The shy 10-inch-tall pygmy pig, «rediscovered» in 1971, is steadily increasing in numbers due to captive breeding in its native India.

MUMBAI, INDIA In the tall, thick grasslands of the foothills of the Himalayas lives the endangered pygmy pig, a species so small that its piglets can fit in your pocket. Standing about 10 inches tall, the shy animal once roamed the border regions of India, Nepal and Bhutan, sniffing for insects and tubers.

But a century of habitat degradation and destruction, especially the conversion of grasslands for agricultural use, devastated the pygmy pig, and until its «rediscovery» in 1971, many people thought the animal was probably extinct.

In the mid-1990s, conservationists captured some wild pigs and began raising them in captivity, releasing them again in Assam, a state in northeast India where a small wild population had survived.

Twenty-five years later, these conservation efforts are paying off, experts say: In total, between 300 and 400 animals remain in the wild and 76 in captivity, and the species appears to be thriving.

The success of the initial program has led to subsequent efforts. Between 2008 and 2020, scientists released 130 pygmy pigs in two national parks, Manas and Orang, and two wildlife sanctuaries, Barnadi and Sonai Rupai, all in Assam.

There are plans to release at least 60 more pigs in Manas within the next five years, says Parag Deka, project director of the Pygmy Pig Conservation Program, based in Guwahati, the capital of Assam.

«It is very important to me to go ahead and save this species from extinction,» says Deka. “We should all seek a purpose in life. When I got involved in this project, I realized that this can give me that purpose. «

A special pig
Seventeen species of wild pigs live around the world and almost all of them are in danger of extinction. But what makes the pygmy pig so special (aside from its tiny size) is its evolutionary uniqueness: It is the only species in the genus Porcula, says Matthew Linkie, Asia coordinator for the International Union’s Group of Wild Pig Specialists for the Conservation of Nature.

«If we lost this species,» he says, «then we would lose an entire genus and millions of years of its evolution in an instant.»

The conservation program is giving the species «more than a chance to fight for survival,» adds Linkie, praising the team’s recent efforts to protect captive pygmy pig populations from diseases like African swine fever. a viral disease that appeared in the region in 2020 along with COVID-19. (Learn how scientists are working to predict the next pandemic.)

Pygmy pig conservationists implemented strict biosecurity measures for personnel, vehicles and equipment entering the breeding area, he says.

“Although the [African swine fever] virus has a high economic impact on the domestic swine industry, for pygmy pigs and other endangered species, it can spell the point towards extinction,” says Johanna Rode-Margono, president of the Specialist in wild pigs from the IUCN Group.

«Teams on site are doing everything they can to protect captive and wild populations.»

«Rediscovery»
First described by Western science in 1847, the pygmy pig was rarely seen for the next century, due to its size and nervousness. In his 1964 book The Wild Life of India, naturalist Edward Pritchard Gee wrote that he was «struggling to find out if [the pygmy pig] still exists.»

As a result, details about their lifestyle and behavior were lacking: Adult pygmy pigs, which weigh between 15 and 22 pounds, rely on grasslands for protection against predators, such as pythons and crows, as well as a safe space to feed and collect. buildings. material. (Read about the largest pig in the world, the giant forest pig.)

Pigs cut down the grass to build thatched roofs for their nests, which are built on depressions in the ground. A family of pygmy pigs generally consists of three to five individuals, a combination of females and young; boars generally only mate for a few months during the mating season.

In 1971, long after their last known sighting, a tea garden worker caught a group of pygmy pigs fleeing a prescribed fire near the Barnadi sanctuary (a type of protected area) in Assam. Shortly after that, a tea farm manager named Richard Graves bought 12 pigs from the worker at a local market.

Graves chief John Yandel informed naturalist Gerald Durrell, founder of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, of the find. Trust scientists came to Assam to research pigs, but it took another two decades to launch the Pygmy Pig Conservation Program, which began capturing wild pigs for breeding in 1996.

When captive-bred piglets reach six months of age, they are moved to an open-air pre-release center in Potasali, near Nameri National Park. For another six months or so, the youngsters explore and adapt to the recreated grassland habitat. After their release, the pigs are monitored using camera traps, radio transmitters and field surveys.

Green desert
Pig farming is only part of the solution – they need healthy pastures, too. In evaluating potential release sites, the team looks for alluvial soil (land filled with mineral deposits brought in by rivers), certain species of native herbs and plants, and up to about two square miles of habitat.

But those areas are hard to find: Assam’s grasslands are shrinking, degrading and fragmented. Barnadi, the sanctuary where the pigs were found in 1971, has shrunk from about four square miles of grassland to less than half a square mile. (Read more about threats to grasslands and possible solutions.)

In the past, the illegal and indiscriminate burning of grasslands to create open spaces and fresh forage for livestock threatened pigs, especially during pig mating and breeding seasons. Constant burning also encourages weeds, which thrive in disturbed environments, to grow and displace native grasses.

«It looks very green, but I call it the green desert, because nothing can grow there,» says Deka.

That’s why the conservation team is working with local communities and forest officials to understand how to reduce those pressures on rangelands and develop better habitat management practices.

«When we are patrolling, we cut species like Siam brush and red cotton trees, which threaten grasslands,» says Arjun Kumar Rabha, a forest guard in Manas National Park, who has worked with pygmy pig conservationists for six years. . “Previously, grassland burning was not monitored due to socio-political unrest in the region. Now we practice controlled burning. «

The team also encourages the creation of fire lines between blocks of grassland to ensure flames do not spread and take a break for a few weeks between burns, allowing new vegetation to grow in other areas that pigs and other species depend on. the grasslands migrate.

The goal is to restore at least 11 square miles of grassland in Manas National Park by 2025, Deka says. Eventually, the pigs should repopulate the land and prosper, he says.