Bearded Pigs. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

Erik Meijaard: Saving the Jungle Hipster of Borneo

MAY 20, 2015

What is the most important wildlife species on Borneo? Depending on whom you ask this question, answers will surely vary.

A forestry official might argue that any tree of the dipterocarp family is obviously most important, because that’s where the timber cash is. And for the same reason, an oil palm grower would likely reply that the oil palm tree is by far the most important species.

Many people in Australia, Europe or North America may reply “the orangutan,” or maybe “the rhino” or “proboscis monkey,” because, after all, those species are highly threatened and many worry about their survival.

But ask a person from Borneo and the dominant answer would likely be quite different. In fact, I think that many would argue that the Bearded Pig is by far the most important. Are you surprised? Had you even heard of Bearded Pigs? Bear with me and I will explain.

First, a quick 101 on these pigs. This enigmatic species of wild pig occurs only in the southern part of Sumatra and on Borneo. And they indeed have beards, both males and females, and are thus true jungle hipsters, at least in the sense of the current popular beard subculture.

Interestingly, Bearded Pigs are among the very few rainforest species that makes long distance migrations, the kind of animal movement more associated with species like Wildebeest on open African savannas.

Every so many years, Bearded Pig populations erupt and thousands and thousands of pigs starts moving through the jungle.

One such migration which occurred in 1935 was described as follows: "For five or six weeks, at points sixty to a hundred miles [100-160 kilometers] apart, moves a steady stream of wild pigs, a few solitary, some family parties of seven or eight, many packs from fifteen to thirty of forty, occasionally convoys estimated at two hundred, sufficiently large to deter the natives from attack. Every ten minutes or quarter of an hour pigs pass by, a few large, old individuals, many of medium size, none in very fat condition. Silent, not quarrelsome, almost furtive, intent on something, looking round little, they push on undeterred by waiting natives, who club and spear them at river crossings until weary of pork. Whence came the pigs, and where they go none know."

Intriguing or what?

Now, depending on your religion, you may consider pigs to be rather gross or totally wonderful. Certainly, Christian communities on Borneo heavily rely on these pigs for meat and other products.

Studies in Malaysian Borneo indicated that between 54 percent and 72 percent of the dressed weight of all animals hunted is Bearded Pig meat. A hunting study in one remote village in Kalimantan showed that over a period of 21 months people caught 707 Bearded Pigs, which was probably more than 90 percent of the weight of all species caught. In a different hunting study, people in one village caught 429 Bearded Pigs in one year or about 81 percent of the dressed weight of all species. That adds up to a lot of pork!

For many millions of people on Borneo, Bearded Pigs are the most important source of meat, although apparently this is changing. Based on information from interviews across Borneo, Bearded Pig populations seem to be in decline. The big migrations have apparently stopped and increasingly small populations are now sedentary.

We don’t know what causes these population declines. Bearded Pigs feed heavily on seeds of dipterocarp trees, the same trees favored by the forestry officials mentioned above. With many such trees now gone, pigs may have fewer resources to feed on. Also, hunting pressure is and has always been high. But with forest habitats being fragmented, there may now be many small populations of pigs whereas in the past Borneo’s pigs were really one big population. Such small populations are easier to hunt to extinction and once gone the pigs may not be able to move back in.

So, declining pig populations are a worry for many people. If an estimated 4,000 Christian villages on Borneo catch on average 300 pigs per year at 50 kilograms of dressed meat per pig, and at a price of maybe $2 per kilogram, that would be $120 million per year of free meat. If that meat is no longer available, people would need to buy other meat in markets and for that they would need cash. In poor rural societies though, availability of cash is often limited. Declining wild pig populations could therefore have real impacts on people’s nutrition and health.

Many local people are very aware of the importance of pigs in their lives. In fact, I have found over the years that it is much easier to talk to people about Bearded Pigs than about a species like orangutans. In my experience, trying to talk to local people in Borneo about orangutans sends them to sleep or makes them change the subject within a few minutes. Start talking about pigs, though, and three days later they will still be telling new stories.

Bearded Pigs are what is called a cultural keystone species. They play a crucial role in many people’s lives.

So, what to do about declining populations? More research is needed, because we don’t know much about these pigs. But while that research is happening, management can be implemented as well. For example, experiments with no-hunting seasons or no-take zones could be conducted to see how this affects overall population trends.

Unless, we think that local communities could develop and implement these hunting controls themselves, such solutions require buy-in and policy assistance from government. Unfortunately, however, governments on Borneo have generally not paid much attention to pigs, maybe also because of religious reasons.

Interestingly, I came across an article about Bearded Pigs in a colonial-era newspaper from 1935 that noted exactly the same issue: “unregulated exploitation of the pigs could result in their disappearance, and one cannot expect the required [management] insights from these tribes, so that also here the Government will need to step in and make required arrangements.”

Right, that’s 80 years ago. So, when is the government going to step up to the task to ensure that Borneo’s Jungle Hipster is there to stay for the benefit of Borneo’s people?

Erik Meijaard coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative from Jakarta. 

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