World's Tiniest Wild Pig Subject of Big Rescue Effort

Pallava Bagla
for National Geographic News
January 28, 2003
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, India—the 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.

Shrinking Habitat

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."

The PHCP captive breeding program may be the only thing standing between the pygmy hog and extinction, according to Narayan.

Beginning with six animals captured in the wild in 1996, the captive breeding program is now home to more than 75 pygmy hogs.

The program has proven so successful that pairing and mating are now being controlled at the breeding center to avoid overcrowding. DNA studies by the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India, are being conducted to avoid loss of genetic diversity.

"It is a good program, but its future will depend on successful release of captive-bred animals into the wild," said P. C. Bhattacharjee, head of animal ecology and wildlife biology at Guwahati University in Assam, India.

"There is an urgent need to develop an alternative research and breeding site," he said. "Putting all eggs in one basket is not such a good idea."

Reintroduction to the Wild

The population surveys conducted early on during the study are also being used to help researchers identify potential sites for reintroduction.

"The release into the wild is the real challenge now," said Bhattacharjee. "How safe is Manas as a reintroduction site? Not just in terms of the human factor, there is also the factor of other larger animals."

Bhattacharjee believes that an initial release into a small, restricted area to see how the animals acclimate before they're released fully into the wild is the best approach.

"This is very important, otherwise all the time and effort spent on the PHCP over the years will go to waste, if release into the wild is not successful," he said.

Other conservation measures recommended in the PHCP report include restoring grasslands and developing stronger management plans for the ecosystems.

A "coordinated and sustained effort by the authorities in collaboration with local conservation groups" is necessary to save the world's tiniest pig, said Narayan.

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