In life, timing is everything. This is certainly true for the Critically Endangered pygmy hog (Porcula salvania) of north eastern India. Each December for the past six years, project director Goutam Narayan and project manager Parag Deka make the 200km journey from breeding facilities in Basistha to the pre-release facility in Potasali in Nameri Tiger Reserve in Assam to make a special delivery.
In convoy is a batch of captive-bred young pygmy hogs en route to large pre-release enclosures with simulated grassland habitat where they will learn the necessary skills for life in the wild at the beginning of the rainy season in May. He explains, “We have to release them at the beginning of the rainy season to give them opportunities to establish themselves with soft soil underfoot”.
The project is supported by the SOS-Save Our Species coalition in which IUCN is a partner, and carried out by EcoSystems-India in collaboration with the Assam Forest Department, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and IUCN's Wild Pig Specialist Group.
According to Narayan, pre-release habituation to their wild surroundings through life in holding pens that mimic the wild is crucial to their survival. Each pen, measuring about 3200 square metres is home to a group of 4-5 animals for five months. Pygmy hog natural habitat consists of relatively flat terrain covered in densely packed 2 metre high ‘elephant grass’ and the hogs need to learn to become independent in as natural a setting as possible before being released. The process takes place in a gradual, phased approach allowing the hogs opportunities to learn to feed and forage, to defend themselves from predators and acquire general survival skills while socialising with other members of the group.
Over the course of the months for example, the pygmy hogs’ nutrition ration is reduced step by step from 90% to 30% or 20% while they also practice techniques such as hiding to avoid predators and become accustomed to less and less human interaction. Even though the thick grass cover makes it virtually impossible for conservationists to visually track released animals, predators such as hawks and snakes are specially adapted for a hunting life in such landscape. Consequently novel techniques such as offering some delicacies in a small corralled area visible from a hide allow Deka and his team to discreetly inspect the animals and monitor their development toward self-sufficiency over the learning period.
Found only in tall dense grasses among the of the foothill plains in the Brahmaputra valley, pygmy hogs are incredibly shy and are almost never seen. Indeed, this monitoring period is one of the rare opportunities to watch the animals’ behaviours. When the animals are released in the wild, scientists track individuals normally by monitoring their nests, droppings, footprints and foraging marks. At times camera traps are deployed carefully to capture their images and identify marked individuals and Narayan’s team has implemented radio telemetry tracking on a number of individuals released in 2011 and 2012, albeit with limited success.
Apart from being an amazing species in its own right the pygmy hog is also a very important species for the rich grasslands of this region acting as an indicator for the health of the ecosystem. The tall alluvial wet grassland belt just south of the Himalayan foothills also happens to be home to a number of other highly threatened species, such as the Bengal florican, hispid hare, barasingha, and wild buffalo. The grassland is also used extensively by rhino, elephant, tiger, hog deer and a number of small animals such as endangered turtles.
The project to save the pygmy hog also gives conservationists an opportunity to address the larger question about conservation and management of one of India's most biodiversity rich habitat. Furthermore, these wet grasslands also help in maintaining long term ecological and economic well being of the region because they serve as a buffer against floods in the rainy season while maintaining high groundwater levels during the dry season, indirectly benefiting farming communities living in the fringe areas as well.
With the wet season approaching, the project is also preparing for the media coverage surrounding the planned releases. The event draws attention from local press and television channels, representing an ideal opportunity to promote the diminutive pygmy hog as a small but crucial cog in the intricate grasslands of Assam.