Last month, 12 captive-bred pygmy hogs were released into Manas National Park in Assam, India. This is the second time pygmy hogs have been reintroduced in the area, following the successful release of 14 hogs in 2020. The 12 animals were released in two groups on the 22nd and 26th June, bringing the total number of reintroduced hogs in Assam to 142, of which 75 are female and 67 are male. The total number of reintroduced captive-bred hogs is now higher than the current, original wild population.
In a year when both COVID-19 and African Swine Fever in the region have presented enormous challenges, the successful release of these pygmy hogs is a landmark achievement and a key step on the road to establishing a new sub-population in Manas National Park. The Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme, of which Durrell is a key partner, aims to release 60 hogs in Manas by 2025.
Found only in the tall, dense grasslands of the southern Himalayan foothills, pygmy hogs are incredibly shy and almost never seen, and are sadly threatened in the wild due to habitat loss and degradation. Besides being a unique species and one of the most endangered mammals in the world, the pygmy hog also happens to be a sensitive indicator of the health of its habitat. Healthy wet grassland habitats help to maintain the long-term ecological and economic well-being of the region. They serve as a buffer against floods in the rainy season while maintaining high groundwater levels in the dry season, which indirectly benefits the farming communities that live in the surrounding areas.
Manas National Park is home to the last original population of this rare species, from which the captive breeding programme was started with six hogs in 1996. The reintroduction of captive-bred hogs in the wild began in 2008. Initially, three Protected Areas in Assam were selected for better protection and grassland restoration. Over the next decade, 35 hogs were released in Sonai-Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary, 59 in Orang National Park, and 22 in Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary. The reintroductions in Orang were particularly successful as they have multiplied almost two and a half times in number and have spread to areas far from the release sites.
Project Director, Dr. Parag Jyoti Deka of Durrell, said, “Gerald Durrell initiated the conservation effort fifty years ago. With the help of the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme, the pygmy hog was brought back from extinction. Now we are moving towards the establishment of a population across the entire range. In the event of an African Swine Fever outbreak, conservation practitioners of many endangered pigs are looking to us. I think we have created a history and hope for them.”
Dr. Dhritiman Das of Durrell, who is the programme’s Field Scientist, commented, “Apart from regular monitoring of the reintroduced and wild pygmy hogs, the programme has attempted to design best practice for grassland management through science-based actions as well as community interventions in Manas with active cooperation of partners.”
Dr. Bibhuti Prasad Lahkar of Aaranyak, a key partner of the programme, added, “Park authority and conservation partners are jointly managing the grassland, and if the released pygmy hogs start breeding, it will indicate successful grassland management. The pygmy hog, being a heritage attribute, will also help to restore the past glory of Manas.”
The Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme is a collaborative effort between Durrell, IUCN/SSC Wild Pig Specialist Group, Assam Forest Department, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, EcoSystems-India, and Aaranyak. The programme is guided by Durrell’s Rewild Our World strategy, with two parts that map out the programme until 2025 – one for habitat and community activities in Manas National Park, and the second for the captive breeding and reintroduction of pygmy hogs. As part of this strategy, the team will continue to maintain around 70 pygmy hogs in captivity at the two centres in Assam and breed more animals for future releases. The programme’s aim is to ultimately restore pygmy hog populations in the wild and protect their grassland home, also benefitting the local communities and many other threatened species, such as the Bengal florican, hispid hare, and wild buffalo. The grassland is also used extensively by rhinos, elephants, and tigers.
Photos by PHCP / Parag Deka