and mature individuals) based on a lack of records and failure of surveys to find it.
It is shy and secretive, inhabiting secluded and overgrown still-water pools, marshes and swamps in lowland forest and tall grasslands, particularly areas subject to seasonal inundation and, in winter, also lagoons adjoining large rivers. Outside the breeding season it was usually encountered in small groups and occasionally flocks of 30-40. Some, and possibly all, populations undertook local seasonal movements, resulting in scattered historical records as far afield as Punjab, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh in India. Conjecture from researchers conducting surveys for the species has suggested that it may be nocturnal, explaining the difficulty in locating it, and the reason behind its unique colouration (J. Eames in litt. 2006).
Its decline likely resulted from habitat loss. Clearance of forest and conversion of wetlands for agricultural land has destroyed much of its habitat. Furthermore, it suffered year-round persecution during a period (the late 19th and early 20th centuries) when hunting levels in India were high. A number of other waterbird species have declined in South and South-East Asia as a consequence of human disturbance and/or hunting pressure and egg collection. However, these species, e.g. White-winged Duck Cairinia scutulata, do persist in parts of South and South-East Asia, suggesting that hunting pressure alone is unlikely to have caused the species's extirpation (Tordoff et al. 2008). While the species was hunted historically, the role that this has played in its decline remains uncertain (J. Eames in litt. 2007, Tordoff et al. 2008). The invasive alien species water hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes may have contributed to its decline by altering wetland habitats to the detriment of this species (J. Eames in litt. 2006).
Above: Mounted specimen. Naturalis, Leiden, Netherlands
Conservation Actions Underway
CITES Appendix I. CMS Appendix II. Throughout the 1950s there were attempts to clarify its status, culminating in a literature and museum specimen review. It was subsequently searched for in some key areas. Since 1956, it has been legally protected. Since 2003, BirdLife International in Indochina and the Biodiversity and National Conservation Association (BANCA) have conducted a number of searches in Kachin State, Myanmar, the most recent taking place in January 2008 (Eames 2008).
Conservation Actions Proposed
Locate (provisionally using satellite imagery) and systematically survey any remaining remote and large tracts of suitable habitat within its former range, particularly north Bihar, Assam, India, and Kachin, Rakhine and possibly Chin States, Myanmar, and interview local hunters. Attempt night-time surveys given the species's potential nocturnal habits (Tordoff et al. 2008). Should it be rediscovered, stringent protection measures should be implemented to ensure the survival of any populations. Where possible introduce formal protected area status or non-formal management by local stakeholders for key wetland sites that may support this species (and which are known to support other Globally Threatened waterbirds) (Tordoff et al. 2008).
Above: Some birds were also kept in the aviaries of Jean Théodore Delacour in Clères (France) and Alfred Ezra at Foxwarren Park (England) where the last known birds lived in captivity. The only known photographs of the species were taken here and include one of a pair taken around 1925 by David Seth-Smith.
Above: As far as is known the last captive Pink-headed Duck died in 1936 in Delacour's collection, Cleres, France. This black-and-white photograph was coloured for Frank Todd's book "Natural History of the Waterfowl"(1996) Ibis Publishing: California.
Above: Five Pink-headed ducks at Alfred Ezra's Foxwarren collection. Photo by Salim Ali, November 1929. From Natural History of the Waterfowl, by F. S. Todd (Ibis Publishing, 1996)
Above: Zoo Berlin once kept at least one Pink-headed duck (male), which died in August 1908 (photos by Hartmut Kolbe).