When you’re out there in the jungle, looking at wildlife, different animals evoke different reactions: chitals are beautiful, sambhars bristly, elephants inspire awe, rhinos have that lovely rolling gait, nilgais are really ungainly and need to improve their posture, blackbucks are snooty as royalty at the Ascot racecourse, and, of course, the big cats take your breath away and make you want to go to the bathroom, right now! But of all the denizens (monkeys included), only one makes you grin every time: Sus scrofa, aka the wild boar.
They’re built and behave like squat, pugnacious armoured cars as they bash their way through the undergrowth, snorting and snuffling and ploughing up the earth JCB fashion. They get on with their business of snaffling up whatever they find and seem to enjoy nothing better than scratching their bums against a rock bogey style — something that never fails to have you in splits — or blissfully wallow in a mudhole. When freaked out, their babies, with backs like squirrels, scamper off as fast as their little legs will carry them, tails up like the antennae on VIP cars.
As a species, they’ve done extremely well, spreading out from the islands of SE Asia into Eurasia and north Africa, with distant lookalikes in the Americas. They’ve given us the domestic pig. Of the 16 or so subspecies in the world, two are found in India — the Indian wild boar and the rare pygmy hog, confined to northern Assam and till 1971 thought to be extinct. The big brother, alas, is considered a nuisance.
The secret of the species’ success worldwide is simple. They’re tough, adaptable and not at all fussy about where they live or what they eat. Everything and anything goes — roots, tubers, rhizomes, vegetables, fruit, leaves, twigs, small animals and birds, carrion, garbage, crops and even leftovers of the kills of big cats (they’ve been known to drive leopards from their rightful kills). They’ve paid for their success, big time, too. They appear in the mythology of many cultures — Egyptian, Greek, Anglo-Saxon and our own — and have been equally enthusiastically hunted (including by Obelix). In India, the maharajas and British took to “pig-sticking” with gusto — riding after boars with spears — a sport which was considered a test of mettle especially for those wanting to join the army. The father of the Scout movement, Robert Baden-Powell, even wrote a book on the subject insisting (without, of course, getting a direct quote from the animal) that even the boars enjoyed the hunt.
When cornered, the wild boar made a ferocious opponent and fought fearlessly and if it caught you on the ground, your nether regions would end up looking very messy indeed. Apart from us, wild boars are also hunted by wolves (in Europe) and leopards and tigers (in our part of the world) and by the infamous Komodo dragon on Komodo island.
They are not easy pickings though and are well armed for battle: males (of the Indian sub-species) stand about three feet at the shoulder, and may consist of 500 lbs of fighting muscle and protective fat. Curved tushes on both lower and upper jaws, a powerful flat snout and massive head used like a shovel will ensure that enemies get carved up good and proper. It can come at you at 40 kmph and does not back down. It’ll hit you, step back, check the damage done and if you’re still moving, hit you again, till you stop moving.
They are renowned for their courage, ever ready to fight to the finish, no matter what size you are. During the rutting season, usually just before and after the monsoon in India, males develop a sort of armour coating of subcutaneous tissue, which may be just over an inch thick, stretching from the back of their massive shoulders to the rump, which protect their vital parts during their battles over the girls. A famous account of one such battle describes how the two master boars squared off against one another, while a gathering of as many as 170 spectators surrounded them to watch. A boar may pair with four or five sows, and by the end of it, is usually a very battered and exhausted animal.
For all their macho image, wild boars actually live in a matriarchal society. The sounder is led by an old matriarch and the group consists of sows and their piglets including baba-males, who are made to find their own way in the world at between eight and 15 months of age. Litters average four to six piglets and sibling rivalry is cutthroat, and mortality high. Their sense of smell is acute, but hearing and sight are not as good. In the wild, they may live for about 12 years, and if a sow dies prematurely, other females in the sounder will look after her orphaned piglets.
In spite of their ferocious reputation, they make you laugh. There’s something so brisk and business-like about the way they get on with their lives and move — snuffling, snorting, always so interested in what they’re doing or discovering, their small eyes twinkling with good humour and intelligence. But then, I guess it’s easy to have a soft corner for these handsome, charismatic brutes as long as the field or garden they’re destroying is not yours.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird-watcher