Sometime in July 2017, in his small room near Assam’s Nameri National Park, wildlife conservationist Parag Deka saw something that made his heart stop. What followed was almost childlike excitement that he says led him to “jump up and down on his bed”. He immediately picked up his phone and called his boss, Dr Goutam Narayan. He then sent a text to another colleague in London: “Spotted hogs in two locations — mother with newborn babies.”
What Deka had seen was a camera trap picture of a newborn pygmy hog with its mother, in Assam’s Orang National Park. The subject of the photograph, which many would not notice at all or mistake for a big rat, was for Deka a “Nobel prize”.
Behind the euphoria lies a decade-long story of the search for an elusive little pig, started by author and naturalist Gerald Durrell, and taken forward by a few enthusiastic young men, who made it their life’s mission to find it. Over the past 10 years, over 100 pygmy hogs have been released in Assam after a successful conservation breeding program. Just last week, six hogs were released into the Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary, taking the number to 122.
“It was almost 11 pm that night, and I had already gone through 2,000 pictures captured by our camera trap. I was dejected,” says Deka, who is the current project director of the Pygmy Hog Conservation Program (PHCP), “Maybe our project was futile.”
And then he saw the picture of the newborn, partially hidden by the blades of the tall grasslands.
“I rechecked all the 2,000 photos and saw one more, and thought to myself, ‘my life’s work is done’,” says Deka, “I can now die in peace.”
A Wild Pig Chase
Deka’s camera trap revelation was concrete proof that the concerted conservation breeding program labelled “Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme” (PHCP) established in 1996 by conservation biologist Dr Goutam Narayan and William Oliver of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT) was indeed successful. However, the path as with most conservation programs, was arduous, and rife with hits and misses.
The Pygmy Hog, or Porcula Salvania, is extremely rare, and thrives in Terai grassland habitats. It is also the smallest species of wild pig in the world — and till just a few years back, was almost extinct. First discovered by British ethnographer BH Hodgson in 1847, the pygmy hog population declined at an alarming rate, and by the early 1970s, was restricted to the regions of Assam’s Manas and Barnadi wildlife sanctuaries.
“It had become a ‘stuck species’, or a species stuck to a particular area,” says Deka.
In this case, there was a small population in the Manas National Park, the only place where progeny of the founder population survive till date. Earlier, the hog was found in the narrow, wet grasslands at the foothills of the Himalayas, all the way from Uttar Pradesh to Assam.
However, habitat loss, spurred on by the burning of grasslands by an ever-increasing human population, was the main cause for its numbers falling. Former International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Wild Pig Specialist Group chair, the late William Oliver, in his 1989 paper titled “The Pygmy Hog and The Hispid Hare”, pointed out that the hogs were more susceptible to habitat loss because they lived in more accessible, lower-lying areas that shared boundaries with village settlements, thus resulting in increased pressure.
Sometimes in the 1960s, thousands of miles away in Jersey, Durrell was greatly intrigued by the elusive little pig. He told an Assam-based tea planter named J. Tessier-Yandell to find it. Back in the Tezpur Station Club, Yandell directed his men to keep their eyes peeled “for a tiny pig — about 25 cm in height.” All was quiet for a while, but then an accidental rediscovery led to a renewed interest in the species.
In 1971, Dick Graves, the manager at the Attareekhat Tea Estate, was informed by his labourers of a rare pig being sold in the local market near the Barnadi Wildlife sanctuary. Over the next two months, 12 pygmy hogs were delivered to Graves. Grassland burning had led the hogs to flee their original home, and they found themselves seeking refuge in the ditches of the neighbouring tea gardens.
It was at the Attareekhat and Paneery Tea Estate that the first captive inhabitation of the pygmy hog officially started — and the years that followed saw some enthusiastic, and unstructured, attempts to save the hog. In 1976, one pair was sent to the Assam Zoo, and another to the Zurich Zoo.
In 1977, DWCT’s Oliver, came to Assam and travelled all over Terai belt looking for the hog. And in 1978, Durrell himself landed here, but could not spot it anywhere in the wild. He finally saw it in the Assam zoo.
By the 1995, the hog was confirmed as a “stuck species”.
