Once thought to be extinct, 14 hogs were caught following a fire adjacent to a tea plantation and were taken into temporary captive facilities by the plantation manager. Durrell's Jeremy Mallinson is called out to Assam to advise on the care of the captive hogs and the first notes on the breeding ecology of the species are published in the Durrell journal, the Dodo.
William Oliver begins a lifetime's work on the pygmy hog with his first visit to Assam. He radio-tags two wild caught hogs and tracks them on elephant back for a few weeks. A monograph outlining the major threats, including uncontrolled grass burning and thatch-harvesting, and conservation needs for the species is published as a Special Scientific Report in 1980 by Durrell.
Now the leading world expert on pygmy hogs, William Oliver outlines the major threats and conservation needs for the species. Activities are focussed on population monitoring, a cooperative breeding programme and further research to develop appropriate management strategies of the wild population in order to enhance the future survival of the pygmy hog.
A formal agreement, the first of its kind in India, was signed by all partners committing to the new programme including Durrell, IUCN and governments of India and Assam. Durrell graduate Goutam Narayan facilitates the process and takes the lead of local activities whilst Durrell secures the majority of funding for the first three years through the European Union.
A single population of just a few hundred adult hogs persisting in the highly threatened grasslands of Manas National Park is thought to be the last stronghold for this species. Political unrest makes access to Manas difficult and decline in suitable habitat due to the pressures on the grasslands through grazing and burning continue to impact this tiny population.
In Manas, lines of elephants were used to drive the hogs into nets and six were caught and transferred to a custom-built research and breeding centre built at Basistha near Guwahati. An additional four hogs were fitted with transmitters and radio-tracked for a few months to study the distribution of the wild population.
After just 21 months since the first hogs were brought into captivity, successful breeding has increased numbers by 600%. The facility, named Durrell House, approaches full capacity and Magor House is quickly constructed with help from Williamson Magor group to create further space for the expanding population. Surveys of potential release sites are also conducted.
The goal of the initiative, coordinated by the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme, is to reduce human pressures within the Manas Tiger Reserve and promote conservation efforts for the pygmy hog and other species. A training programme for school teachers and local NGO members is initiated so they can take the conservation message to school children and members of the community.
A three year project led by Durrell is funded by the Darwin Initiative with the aim of "Implementing a Recovery Plan for the Critically Endangered Pygmy Hog in Assam". The focus of this project is to establish new populations through the release of captive bred hogs and improving the grassland habitat through community work and restoration efforts.
As well as being moved to purpose built enclosures in preparation for release, husbandry techniques are altered to reduce contact wit the pygmy hogs to ensure they are more ready for life in the wild. Restoration efforts at the release site at Sonai Rupai continue to be implemented and a protection camp for staff to reduce risks from wild elephants is built.
After 10 years of successful captive breeding, three families of pygmy hogs are released into the grassland of Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary. The release has doubled the number of sub-populations of the pygmy hogs and a total of 35 captive pygmy hogs in 8 social groups are released in Sonai Rupai over the next three years.
Three families of 13 hogs are released into the grassland of the Orang National Park, establishing the third wild sub-population. Over the next three years a total of 50 hogs will be released at this site and new monitoring techniques are trialled in an attempt to track the survival of the elusive released hogs.
After two more groups are successfully released into Orang National Park, the total number of captive bred pygmy hogs released into the wild at two sites by the conservation programme reaches 85. Further releases are planned by the programme to continue to increase the numbers of hogs in the wild but the initial success of these releases is encouraging.
After nearly 40 years working with this critically endangered species, 2016 sees the 100th captive bred pygmy hog released into the wild. The hogs are released into Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary following a successful captive breeding programme led by Durrell.