Who would think that pigs could be special? People usually scoff at domestic pigs and their wild cousins (both being subspecies of Sus scrofa). Their reputation for being unclean and the contempt they are held in by adherents of certain faiths might have contributed to such a reputation. But there is a species of pig (to be more precise, a member of the family Suidae, to which they all belong, regardless of genus) that is indeed special. I am speaking about the Pygmy Hog (Porcula salvania) that is found only in Northeast India. Once upon a time, Pygmy Hogs ranged all over the wet grasslands south of the Himalayan foothills, stretching from Uttar Pradesh in the west to Assam in the east. Apart from India, they were to be found in Nepal and Bhutan. It was thought that they had gone extinct in the 1960s but were rediscovered in 1971.
The sole surviving representative of the genus Porcula, the Pygmy Hog presents a picture of contrast to its much bigger cousin, the Wild Boar (Sus scrofa), which can reach staggering dimensions (350 kg in weight and 125 cm at the shoulder) in places like Manchuria. The Pygmy Hog is a true midget (10 kg in weight and 30 cm at the shoulder). They survive in Assam’s Manas Tiger Reserve, north of the Brahmaputra River, near the India-Bhutan border. Few people in India have even heard of the Pygmy Hog. It is not included among the charismatic fauna of the region even though it happens to be rarer than the Bengal Tiger or Indian Rhino. There are only 150 of these adorable creatures in the world, a far cry from the tens of thousands of Boars roaming the Indian countryside. No wonder conservationists put it in the Critically Endangered category.
Given below is an excerpt from the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species describing the habitat and ecology of the little ruminant:
The Pygmy Hog is the smallest and the rarest wild suid in the world. This species is dependent on early successional riverine communities, typically comprising dense tall grasslands, commonly referred to as ‘thatchland’, but which, in its pristine state, is intermixed with a wide variety of herbaceous plants and early colonizing shrubs and young trees (Oliver and Deb Roy 1993). There are many species of tall grasses, which dominate in different situations. The most important of these communities for Pygmy Hogs are those which tend to be dominated by Saccharum munja, S. spontaneum, S. bengalensis, Themeda villosa, Narenga porphyrocoma and Imperata cylindrica, which form characteristic associations of 1 to 4 m height, during secondary stages of the succession on well drained ground. These communities are not, therefore, maintained by prolonged inundation, though they may be maintained by periodic burning. However, as they also include some of the most commercially important thatching grasses, some of these areas (including many of those in protected areas) are harvested annually and virtually all of them are subject to wide-scale annual (in some areas, twice-annual) burning. Although it has been suggested by ecologists that any burning be conducted at the beginning of the dry season (in December or early January) in alternate blocks (demarcated by fire-lines) and only once in 2-3 years, most of the grasslands continue to be burnt every year in the dry season, which deleteriously affects their floral and faunal diversity. It has been recognised that some amount of “early” burning may be required in order to preclude the possibility of later, uncontrolled ‘hot’ burns, which are far more destructive, and possibly to delay natural succession of the grasslands in protected areas. However, early burning also may deprive hogs and other grassland dependant species of cover and other resources for a longer period prior to the regrowth of vegetation and has the same consequences of dramatically reducing floral and faunal diversity.
The species name salvinia is derived from the Sal (Shorea robusta) forests with which it was associated. However, they actually prefer grasslands formed by water-loving species (such as Munja, Kans, Baruwa, and Chero). They are also very unusual in their habits. Pygmy Hogs are active during the day, travelling in (maternal) family groups of 4-6 (one to two mature females accompanied by offspring). Adult males are solitary but form loose associations with neighboring females. The group goes about in a single file, through the grass, searching for roots, tubers, fruits, seeds, eggs, insects, worms, and carrion. They also build nests to shelter themselves and their young from the elements, a unique habit among pigs (and even many ruminants). This is done by digging trenches and depressions which are then lined with dry grass and vegetation. Several efforts are being undertaken to preserve the species by the likes of Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (Assam) and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (Britain).
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows an illustration of the Pygmy Hog (dating back to 1853) taken from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. It was painted by a German artist famed for his natural history paintings, Joseph Wolf (1820-1899).