When Pigs Have Wings
Yesterday, I saw a funny,
heart-warming movie titled "When Pigs Have Wings (Le Cochon de Gaza)", a hilarious satire on the absurdity of Arab-Isreali relations. In the film, Jafaar, a poor old fisherman of Gaza, unexpectedly reels in a live, screeching pot-bellied pig in his net. Not only does he find the black swine ugly, but also offensive as an "impure" beast for both the Palestinian and Jewish communities. His life is at stake as he tries to get rid of the animal, and crazy misadventures soon follow the arrival of the huge hog.
Hogging The Headlines
The movie prodded me on a current hot topic in urban Singapore, where Wild Pigs (Sus scrofa vittatus) had been hogging headlines since June 2012. Not in recent years have Singaporean wildlife netted so much sensation. Some might ask: are wild pigs even classified as wildlife? Answer: Wild Pigs or Wild Boars (Sus scrofa vittatus) are mammals native to Singapore, and are indeed part of our precious biodiversity protected by the Wild Animals and Birds Act (Chap. 351).(1)
Being incurable gourmands, more opportunistic Singaporeans followed swiftly with the inevitable question - can culled wild boar meat be sold and eaten?
The answer is an emphatic "NO" from Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA): "Without proper processing, wild boar meat may not be safe for consumption, as wild boars may carry zoonotic parasites and diseases. As such, meat from wild boars which are caught here cannot be sold." - Ms Seah Huay Leng, Director, Food Establishment Regulation Department for CEO, Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA), on 25 Jul 2012 on Straits Times Forum.(2)
Extraordinary Potential Of Pigs
If you have been both fascinated and repulsed by pigs, you'll be convinced they are worth a second look when you read "The Whole Hog" by Lyall Watson (1939-2008).(3) Watson (author, botanist, biologist, zoologist, ethologist and anthropologist), who studied pigs across three decades on three continents, shares a thing or two to shed light on any misguided perceptions about pigs: "Pigs are most engaging of all hoofed animals, but the sad truth is that we know very little about them. Pigs are gregarious, intelligent, caring, resourceful and reasonable beings every bit as bright as elephants and great apes."
What Pigs Are
So what are pigs? Pigs are ungulates (hoofed mammals), have snouts with super sense of smell, are very social like you and I, live closely in a maternal herd called sounder which bear strong resemblance to elephant society. That explains why we can spot families of mama sow and her piglets, old sows and sometimes papa boar moving together. Of course, just like humans when given half a chance, pigs love to rest, huddle and sleep.
Pigs are contact animals, they scent-mark, call and communicate often with each other. You'll be surprised, but pigs are a lot like primates and humans, anatomically and otherwise. Pigs are intelligent, aware animals. Finally, pigs (get ready for the other surprise) are fastidious and scrupulously clean animals, defecating in separate areas, setting up "latrines" in agreed spots away from nest or food.(3)
Warthogs, Pigs, Peccaries and Boars
There are all kinds of African warthogs, several American peccaries, many island pigs such as the extraordinary Babirusa (Babrousa babrussa) (in Malay language "Babi" means pig and "rusa" means deer) of the northern Sulawesi rainforests, all sorts of breeds of domestic pigs (Sus scrofa domesticus), and two Eurasian pigs including the Eurasian Wild Boar (Sus scrofa), which is the most likely ancestor of domesticated pigs.
Eurasian Wild Boar (Sus scrofa)
Eurasian Wild Boar (Sus scrofa), also known as Wild Boar or Wild Pig, is a species of the genus Sus, and belong to the pig family Suidae. They are omnivorous, and eat anything from roots, grass, tubers, fruits, earthworms, molluscs to fish and frogs, and they even open coconuts!
They swim jolly well, which explains why certain folks suspect some wild pigs are "illegal immigrants" migrating from disturbed habitats in southern Johor to Singapore. (Aiyoh, the swine simply forgot their piggy passports lah!) They mud wallow (to keep cool and reduce body parasites), and scratch and rub. They nest, greet and groom each other as families. They dig and root, forage and travel.
