One could easily argue that the beauty of South Africa and its waterfowl lies within its diversity. But what if I were to tell you this diversity that makes our waterfowl unique and special, is under direct threat?
Along our rivers, estuaries and on our local dams all over the Western Cape one has the privilege of admiring at least 15 different species from the family Anatidae (the family that includes geese and ducks). Why is it then that here in Great Brak River one would be hard pressed to find anything but a Mallard?
The Mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) of Northern Hemisphere origin is an attractive robust duck that is quickly habituated to humans and is quick to breed. The characteristics which make the Mallard popular for the pet trade are the same reasons why they threaten our local wildfowl. As if competing with our indigenous waterfowl for habitat, food and nesting sites was not enough, the Mallard is able to interbreed with our native ducks such as the Yellow-billed Duck, African Black Duck and Cape Shoveler to mention a few. This genetic hybridisation creates offspring that are aggressively fertile, which further contributes to the depletion and contamination of the overall gene pool and its diversity. Hybridisation of local waterfowl with Mallards in other parts of the world has had serious implications on native duck species, driving the Hawaiian Duck and the New Zealand Grey Duck to near extinction.
The Authorities have recognized this threat and have registered the Mallard as an alien invasive. Having proclaimed it a Nemba 2 species, it is not permitted to own, trade or transport them without a permit. Despite this legal framework set in place to protect our indigenous waterfowl, members of the public still release Mallards onto waterways for their own enjoyment or they provide sanctuary to populations that move into the area.
With data collected in the biannual wetland bird count on the Great Brak River, it is evident that over the last 10 years, as the Mallard numbers increase so the numbers of indigenous waterfowl decrease. However, the blame for the increase of these highly invasive ducks, (who are also major carriers and spreaders of the seriously infectious bird flu virus), cannot be placed solely on the shoulders of the Mallards themselves. Whilst feeding a cute duck may be a pleasant relaxing pastime and seem a harmless activity, its implications down the line for future generations are serious.
We, as the public, need to be educated and take responsibility for the impact our actions make on the local wildlife. We must put measures in place for the conservation and protection of the indigenous species we share our home with, and hopefully do this without ruffling too many feathers. Our indigenous species are a wonderful asset to Great Brak River and worthy of our conservation efforts.