The smallest member of pig family (pygmy hog or porcula salvania) is an endangered species. It was once found in a thin strip of wet grassland plains in the Himalayan foothills: from Uttar Pradesh to Assam and through Nepal’s terai areas and Bengal’s duars. It was thought it had become extinct in the 60s. But in the year 1971, it was “rediscovered” with a small number in the Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary. Their numbers have kept decreasing. They are fewer than 200 pygmy hogs, half of that estimated in the mid-90s. The lone viable population of pygmy hog is in Manas Tiger Reserve in Assam. A 2-decade effort to conserve the 25 cm tall animal has turned the tide: the 110th captive bred pygmy hog has been recently reintroduced in the wild in Assam, a northeast Indian state.
Pygmy hog is an indicator species
The pygmy hog is one of the few mammals, which builds its own home complete with a roof. More importantly, it is an indicator species. Its presence reflects health of primary habitat: the tall and wet grasslands of this region. A main reason for its plummeting numbers is grassland degradation. A number of endangered species such as one-horned rhino, hog deer, tiger, eastern barasingha, water buffalo, hispid hare and the Bengal florican are also dependent on such grasslands. Wet grasslands also serve as a credible buffer against floods in the monsoons while they maintain high groundwater-level in the dry season. Thus, it benefits agriculture and farming community which live on the fringes.
“It was essential that Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) follows a 2-pronged action plan: conservation breeding of the animal against possible early extinction and reintroduction in selected sites and habitat management,” says Goutam Narayan, advisor to PHCP. While efforts for a conservation survey began in late 70s, the PHCP took off in the year 1995 as a collaborative project between Ministry of Environment and Forests, IUCN/SSC Wild Pigs Specialist Group (WPSG), and the Assam government’s forest department, with 2 local partners: EcoSystemsIndia and Aaranyak.
Pygmy hog grows from 6 to 77
The pygmy hog project began with 6 wild hogs from Manas for captive breeding. “We were given permission for 6 hogs. Among 6, we selected 3 adult females who were in midterm of pregnancy—that way we could increase genetic makeup,” adds Narayan. The pygmy hogs were taken to a research and breeding center in Guwahati, Assam, where females gave birth to 13 young ones in 1996. The next year, the litter grew by another 24 and by 2001, taking the total captive population to 77.
“Since entire global population of pygmy hog was on one site and due to the steady increase, another breeding center was opened in Potasali near Nameri National Park,” says Narayan. Later, 3 reintroduction sites were selected after research—Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary, Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary, and Orang National Park.
Despite the 13fold rise in 6 years, cubs couldn’t be released in the wild due to security concerns in this region. Once situation improved, efforts were channelized to teach captive bred pygmy hogs on honing survival instincts in the wild.
“The prerelease period is of 5 months, during which we minimize human contact, so that this animal can build its own survival instinct. In the year 2006, when we were preparing for first release, a prerelease site was established in Potasali. It has 3 large enclosures with their near natural habitat—the grasslands—in which they forage naturally. Their supplementary diet is reduced to 15 per cent and they learn to face natural predators, basically learn how to survive in the wild,” says Narayan. After 5 months, they are taken to re-introduction site, where they are kept for 3 nights before they are released in the wild.
The importance of rescuing a habitat for pygmy hog
However, there was another significant step—coming together of parallel efforts—of habitat management in reintroduction sites before animals were released. After all, if the problem which led to the near extinction of the pygmy hog was not addressed, then the situation would’ve come to naught. The biggest challenge to grassland degradation was grass burning in the dry season and livestock overgrazing.
“So for 2 years, in 2006–2007, we worked with forest department in Sonai Rupai to tackle the 2 challenges. For the first issue of habitat management, we advised forest department to resort to early burning (January–February) of grass instead of dry season (March–May), so that entire grassland doesn’t burn down. We also suggested alternate year and block wise burning with a fire line for demarcation for better control. Overgrazing of animals was also curbed,” says Narayan. The efforts bore fruit and the first batch of 16 pygmy hogs was reintroduced in the Sonai Rupai in 2008. Over the next 3 years, 35 hogs were released on the site.
Orang Park, where 59 hogs were released in 5 years (2011–2015) was the second reintroduction site. Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary was the third where 16 hogs were released in 2016–2017. Of them, Orang has been the biggest success story. “We believe the population has increased to 150–200, pygmy hog has bred and spread out and all due to proper grassland management,” asserts Narayan.
Tracking the pygmy hog species in the wild
Apart from field signs of monitoring released hogs (footprints, foraging marks, nests, droppings, and others), some of them are radio tracked as well: a process which has taken unusual effort. “It’s easier to tag a snake than a pygmy hog!” adds Narayan. For example, the ear tags keep coming off as the animal brushes against tall grass while foraging. After many attempts, we now use a smaller coin sized implant a few days before release and the wound heals quickly.”
However, it is not only multiplication which is keeping extinction at bay for this animal. Single Population Analysis and Record Keeping Systems (SPARKS) as well as Population Management (PMx) are tools through which “suitability factor” between a couple is determined to manage demography and genetic quality. PHCP Project Director Dr Parag Deka says: “There is no hotch potch mating. To maximize genetic diversity, specific markings through microchips help us zero in on ‘ideal’ pair. The same couple breeds every year and after few generations, we make pairs from unrelated families.” SPARKS is a program which stores information about life history of an animal, whereas PMx offers potential outcomes such as pairings, increasing generation length, among others.
Buoyed by positive results of this pygmy hog project, experts are now working on “Re-wild Project” in Manas on grassland management as well as restoration. The aim is to coincide with 100th birth anniversary of Gerald Durrell—founder of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust—this ecosystem would be restored and the pygmy hog can thrive once again.
Story by Azera Parveen Rehman, who is a freelance journalist, until recently based out of Assam. First published on The Third Pole