Wild Pigs and Forests
By rooting in the forest floor, they accelerate decomposition of matter by incorporating forest litter into the soil. Pigs distribute a variety of tropical fruiting plants that have tough seed coats to survive digestion in intestines. Studies have shown "how the presence of wild boars in Western Europe can promote tree growth even in monocultures of conifers on poor soil," says Watson.(3)
Studying Singapore Wild Pigs (Sus scrofa vittatus)
Thrust into the same porcine limelight is biologist Mr Ong Say Lin (BSc), (aged 25yrs), who is now Executive Director, ACRES Lao PDR - Bear and Wildlife Rescue Centre. In April 2012, Mr Ong, who also studied bears of Sabah and USA, completed his research work at Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore (NUS), on population of the Wild Pig (Sus scrofa vittatus) in Singapore's central catchment nature reserve.(4)
I asked Mr Ong Say Lin what he thought of the perception that wild pigs are aggressive. His close encounters doing field work on these "largest established mammals in Singapore's forests today", led him to think otherwise: "As soon as they detected my presence, they were quick to dart away in the forests. As such, I wouldn't describe the Wild Pigs (Sus scrofa vittatus) in Singapore as aggressive. I find it difficult to understand how people were attacked by wild pigs here."
Dangerous When Provoked
"The only explanation I can think of is when someone is unfortunate enough to find him/herself in a situation where he/she has startled a wild pig, and the wild pig has no way to escape. Wild pigs, being a prey species, will likely have their 'flight' responses switched on, and would not attack unless they feel threatened," said Ong.
We must respect that wild pigs, like wild monkeys, can be dangerous when provoked. However, simply sighting wild pigs should not induce panic or fear, and the correct reaction is to be calm and to leave them undisturbed.
Are Pigs Beautiful?
Whilst the cute factor of Domestic Pigs (Sus scrofa domesticus) grew with movies like "Babe" (1995), others may find wild pigs less attractive, especially compared to charismatic wildlife such as tigers, bears and elephants.
To each his own of course, but for biologist Ong, wild pigs are indeed attractive, particularly piglets with their lovely bold stripes, and adult pigs with their "funky hair style and streak of longer hair that looks like a Mohawk."
I find wild boars fascinating as they have great presence and grow on you. As an eco-artist, their form and profile interests me. Stout and agile all at once, their pronounced head, short muscled neck, tusks and spiky hair give them xa fearless look like a boxer, and yet their rotund body, narrow hoofed legs and tuft tail render them a contradictory comical finish (think Pumbaa the Warthog).
Beauty or Beast?
As for naturalist Watson, he finds the sensitivity of wild pigs "endearing", and the contradictions of the animal "alluring". "An aura of mystery surrounds pigs. They are slippery creatures, literally and metaphorically hard to pin down. With the exception of their splendid snouts, they are structurally primitive, unspecialized and unrepentantly primal. And yet by general agreement, they are regarded as highly intelligent, up there with apes and dolphins. Few other animals can match them for their combination of simplicity and complexity." (3)
Beauty or beast? Elementary, my dear Watson. It's a case of needing a "fresh look at an animal that we haven't really investigated, not because it is too rare or too difficult or too dangerous, but simply because it has been too close for us to see with any clarity." (3)
Year of The Pig
Chinese born in the zodiac Year of the Pig (猪年) (1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007 etc) may perhaps look at the animal more kindly. Natural pigs are understandably associated with fertility and virility, and those born in the Year of the Pig are regarded as good-natured, caring, sensitive, honest and hardworking. On the other hand, they could be gullible, indulgent and spendthrift.
Chinese Piggy Bank
Domestic pigs were represented earliest in Chinese artefacts found in Zhou tombs of 9th century BC. Today, the most recognizable pig sculpture is the Piggy Bank, which are said to have originated in 12th century China as pig-shaped burial pottery filled with gold for the afterlife.(3)
Whatever pigs have come to symbolize in different cultures in human history, we cannot deny their close relationship with us. A wild boar, bisons and horses were drawn 40,000 years ago at Altamira cave in Spain, whilst later ancient Greek and Roman potters decorated ware with the same. Hindus believe that Varaha is an avatar or incarnation of Lord Vishnu the Preserver God; wearing the form of a boar, he saved earth when it was submerged by a demon.(5)
Human and Suids
Fast forward human development: pigs still figure a fat deal in our metaphors, our language and in our imagery, and whilst pork is shunned in certain cultures, countless domesticated pigs are bred and slaughtered to fill our voracious appetite for ham and millions of pork sausages annually. Wild pigs are either hunted or, much like other wildlife, are losing their habitats and jostle with humans for living space.
