This pygmy hogs the limelight

Sharada Balasubramanian | Updated on: Apr 07, 2011


Assam is home to the world's smallest and rarest wild suid (pigs), the Pygmy Hog ( Porcula salvania ). Bullet-shaped, standing just 25 cm tall, they were once widely found in the wet grasslands of the Himalayan foothills stretching from Uttar Pradesh to Assam, through Nepal terai and Bengal duars.

Today they are confined to a few pockets along Assam's border with Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, its only viable population exists in the Manas Tiger Reserve. The world conservation union (IUCN) has accorded the highest priority rating (Critically Endangered) for the pygmy hog, which is also listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act.

Importantly, the pygmy hog is also a sensitive indicator species. “The faster disappearance of these animals indicates that something is wrong with the habitat,” says Dr Goutam Narayan, Project Director, Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP). “Less-sensitive animals such as the wild pig or the rhinoceros will not die just because their habitat has become degraded. It is only the sensitive indicator species that highlight any disturbances in the environment. Hence, it is essential to save these species if we wish to conserve the biodiversity of any ecosystem,” he explains.

The grasslands are needed not just for the hogs, but also as a reservoir against floods. During rains the grasslands absorb water, which later drain into streams and groundwater systems, thereby providing water in the dry season.

The pygmy hog's habitat is endangered by human settlements, agricultural encroachments, cattle grazing, flood control schemes, planting of trees in the grasslands, and indiscriminate use of fires to clear grasslands for fresh growth of grass.

“Burning of grassland is the greatest threat to pygmy hogs, as they need thick cover and build grass nests throughout the year,” says Narayan.

“In 1961, it was believed that we had lost the species,” he adds. The animal was rediscovered in 1971 in Assam, but no detailed surveys were done until 1978, by which time only about five pygmy hog populations were left. Recommendations for the conservation of the grassland habitats were sent to the State and Central governments, but there was little action and four of the populations vanished.

In 1996, captive breeding was started at Manas National Park, but the animals could not be released into the wild due to non-availability of safe habitat. Finally, 35 captive-bred hogs were released at the Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary between 2008 and 2010. “Since we have established a breeding population in Sonai Rupai, we will release them in Orang National Park in the coming years,” says Narayan.

The habitat suited to pygmy hogs is equally crucial for the survival of several other endangered species such as the one-horned rhinoceros, tiger, swamp deer, wild buffalo, hispid hare and Bengal florican.

The pygmy hog conservation programme is sponsored by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT). Famous naturalist and author Gerald Durrell encouraged a tea planter, originally from UK's Jersey Island, to embark on a breeding programme for pygmy hogs after they were accidentally rediscovered at a local tea market in Assam.

As the grassland in a nearby reserve had been set on fire, the tiny pigs had scampered for safety into the tea bushes. Some labourers caught them, mistaking them to be wild pigs, and tried to sell them in the market. Although the tea planter managed to breed several pygmy hogs in captivity, unfortunately none of them survived. One captive-bred pair had been sent to Zurich Zoo where they produced a litter, but these too didn't survive.

Outlining the difficulties in captive breeding, Narayan says, “Usually you need 12 to 15 founder animals to start a breeding project, but we were only allowed to capture six. Nevertheless in five years, the numbers grew 12 times over.”

The conservation programme for this highly threatened species and its equally endangered habitat is currently conducted under a memorandum of understanding between IUCN/SSC Wild Pigs Specialist Group, DWCT, the Forest Department, Government of Assam, and the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Locally, the programme is managed by EcoSystems-India, a trust for biodiversity conservation.

Published on April 07, 2011
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