Saving the Pygmy Hog
It is the world’s smallest and rarest extant suid and only a handful of people can ever claim to have seen it in the wild. It is 55 to 71 cm. long, weighs around eight to 11 kg. and stands just 12 inches (20 to 30 cm.) tall. The days when the pygmy hog was common along the foothill plains of the Himalaya in India, Bhutan and Nepal are long past.
By the 1980s, it was already known to be endangered with only two isolated populations on record – in the Manas and Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuaries in Assam. The pygmy hog featured in the first IUCN/WWF (1984) list of the 12 most threatened animal species in the world. The population in Barnadi was believed to have been lost by 1981, due to extensive habitat burning, until a small number was rediscovered in 1990. However, no pygmy hog has been recorded there since 1994. By the mid-90s, the situation was so grim that it was classified as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But this was one species, a small group of committed wildlife researchers and conservationists were just not ready to lose.
In 1995, a group of organisations, including the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust based in Jersey, Channel Islands, the IUCN’s Pigs, Peccaries and Hippos Specialist Group, the Assam Forest Department and the Indian government, initiated the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP). PHCP researchers began a seven-year study of the pygmy hog to understand its conservation issues and suggest solutions to revive its population in the wild. The study initiated field study surveys to determine the species’ distribution, search for any other surviving remnant populations and identify suitable sites for future reintroduction. It also aimed at establishing a captive-breeding programme as a safeguard against extinction, as a source for reintroduction and as a beginning to long-term field studies on the pygmy hog’s behavioural-ecology and habitat management requirements. Dr. Goutam Narayan, a wildlife scientist who had earlier worked for the Bombay Natural History Society, knew just how vital this project and its recommendations were as it presented the last hope for the pygmy hog. He therefore chose to dedicate his life to the resurrection of the species.
The pygmy hog is an important indicator species whose rapid disappearance is intricately linked to the degradation of Assam’s grasslands. Historically, its preferred habitat has been the tall, dense, riverine grassland areas where it feeds on roots, tubers and other vegetable matter and, occasionally, insects, earthworms and other invertebrates. The modification and destruction of its habitat for agriculture, settlements including those by illegal immigrant settlers from Bangladesh and Nepal, overgrazing by cattle, thatch-grass harvesting, uncontrolled seasonal burning and flood-control and forestry projects, had led to its systematic eradication.
Adding to the litany of problems was the spread of violence in the Northeast and the increased poaching and killing of wildlife for pot and market. In the Khalingdaur Reserved Forest, for instance, pygmy hogs became extinct because the habitat was replaced by hardwood plantations and the remaining grasslands burnt by herdsmen. The late Sanjay Deb Roy, who spent a large chunk of his life in the forests of the Northeast, wrote that in the Barnadi Reserve Forest in 1977, village hunters accounted for at least 15 per cent of the total estimated population of about 35 pygmy hogs.
The PHCP began its captive-breeding programme in 1996. Six animals were captured from the wild and bred in custom-built enclosures in Basistha in Assam, in environs as close to their natural habitat as possible. Their food was buried in the soil so they would learn to search for tubers and succulents as they would need to in wild grasslands. Five more hogs were also caught during the capture operation but released in the wild after four of them were fitted with transmitters for radio-telemetry studies.
The pygmy hog had always been regarded as a member of the genus Sus and a sister taxon of the domestic pig/Eurasian wild pig Sus scrofa. However, scientists from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and other researchers based in Hyderabad in India and Durham in the UK revealed through phylogenetic analyses that it belongs to a unique genus Porcula. The researchers analysed mitochondrial DNA in blood samples from the captive breeding programme and two specimens collected by 19th century taxonomist, B.H. Hodgson, and maintained by the National History Museum in London. The study, published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, was a reaffirmation of Hodgson’s belief that the pygmy hog was evolutionarily unique and completely different from boars, warthogs and pigs. The original genus status has been resurrected and the pygmy hog reclassified as Porcula salvania by GenBank (database produced at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, USA).
In 2003, PHCP released its report confirming that the captive breeding programme had been hugely successful with over 75 hogs literally jostling for space in their pens. A second breeding and research site is being planned. The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad is helping with DNA studies. Apart from the first phase of radio-tracking in Manas, a field station was established in here to study grassland ecology and management. In 2006, PHCP announced that captive bred animals would be released in the Sonai Rupai and the Nameri Wildlife Sanctuaries. A small, restricted, pre-release area was prepared near Nameri to acclimatise the animals to life without human interference. The grassland in the pre-release area was restored and electric fences constructed to keep larger animals out. Eighteen pygmy hogs have been transferred to this area and are being monitored closely before they are released in the wild. The researchers are now working with the park authorities to protect and restore the habitat at the release sites, and to develop stronger management plans. A coordinated and committed effort by the forest department and local conservation bodies is needed to help translate all these efforts into a truly successful conservation project.
Firoz Ahmed, Head, Herpetological Research and Conservation Division, Aranyak, and a winner of the prestigious Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Wildlife Service Award 2006, adds another interesting twist to the pygmy hog’s survival story. In 1976, a pair of pygmy hogs was released in the Orang Game Reserve (now a national park) in Assam.
More than three decades later, on November 29, 2007, as Ahmed, a forest guard and two others were driving from the Satsimalu Beat to the Range Headquarters, a small hog appeared on the road at Bhelajhar, in front of their vehicle. After a few moments, it moved into the tall grass on the east side of the road. The forest guard claimed that he had seen three to four similar-looking hogs in the past in the same area. No droppings could be found, but Ahmed, who has seen the pygmy hog up-close in captivity, is convinced that he had seen a pygmy hog. He now hopes to search for nests of the species in the coming days. If this sighting is confirmed, then it represents hope that the species was able to survive in a new habitat that is similar to, but not an established part of its recorded range. The question, however, is whether the hogs in Orang came from the original released stock or whether Orang always supported an unrecorded pygmy hog population.
Today, no more than a few hundred pygmy hogs are believed to exist in the wild. The future of the species is not only dependent on whether the captive-raised hogs are able to survive, adapt and breed in the wild, but also on how their habitat is restored and managed. In Manas and its buffer forests, for example, protection of the habitat will be beneficial to a host of other species, including the hispid hare and the Bengal Florican.
Modern technology is, undoubtedly, offering us a chance to protect beleaguered creatures such as the pygmy hog, but how we convert this chance into an opportunity to staunch the tide of extinction for the pygmy hog and other endangered species depends on our ability to protect their natural, wild habitats in the difficult days ahead.
The Pygmy Hog Porcula salvania
With dark brownish skin, a vestigial tail measuring just 2.5 cm., a sharp tapering head, and a slightly hairy crest on the forehead, it definitely does not possess a body to match its fame. It has only three pairs of mammae. The upper canines are visible on the sides of the mouth only in the adult male. It is believed to be non-territorial and lives in small family groups of four to five, comprising one or two adult females and juveniles and occasionally an adult male, usually during the rut. The species builds nests that are used by both sexes throughout the year. The nest is basically a trough dug out with its snout and then lined with grass. Reproduction is seasonal, with a birth peak just before the monsoon (late April to May in western Assam). The gestation period is about four months, after which two to six young are born. In the wild, its main predators are pythons and tigers. The pygmy hog is the sole host of the pygmy hog sucking louse Haematopinus oliveri, incidentally also classified as endangered because of the precarious status of its host.
By Lakshmy Raman
This article was first published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVIII. No. 2. April 2008