Human and Wildlife Co-existence
The struggle between human and wildlife encroaching on each other's habitats has no simple solution, but in Singapore, much precious wildlife have already paid the price, including the long extinct in Singapore predatory mammals - the Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) and the Leopard (Panthera pardus), both natural hunters of our sub-species of Wild Pigs (Sus scrofa vittatus).
Impact of Wild Pig Over-Population
Lack of natural predators to keep wild pig populations in check could lead to possible over-population.(6) On current concerns of potential adverse impact from over-population, Mr Ong admitted that "at high enough numbers, wild pigs have the potential to root up a large expanse of forest when foraging."
Conversely, wild pigs have been documented to have "much positive impact on the forest, such as loosening of soil thereby aiding in soil nutrient recycling."
He also added, "It is important to note that every forest is unique in its own right, and has a very different carrying capacity from each other. I feel that this is especially so for Singapore, where our forests are highly compacted and fragmented. Such negative impact can arise only when wild pig populations have reached sufficiently high levels specific to each forest."
Quote from Singapore's PM Lee on Wild Boar Issue
"We have a peculiar problem which you consider quaint. We have an abundance of wild boars in our nature reserves -- about 100 of them -- and they are causing a problem. In the old days, we would have just said solve the problem and tomorrow they would be literally gone. But now it has been discussed. . . . . But we have to go through this discussion and engagement, and explanation and in the end, it takes longer but it will be done. I am not sure whether we will get the very last wild boar but we will solve this problem." - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Singapore Symposium held in New Delhi, India, 12 Jul 2012.(7)
Population and Conflict Management Solutions
Whilst we are ever conscientious about protecting human life and public safety, and whilst the appropriate authorities juggle with solutions for possible over-population of wild pigs and its potential impact on forest reserves, I hope these experts will not over rely on easy culling as the only solution to any human-wildlife conflicts.
Since these animals, attractive or repulsive, are wildlife which should be protected and not exterminated, I hope comprehensive conflict and population management solutions will be applied, diligent studies made, and more experts consulted before any drastic measures are pre-maturely or finally taken. Once hunting or culling starts, it is like a gamble and illegal poaching may lead to reverse impact of endangering species numbers.
Viable Alternatives to Culling
Culling cannot be a long term solution, and other viable alternatives such as sterilisation of wild pigs should be explored. "Sterilisation is a sure way of depressing wild pig population growth rates. The amount of effort and time put into darting a herd of wild pigs and then euthanizing is about the same as darting the same herd of wild pigs, and then sterilising. In the second option, we can avoid killing wild pigs unnecessarily," commented Mr Ong.
Prevent Illegal Poaching
Culling may send a wrong signal to the public that such wildlife is expendable, as long as there are "plenty" of them. Some already harbour the greedy notion that culled wild meat is good for consumption, and are therefore mentally warming their woks and pots.
More critically, I trust public season hunting of wild boars for culling purposes will never be permitted in our forests. We should never entertain the idea of hunting wild boar for consumption, not only for health safety reasons, but also to totally discourage a culture of poaching. Let's not inadvertently create a black market for poaching of wild boar for Ba-Kut-Teh (a thought to cook this favourite pork soup with culled boar meat is already lightly and dangerously mentioned by netizens.)
Wild Boar Poaching is Pushing Tiger Extinction
In Asian countries like Malaysia, Thailand, India and China, highly endangered tigers (Panthera tigris spp.) are fast falling in numbers not only from tiger poaching, but also from poaching of tiger prey such as deer and wild boar for human consumption, leading to tiger starvation and pushing tigers to extinction. There are tragically only 3,200 tigers left in the wild today.(8 - 10)
Dangers to Consumers of Wild Boar Meat
With the 2009/2010 Swine Flu or Influenza A(H1N1) world-wide pandemic still fresh in our memories(11), the public should be educated on the dangers of consuming improperly processed wild boar meat.
According to Dr Diong Cheong Hoong, former Head and Professor of the Natural Sciences and Science Education Academic Group, from the National Institute of Education (NIE), culled wild boars could be bio-hazard and human deaths from eating infected wild boar meat have been reported in Japan. Diseases from Consuming Infected Wild Boars
Dr Diong said in an interview with Joyce Lim of The New Paper on 22 Jul 2012: "Consumers risk being infected with disease pathogens that are transmissible directly from the boars to humans. Wild boars are hosts and reservoirs for a number of bacteria, viruses and parasites that are transmissible to humans. Some of the serious diseases that are transmissible to humans include viral hepatitis E, swine fever, Japanese encephalitis, tuberculosis, brucellosis, leptospirosis and trichinosis."(12)
Education for Public Safety and Conservation
If the key reason for culling is public safety, then it becomes all the more critical to educate our public on native wildlife, how to live with wildlife and to deal with any nuisance caused by wildlife.
