May 8, 2009

Conservationists Watching ‘World’s Smallest Pig’ Population

Conservationists report that the world's smallest and rarest pigs are "thriving" following their release into the wild last year, BBC News reported.

The captive-bred pygmy hogs have adapted well to their new home in the grasslands of Assam in India, according to evidence from camera-trap footage and surveys.

More of the Pygmy hogs "” which stand just 10 inches tall and weigh only 13-20 pounds "” will be introduced into the habitat in the near future.

Very few of the tiny pigs are thought to exist in the wild.

"It is an enigmatic and shy creature and it's about the size of a small dog," said Professor John Fa, director of conservation science at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, one of the partners in the Pygmy Hog Conservation Program (PHCP).

He said the creatures are very well adapted to living in grasslands due to their bullet shape and sloping backs"”a feature of animals that live in very thick vegetation.
The pigs are thought to have once spanned the southern edge of the Himalayas in the Indian sub-continent, scientists said.

Now only one population is currently known to exist in the wild and researchers say their habitat, at Manas National Park in the state of Assam, is under threat.

"The practice of indiscriminate dry-season annual burning and uncontrolled livestock grazing threatens the last surviving wild population of pygmy hogs in Manas and, if continued, will doubtless also affect many other threatened and sensitive grassland species," said William Oliver, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Pigs, Peccaries and Hippos Specialist Group.

Conservationists began a captive-breeding program in 1996 in a bid to boost the pigs' numbers and 16 of these pygmy hogs (seven males and nine females) were released into the Sonai Rupai wildlife sanctuary in May 2008.

"Since the release, we have been doing very extensive surveys every month to find out how they are using their habitat," Fa said.

He said like all pigs they build nests and that allows the researchers to see where they have spent the night.

Fa also said surveys and camera-trap footage suggest that up to two-thirds of the released pigs are thriving, and one of the female pigs may have given birth.

Soon another 14 captive-bred hogs currently being held in a "pre-release" facility will be released into the same area, according to the PHCP.

"Here, we don't have much contact with them, they are out on their own and we feed them very little so they have to forage - we are preparing them for the wild," said Dr. Goutam Narayan, who heads the PHCP in India.

Conservationists say the released animals are helping them to better understand the wild pigs, which are extremely hard to study.

"I call it 'reverse pig-ology'," Fa said.  "From these [released] pigs, we can learn how they choose certain types of grassland, how they behave in certain areas etc. And this information can then be applied to the wild pigs."