for National Geographic News
Guwahati, Assam, India The smallest wild pig in the world is taking its first, hesitant steps back from the brink of extinction.
Researchers in the late 1970s estimated that there were fewer than 150 pygmy hogs living in the wild. While their range had once extended from the foot of the Himalayas in northeast India to Nepal and Bhutan, by the early 1990s, the tiny animals were confined to two isolated pockets in northwest Assam, Indiathe Manas Tiger Reserve and the Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary.
They are believed to be extinct in the two countries neighboring India, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the pygmy hog, Sus salvanius, as critically endangered.
Although the tiny wild pig is still considered one of the most threatened of all mammals, thanks to conservation measures and a captive breeding program those numbers have improved. While providing exact population estimates for this very shy animal that inhabits vast grasslands is very difficult, Goutam Narayan, a wildlife expert with the Pygmy Hog Conservation Program (PHCP), estimates that today there may be as many as a few hundred individuals living in the wild.
Still, scientists are worried.
"The pygmy hog is an important indicator species, and we need to know why it is disappearing faster than other less sensitive species," said Narayan.
Under the auspices of the PHCP, a consortium of government and private organizations formed in 1995, researchers embarked on a seven-year study to document the tiny animal's numbers, identify the problems they face, recommend remedial actions, and bring their plight to the attention of the public. Their recently released report offers hope for the future of the pygmy hog.
Human settlements, encroachment by farmlands, overuse of land by livestock, and commercial forestry have all contributed to losses in the specialized grassy habitat that serves as home to the pygmy hog. Flood control programs and uncontrolled seasonal burning have also damaged the grasslands.
In addition to loss of habitat, political unrest and military action are impacting wildlife populations even in the reserves.
"Illegal trapping and killing of wildlife in Manas has already taken a toll on larger mammals, such as the rhinoceros, tiger, swamp deer, and hog deer," said Narayan. "In the absence of effective protection measures, it has begun to affect even smaller species such as pygmy hogs."
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