“Many factors contributed to it, including political ones. During the 1947 Partition, parts of the contested Terai belt between India and Nepal saw an increased influx of immigrants from the latter. Many people from the hills migrated to plains — and while it was a move egged on by political ambitions, the hog bore the brunt of it,” says Deka.
A Happy Hog
In 1995 — the year Durrell died— the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) was set up: an initiative started by Narayan and Oliver, in collaboration with the Assam government, the Jersey-based Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT), the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Changes (Government of India), IUCN as well as local NGO EcoSystems India and Aaranyak. Narayan started working in conservation in the 1980s at the Bombay Natural History Society. After the PHCP, he founded EcoSystems in 2000, which worked for biodiversity conservation. “He along with Oliver are perhaps the two main people because of which PHCP has been such a success,” says Deka, “Oliver passed away in 2014 — he witnessed part of the success story.” Narayan, who served as the project director of PHCP till January 2018, was joined by Deka, a young veterinary graduate for a two month internship in 1997. The latter ended up staying for 21 years, and serves as its current project director.
“We realised if we wanted the hog to survive and build a captive population for reintroduction, we need to make it happy by keeping them in a stress-free environment,” says Deka.
The PHCP’s plan was to capture a few founders from the existing population, breed them at a centre, and then reintroduce them into the wild. What made this initiative different was that it was more organised, scientific and structured.
In 1996, six wild hogs (2 males, 4 females) were caught from Manas National Park, and re-homed in a custom built research and breeding centre at Basistha, near Guwahati. Over the next two years, the hog population doubled from 18 to 35.
“But before we released them back to the wild, we realised it was necessary to have a soft release — the hogs had become used to us humans feeding and looking after them,” Deka says.
For the soft release, enclosures were established at Potasali, near the Nameri National Park.
“Here we would observe them from a machan platform so they could not see us,” says Deka.
After five to six months, when the hogs felt “independent enough”, they would be released into the wild.
“But in the wilderness too, they are closely tracked — we put camera traps and ear tagging devices to keep a record of their progress,” he says. Recently, a new stomach implant has been made and is under trial.
Since 2008, 122 pygmy hogs have trotted their way back to independence. The first release included 35 hogs in the Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary, between 2008 and 2010. The two other areas marked for reintroduction were the Orang National Park, and Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary. 59 hogs were reintroduced in Orang between 2011 and 2015.
The last reintroduction was in Barnadi, with 22 earlier, and six just last week in May 2018. Durrell’s elusive hogs, which he wasn’t lucky enough to even spot during his visit to Assam in 1978, are now estimated at 400 (inclusive of the captive, the rehabilitated and the wild).
The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT), which works in 18 countries across the world, especially focuses on small species, not just the big ones like tigers, rhinos and elephants.
This is important because it is only through smaller species, such as the pygmy hog, that one can determine the “health of a habitat”. The hog, unlike boars who build nests only for breeding, live in their grass-built nests through out the year.
“These creatures are specialised to live in grasslands, and if anything goes wrong with the grasslands, they will be the first to disappear,” explains Deka.
This sparks alarm bells for the bigger species. “If the hogs are still around, you know that everything is still okay with the grasslands,” he says.
The Trust is also engaged in a long-term plan of “re-wilding” the Manas National Park’s grasslands of — basically habitat restoration and management.
“We also are trying to raise awareness about grassland degradation. First, we have told forest authorities to do the burning in the mid part of the dry season (January-February) instead of during the early season (November-December), which is usually their mating period and the late season (March-May), which is the last stage for gestation for a hog. Second, we have also suggested an introduction of a fire line between two grasslands — this ensures controlled burning,” Deka says.
Since then all three reintroduction areas — Sonai Rupai, Orang and Barnadi — has seen effective grassland rehabilitation.
“What the hog needs now, more than ever, is increased awareness,” says Deka. In 2017, UK-based DWCT worker Daniel Craven made a documentary titled Durrell’s Underhogs to highlight “how the world’s smallest pig has learnt to survive on their own four feet”.
Today, the program is arguably one of the most successful conservation breeding initiatives.
“Such things are only possible with personal and organisational commitment,” says Deka, “It needs to take over your life.”