The Unusual Bearded Pig of Borneo

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What is the most important animal or plant species on Borneo? Depending on whom you ask, you will surely get very different answers. The timber towkay would say Borneo’s giant hardwood trees are the most important, because one tree alone could buy you a house. The oil palm grower would reply the oil palm tree. People in Australia or Europe may reply “the orangutan”, because it is highly threatened and many worry about its survival.

But ask a native Iban or Kenyah person, and their most likely reply would be the wild pig. There is only one species of wild pig on Borneo, called the bearded pig because of its prominent beard. They grow to 100kg, large individuals reaching six feet in length with long curving tusks. The bearded pig occurs only on Borneo, southern Sumatra and south-eastern peninsular Malaysia.

Interestingly, the bearded pig does something few other rainforest species do: they migrate over long distances. Just like the great herds of zebra in Africa, every few years, bearded pig populations erupt and move across Borneo’s jungles in their thousands - one of Borneo’s most spectacular natural phenomenon. One such migration, recorded in 1935, was described as follows: ‘For five or six weeks, at points sixty to a hundred miles apart, moves a steady stream of wild pigs, a few solitary, some family parties of seven or eight, many packs from fifteen to thirty or forty, occasionally convoys estimated at two hundred. Whence came the pigs, and where they go, no one knows.’

Depending on religion, pigs can be rather gross, or totally wonderful. Certainly, non-muslim communities on Borneo have always relied heavily on pigs for meat and other products. A study in one remote village in Indonesian Borneo recorded 707 pigs hunted over a period of 21 months. Another study showed that one village caught 429 pigs in one year, about 81% of the total weight of all animals they hunted. That’s about 30 tons of pork!

For many millions of people on Borneo, for many hundreds of years, the bearded pig has been the most important source of meat. This may be changing. Based on information from interviews across Borneo, pig populations in forests seem to be declining. The big spectacular migrations seem to have disappeared entirely in some parts of Borneo. It is believed that today, most bearded pig populations are small and sedentary, meaning they stay in one place.

We don’t know what causes these population declines. Bearded pigs feed heavily on seeds of dipterocarp trees, the same trees sought after by the timber companies. With many such trees now gone, pigs may have fewer resources to feed on. Also, hunting pressure is, and has always been, high.

Declining pig populations are a worry for many people. If an estimated 4,000 pre-dominantly non-muslim villages on Borneo catch on average 300 pigs per year at 50 kg of meat per pig, and at a market price of between 10 and 20 Ringgit per kg, that would be between 600 million and 1.2 billion Ringgit per year of free meat. If that meat is no longer available, people would need to buy other meat in markets, with cash. In poor rural societies though, availability of cash is often limited. Declining 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. It is a fact that it is much easier to talk to people about pigs than about orangutans. Try having a conversation in a longhouse about orangutans, and you will send them to sleep, or the subject will change within a few minutes. Start talking about pigs, and three days later they will still be telling new stories.

The bearded pig is what is called a cultural keystone species. They play a crucial role in many people’s lives.

As we forge ahead into the 21st century, with a view to a Borneo that has all its cultural attributes intact and thriving, the bearded pig cannot be ignored. We need to better understand this wonderful species, in order to continue benefiting from its presence. We need to conduct scientific research on it. We also need to begin managing pig populations. There are many ways we can manage wild animals like pigs, such as designated hunting periods and areas, and setting up areas where no hunting is allowed.

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, perhaps because of religious reasons? Regardless, action is needed to ensure that Borneo’s bearded pig is here to stay for the benefit of Borneo’s people.

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