A better overall understanding of wildlife behavior will help to reduce fear or hysteria. For example, sighting a wild pig ambling along is not a threatening sign, and people should learn to stay calm and keep away as the animal passes.
Preventive Measures in Conflict Hot Spots
Mr Ong suggests working on several identified wild pig hotspots that are situated close to residential areas. "We could focus on these areas to alleviate wildlife-human conflicts. Physical barriers scent deterrents, preventive measures by reducing attractants, such as unsecured trash and fruit trees, in the residential areas can all be considered." Residents could be educated on what to do.
Wild Pig Intrusions in Hong Kong
Take the example of Hong Kong SAR where the Eurasian Wild Pig (Sus scrofa), which is their largest native terrestrial mammal, are widespread in countryside areas.
The local police and Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department (AFCD) are fully aware that wild pig intrusions are generally due to these animals looking for food, and are attracted by trash in villages or barbecue (a popular weekend activity) leftovers in parks. Wild pigs do occasionally cause damage to crops or golf courses.
Despite increased reports of sightings and encounters with wild pigs over the last decade, there are actually very few cases of anyone being injured by attacking wild pigs. In such cases, it is usually because the farmer or person tries to chase away the wild pig with an object.
Preventive Measures Against Wild Pig Nuisances
AFCD HK SAR recommends preventive measures to residents affected by wild pig nuisance, such as installing fences, additional lighting or solar-powered electric fencing for their residence and agricultural fields.(13)
In Hong Kong the animal is not protected by law, and to reduce safety threats, some authorized culling by two volunteer teams with special hunting permits under strict supervision by AFCD and armed licenses issued by HK police have been carried out, although thankfully, a request in 2008 for relaxation of such hunting regulations was turned down.(14)
What To Do When Meeting a Wild Boar
Advice from AFCD HK SAR on what to do when meeting a wild pig and preventive measures: (13)
- If you see wild pigs in the wild, you should keep calm, stay away and leave them undisturbed.
- Do not approach any wild pigs, including piglets.
- You must not drive them away with any object as it is dangerous to provoke the wild pig.
- If necessary, you may hide behind a big tree or boulder and wait until the wild pigs leave before you proceed.
- Do not feed any wild or stray animals, the food remains will attract wild pigs to stray into your area.
- Proper management of outdoor garbage bins or using the animal-proof rubbish bins to reduce any possible food sources for wild pigs.
- Erection of fence to protect crops or use of infrared auto-trigger lightings to deter the wild pig.
Feral Cattle Roam Sai Kung
In the coastal area of Sai Kung, New Territories, Hong Kong, where I currently live, many feral cattle are often seen wandering busy villages, resting under roadside trees in Sai Kung town, strolling along narrow roads and slowing up traffic; and generally exercising their rights to walk around town unfettered.
The herd of about 200 cows has become a tourist draw in Sai Kung for locals who drive up from Hong Kong island on the weekends for recreation.
Whilst there were initial plans by the authorities to remove them, public campaigns for these cattle abandoned by former farmers to be free won the day. Sai Kung town residents simply learnt how to exercise some patience and live with these large, freely wandering cows which are part of their rural heritage.
For safety of the cows, some of these stray cattle have been relocated by AFCD HK SAR together with help of SPCA HK and Sai Kung Buffalo Watch into safer areas in country parks.
Living Together in Harmony
Let's flash back to Jafaar in Gaza. Jafaar first tried to sell, and then later shoot the troublesome porcine but ended up sparing its life even as his own life fell under threat from those who thought he was being a traitor. The meaningful movie with its plain message of "let's-all-live-together-in-harmony" has a feel-good finale for the mistrusting people and innocent pig.
A Magical Ending
In the final film credits, we are assured that no pigs were harmed and no olive trees were cut. I wish somehow there could be a similar positive end-note for those real families of wild pigs in Singapore.
