The small Tempo Traveller swerved to narrowly avoid the cyclist. Audible gasps filled the air reminding me of my foreign companions. New to Indian roads, traffic and the nonchalant reckless driving they Oohed and Aahed at every deft turn of the steering wheel. Shaking my head, I typed out on Google Maps – ‘Pygmy Hog Centre, Basishta’… No results found. Odd, I thought, Google that could find me and my obscure blog was unable to find the centre fighting to save the world’s rarest species of wild pig. Minutes later, we turned into a small clearing on the crammed road and shuddered to a halt on the slanted ground.
A rusting gate stood, green letters on a white board proclaiming proudly on it – ‘Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme’. Flagging this on the side were logos of the associated organisations one of them being the Dodo logo, I had flown to Guwahati for.
In front of me, Lee Durrell and the group from Durrell Conservation Trust walked on, into their programme to save a species most Indians didn’t know or care about. The pygmy hog for those of you who don’t know (most of you I suspect) is the world’s smallest species of pig and was once thought to be extinct. Interestingly they owe their rediscovery to the meat eaters of Assam.
Apparently in the 1970s, a bunch of pygmy hogs were discovered being sold as baby boars in a tea garden. The sales pitch, a lie like most, was that they would grow to be great big boars. None too small a shock for the buyers, I’m sure. Nonetheless, here I was about to visit the breeding centre of the rarest pig in the world.
A security guard, a broad smile across his face came running up, throwing open the gates welcoming us. His daughter peered out of their small house at the edge of the centre, staring at the visitors. Tall teak trees dotted a small hill behind his house, ashy bark curling out of their trunks like pencil shavings. The undergrowth bald under the them lay littered with dried crackling leaves. A cobbled path of large uneven stones ahead, in the shadow of the hill led towards a pentagonal fenced area.
“Hello, Hello, Hello, Welcome…”, an energetic voice spoke. Dr Goutam Narayan, the head of the Programme strode up to us. Clad in a simple kurta and khakis, his eyes shielded by tinted glasses, he welcomed us into his centre. As we walked towards the main building he spoke, each tree, each enclosure, a story. Tales of the short-sighted government forcibly planting the tall teak trees that killed the indigenous undergrowth, the fight for funding, the elusive nature of the hogs themselves and the many struggles they faced while opening the centre. He had this aura about him, this presence, this calm. I never discovered its source. As I heard him, the real world of conservation came forward. It wasn’t the one gorgeous video we saw on Facebook, or the photos of smiling faces visiting sanctuaries on elephant back; it was work, and like all other work tough, painstaking and unrecognised.
The main building was pentagonal in shape surrounded by five to six grassy enclosures separated by small fences. The hogs were free to move in and out of the building through small doggie doors operated by ropes hidden behind screens. This ingenious method made sure the hogs could interact without human interference and could also easily be cornered and captured for examination or treatment. Dipping our shoes in potassium permanganate basins outside, we made our ways inside the dimly lit enclosures. Within the building were similar enclosures linked by similar rope-controlled doggy doors. Multicoloured vacutainers and basic blood collection equipment lay scattered on the table in the centre of the room.
A small silhouette stood framed in the light of the small door leading out. Tentatively it stepped further indoors, a curious look on its face, its snout inquisitive, twitching at our smells. I’ve always found pigs cute, something about their rotund faces and their abrupt flat snouts makes me all soft inside. But this shadow was different from any pig I’d ever seen.
It was the size of a bandicoot but infinitely more elegant, slim tapered legs supported a streamlined conical flask shaped body. A narrow head and tiny triangular ears led back through bristly streamed hair to wide hips and a stumpy little wagging tail. It emerged from the shadows and approached us sniffing and snuffling suddenly letting out a resounding sneeze. Scared by its own echoing volume it scampered off out through the open gate back into its safe nest.
We moved from enclosure to enclosure marvelling at the hogs’ small thatched huts, their inquisitive noses eagerly nuzzling the mud with their tiny tusks searching for tubers and insects; all the while Lee and Goutham discussed technicalities, I would never have questioned or considered. How the males respond the their young, how to close off grassy patches to maintain a constant supply of thatch and many more. The hogs to their credit, played their part, posing stylishly amidst the thin tall grass, clambering over each other, scrambling away if we got too close.
“So why the potassium permanganate?”, I asked, trying to sound intelligent.
“They are susceptible to human parasites and mites. So, we have to keep the area clean.”
I nodded thoughtfully, almost turning away but Goutham continued – “But that is also a problem. Every time we have to capture them, it’s a big problem.”
The group gathered around him, anticipating tales of the jungle fraught with danger and drama. Goutham did not disappoint.
“First, we arrange for the elephants…”, he said, pausing for impact.
Elephants for these hogs, I thought, staring at one of the hogs that was lazily scratching their bulging belly on a short step. Even the largest one would easily fit into a medium sized purse; elephants, I thought again.
“Ten to twelve elephants,” he continued, smiling at the awe on our faces.
“So, we spread the nets on one side of the field and post men at regular intervals. And then march the elephants from the other side, beating drums, making noise. The scared hogs run into the nets where the men jump on them and grab them, I have a video, I’ll show it to you.”
“Why jump on them?”
“They’re fast and squirmy, they kick out and tear the net and escape under it, unless we jump on them and wrestle them into a sack.”
I smiled at the thought of a man wrestling in the undergrowth with a pygmy hog kicking out at him, the accomplice elephants trumpeting dramatically in the background.
“After we capture them, we have to deworm and delouse them. this is another problem.”
We leaned closer, captured hook, line and sinker by this bizarre eccentric tale.
“You see, the pygmy hog is the only host of an endangered species of louse, the pygmy hog louse, Haematopinus oliveri, named after William Oliver”, he finished with a flourish as we groaned inwardly at the cruel tricks of nature.
“We delouse some of them and not the others, ensuring the louse has at least some hogs to live on.” Dr Goutham said as he strolled away.
I stared at the diminutive wild pig strolling nonchalantly through the thatched grass, not a care in the world and then at the man walking away, the weight of their future heavy on his shoulders, hope radiant on his face.