By Bindu Gopal Rao
Photo is courtesy of Aaryanak
Did you know that there is a breed of pig that can fit in your palm? Well, as strange as that sounds, there is a species that is a mere 10-inches tall and this is the Pygmy Hog. The tiny animal sadly is critically endangered as it is losing its habitat. However, there is a ray of hope now as Aaranyak, an environment and conservation organization has stepped in to help. Their mission is to protect the Eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspots using legal and policy research for biodiversity management. Aaranyak has helped ensure that the numbers of the pygmy hog are rising. With expert environmental scientists, researchers, legal advisors, community workers and educators, Aaranyak’s primary aim is to devise a management plan for the tall, wet, sub-Himalayan grasslands that are linked to the survival of many endangered species like the pygmy hog. And they have received a grant from The Habitats Trust, an organization that has collaborated with reliable partners for the conservation of several endangered, and lesser-known species through projects across India.
Trisha Ghose, Project Director, The Habitats Trust
Trisha Ghose, Project Director of The Habitats Trust says, “we have partnered with Aaranyak in Assam to conserve the Pygmy Hog by securing and recovering grassland habitats in Manas National Park, the last stronghold of this critically endangered species.” The Habitats Trust Grants have provided a platform for conservationists from remote corners of India, working in diverse landscapes and with varied species, to come together and be part of a network of like-minded people who endeavor to secure a future for our natural habitats and indigenous species.”
A COLLABORATIVE EFFORT
For some historical perspective and an understanding of the roles of the organization, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has been involved with the conservation of the pygmy hog since 1971. It’s this organization that initiated the partnership program in 1995 to save the pygmy hog and its sub-Himalayan grassland habitat. Aaranyak joined the partnership in the beginning of 2018 and is involved in the activity of the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) through the Threatened Species Recovery Program of the organization. Conservation breeding of pygmy hogs is a key activity of PHCP. Some governmental entities involved are the Forest Department, Government of Assam and the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, and the government of India.
BOOSTING NUMBERS of pygmy hogs
“The conservation work has ensured that the numbers of the pygmy hog are seeing an upward trajectory. From 1996 to 2019, 165 litters with 644 babies have been born and about 418 (65%) of them have survived beyond the age of three months. These hogs are taught to survive independently at a pre-release facility. The released hogs are then monitored using field signs (nests, forage marks, footprints and droppings), and camera traps and radio-telemetry. A camera trap study at RG Orang NP and sign survey revealed that reintroducing the population has helped in breeding and expanding the population of the pygmy hogs. Surveys are being carried out to identify and restore other protected grasslands in the sub-Himalayan region for reintroduction,” says Dr. Parag Deka, Project Director, PHCP, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. PHCP also conducts grassland research to find out how best to manage these habitats, as well as working with local communities and frontline protection staff for the proper conservation of threatened grasslands, the home of the pygmy hogs.
Food brought by villagers to the sanctuary.
COVID-19 CHANGES PLANS
From mid-February to mid-April, the team usually conducts the seasonal field sign survey of the pygmy hog. This year they have conducted the sign survey in 70% area of pygmy hog habitat in Manas and abandoned the survey in the rest of the area due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Deka reports, “At the beginning of the lockdown, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam declared our work related to captive animals as an essential service. This helps us with the movement of our vets in both the sites. Usually our animal keepers live inside the campus so captive management of hogs has not been affected in both the sites. However, we have not been able to buy raw food for Basistha Centre as all fruit and vegetable markets are closed in Guwahati. So, we contacted the Guwahati Zoo, and they sent food for our hogs through their feed suppliers. We had enough stores for our dry food. The local grocery shop who usually supplies dry food for the hogs, himself drove to our center and dropped food for us. In fact, this helped the villagers as well, as the local markets that they sold their produce (pineapples, coconut, sweet potato, sugarcane, banana, tapioca) were closed. We would pay cash immediately on receiving the produce.
ANOTHER TERRIFYING THREAT
On a sad and frightening note, the outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF) in Assam from the latter part of April — that has no treatment or vaccine — is a new challenge, and the team has upgraded their biosecurity to level 3 (the maximum possible level). Nevertheless, the work being done by Aaranyak is certainly worthwhile even as the world battles the raging pandemic.
Ensuring biodiversity by enabling the survival of little known (and often uncared about) species is what will aid in reclaiming a healthy future for all.
Bindu Gopal Rao is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bengaluru. She has a special interest in the environment. She likes bird watching and looking for local and unusual angles in any destination. You can follow her on Instagram @bindugopalrao and see her work on www.bindugopalrao.com