If only they could fly away to bigger pastures, but pigs with wings are highly unlikely. Supporting conservationists and animal welfare activists on the wild boar issue, this is what I have to say: wild pigs can grunt but can't protest for themselves; let's leave a little leg room for them to survive.END Teresa Teo Guttensohn is an Eco-artist and co-founder of Cicada Tree Eco-place, an environmental education NGO in Singapore. Teresa is currently based in Hong Kong and does outreach to the local community through MAD (Make a Difference) for Wildlife workshops, promoting conservation of Hong Kong wildlife such as Chinese Pangolins and Sea Turtles. All views expressed here belong to the author, except those quoted.
- Wild Animals and Birds Act (CHAPTER 351) (1965 revised edition 2000).
- Why meat of culled wild boars cannot be sold to hawkers: AVA, on Straits Times Forum, 25 Jul 2012
- The Whole Hog - Exploring the Extraordinaray Potential of Pigs by Lyall Watson, Published by Profile Books, 2004
- Wild Boars of Mainland Singapore - A Study on Population Distribution & Impacts on Singapore's Forests by NUS, Dept of Biological Sciences, Ong Say Lin
- New World Encyclopedia - Varaha
- NATURE IN SINGAPORE 2010 3: 227-237, 7 - THE STATUS ON SINGAPORE ISLAND OF THE EURASIAN WILD PIG SUS SCROFA (MAMMALIA: SUIDAE) September 2010 by National University of Singapore
- PM Lee highlights wild boars, graffiti on need to be "messy selectively" by S. Ramesh. 13 Jul 2012
- Plight of the Tiger by Malayan Tiger - MYCAT
- Threats - Declining Prey Base by Malayan Tiger - MYCAT
- Malaysia: Poaching puts pressure on Malayan tiger by AFP, 15 May 2012
- Swine flu 'not stoppable,' World Health Organization says by CNN, 11 Jun 2009
- Game For Local Wild Boar Meat? By Joyce Lim, The New Paper, 22 Jul 2012
- AFCD Website - Conservation - Fauna Conservation - Nuisance Caused by Wild Animals - Wild Pig Nuisance
- Press Release. LCQ17: Problems caused by wild pigs dated 17 Dec 2008
Wild boars spotted at S'pore reservoir by Gan Ling Kai, 24 Nov 2010
Crossbows to cull wild boar - NParks looking at this and other options to curb animal population by Feng Zeng Kun, Straits Times, 11 Jun 2012
Wild boar in Tampines 19 Oct 2011 by Lazy Lizard Tales
Roaming boar spotted, by My Paper, 20 Jun 2011
Wild boars attacking humans, need to be managed: Khaw, by Asiaone, 22 Jun 2012
Researcher, residents study and observe wild boars by Evelyn Lam and Valerie 25 Jun 2012
Culling of Lower Peirce wild pigs 'necessary in the short term' by Neo Chai Chin, 15 Aug 2012
Wild boar culling method decided- Animals to be rounded up, sedated then euthanised through injections by Grace Chua And David Ee, Straits Times, 20 Aug 2012
Nparks - Information on Wild Boars in Singapore
Ecology Asia - Eurasian Wild Pig - by Nick Baker
Priscila of Chek Jawa is No More by N. Sivasothi, 01 Jun 2004
Memories of Priscilla the Pig of Chek Jawa by Ria Tan, 26 Sep 2008
Wild Singapore - Fact Sheets - Wild boar Sus scrofa Family Suidae Oct 2009
The Singapore Wild Boar Chronicles
Share your wild boar experiences on a new facebook page
James The Three Footed Boar formerly known as Tripod - Pulau Ubin
Wild Pigs - Ubin 4 Apr 2012 updated 23 Jun 2012
WWF HONG KONG - Global Tiger Day - Spare a thought for tiger prey too!
WWF HONG KONG - Prey for China's endangered wild Amur tigers released on Global Tiger Day, 30 Jul 2012
Hong Kong: The Facts - Country Parks and Conservation
Musings on Life in Hong Kong, by Stephan Chan, 8 Sep 2007
Remember the Hong Kong Cow in Sai Kung by Aileen, 12 Dec 2011
Other Wild Boar Links:
IUCN RED LIST: Sus scrofa (Eurasian Wild Pig, Ryukyu Islands Wild Pig, Wild Boar)
Community outreach essential to stop poaching and recover wildlife, by Robert Steinmetz, Conservation Biologist, WWF-Thailand, 29 July 2012