Pygmy Hog Conservation: Hunting for genetic diversity in the long grass of Assam

To save the Pygmy Hog species first you have to catch a Pygmy Hog, or two. But quite how one captures such a shy, diminutive animal – India’s most threatened mammal - is partly science, partly experience and a lot of luck. So the successful capture of 3 wild hogs in March 2013 represented an important if small contribution to the captive breeding gene pool.

The capture team is composed of both Elephants and pedestrian beaters.

According to Goutam Narayan, director of the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) implemented by EcoSystems India, an SOS -Save Our Species grantee, the captive population he founded in 1996 with his first batch of hogs continually needs new blood. This new blood will improve the prospects of future reintroduced populations. Starting with 6 animals, Narayan has periodically replenished his breeding stock with wild capture three times since the project began.

Genetic diversity for captive breeding is key but it is not easy to acquire, Narayan confides with a wry smile over a cup of chai tea. Considering their size, habits and habitat, finding wild Pygmy Hogs is literally like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Then there is the challenge of capturing them! They are notoriously elusive, even with appropriate netting and coordinated flushing using trained elephants and personnel. After years of attempts, Narayan is confident of just one thing: that nothing is certain.

The recovery programme, that has successfully reintroduced two populations in Assam, has already released 60 captive bred hogs into the wild over the last five years. After a failed capture attempt in 2012, the pressure is now on to find new animals in 2013 to ensure the programme builds on its successes to date. Fortunately the wild gene pool is growing and diversifying with each release. This year, another batch of 14 hogs was released in May. These numbers are significant in light of the fact that the last naturally surviving population of the species may now count less than 200 animals.

This year, after trying for two weeks the project team managed to trap a male and two female Pygmy Hogs. Some of the critical success factors in Narayan’s attempts include:

1. Permits: Pygmy Hogs are Critically Endangered animals living in a National Park. Even if you have been doing this for years, you need permission from several government organisations before you even consider going in there with your elephants and mahouts.

2. Timing: March is the best time after the extensive annual grass burning between December and February. The hogs are confined to the pockets of fresh grass and should be easier to flush out.

3. Equipment: The list is long and includes specially hand-made nets, 40-50 metres in length; a team of elephants and mahouts; especially designed boxes for transporting individual animals; veterinarian and veterinary supplies at the ready and tea for the team – these are long days.

4. Persistence: Altogether the team did 72 drives over 6 days in 2 parts of the park. That’s 10-15 drives a day, capturing 3 animals in total. That’s a lot of tea and a few hogs!

5. A soft touch: Transporting such precious cargo requires a light touch, gently placing the animals in their crates along with some of the hog’s favourite nibbles followed by peace and quiet to allow them to adapt to their new surroundings 3 hours drive away in Potasali - headquarters for Narayan’s breeding progamme.

Reflecting on the success of the operation, Narayan is preparing now for the next phases in the project’s annual cycle with a greater degree of confidence for the pygmy hog’s future. New blood means new hope. With the annual release of captive bred hogs taking place each April or May and the growing media interest around the event the glimmer of hope is getting brighter by the year.

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