Recognising the individuals who save species

By Andrew Terry – Head of Field Programmes, Durrell

On the occasion of Goutam Narayan being awarded the RBS Save the Species award at the 69th annual World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) Conference in India, we wanted to look back on two key individuals who have made the rescue of the pygmy hog possible.

Successful conservation relies on individuals; people who dedicate their lives to particular species or places; people who commit to the long-term with a clear vision of what they want to see change. Gerald Durrell was one of these individuals and he inspired a generation of naturalists to follow suit. We are extremely lucky to have had a number of these people work with us over the years leading our conservation programmes both overseas and in the park. I want to take this opportunity to celebrate two of these dedicated individuals who have both shaped the direction of one of our flagship species programmes – the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme.

Standing just 30cm at the shoulder, the pygmy hog (Porcula salvania) is the world’s smallest and most threatened hog species, but it lives in a big world. Its habitat is the strip of rich tall grasses that runs along the foothill plains south of the Himalayas in Northern and Northeastern India. These grasses grow to over three metres in height each year, enough to hide the hog’s large neighbours which include elephant, one-horned rhino, tiger and buffalo. Shaped like a bullet, with no discernible neck, the hogs are perfectly designed for running through the grasses at speed. However, being shy and secretive, they are rarely seen and once the grasses have grown, they are nigh on impossible to track. But these grasses have been under great threat from habitat change, over-exploitation and too frequent burning; all of which greatly reduces their diversity and reduces the quality of the habitat for many species such as the hog.

It is the story of how we came to take on this diminutive hog that brings me back to the individuals that make conservation happen.  Over 50 years ago the hogs were thought to have gone extinct, having not been seen for years. But they re-appeared dramatically in 1971 with a of number them being flushed out of a scrub fire around Barnadi Reserve Forest and then shortly afterwards being seen for the first time in Manas Wildlife Sanctuary (as these PAs were known then). In fact they were found in a number of small pockets around these areas, sadly, however they were all lost in the years subsequent to this and the only remaining wild population was in Manas. It was at this point that the first of our individuals became involved, William Oliver, who very sadly passed away in September this year (see here for his obituary), had joined Durrell in 1974 as a mammal keeper, and he undertook the first extensive field surveys for the species in 1977. This was a life changing experience and he became a passionate advocate for the pygmy hogs and wild pigs in general. It took another 18 years of hard work, surveys and persistence to form a shared agreement between the Government of India, Assam, IUCN and Durrell around an Action Plan for the species governed by a collaborative agreement between the partners. In fact this was the first agreement of its kind in India and the conservation breeding programme that followed was the first for a wild pig.

With the launch of the programme in 1995, the second of our key individuals joined the picture and that is Goutam Narayan. With now only one population of hogs remaining, the situation was precarious. Goutam oversaw the development of the captive breeding centre at Basistha with funding secured from the European Union, fieldwork in Manas and other sites to survey remaining hogs and to identify how we could improve the management of the grasslands. Founder animals were captured in Manas (six animals, of which three females were pregnant), and the breeding programme began. From 2002 onwards release plans were starting to formulate. Concerns that all the eggs were in one basket (Basistha centre), also promoted the search for a second facility that could act to acclimatise animals ahead of release. Equally the process began to select release sites. In 2006 the team selected a site called Potasali bordering Nameri National Park, as a pre-release facility and the first group of hogs to be released were moved there. Getting used to life without human intervention the hogs were maintained in large densely planted enclosures before being released into Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary, after working there to restore the habitat for two years. From this beginning the programme has gone on to release a total of 85 hogs into two sites, the second being Orang National Park.

​Goutam and his team have ensured that the pygmy hog now remains in an active captive breeding programme in two sites and has been released to two protected areas separate from the remaining wild population. The Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme has truly been a great success which rightfully earned William the 2013 inaugural Balipara Foundation award and now Goutam has won the RBS Save the Species award. It has been their dedication and commitment, which has overcome many challenges to save this species.

But we are not completely out of the woods yet and Goutam’s job is not done (is it ever for a conservationist?) There is real concern about the health of the original wild population, which could now be lower than 200 individuals. Also as we complete a period of collaboration with all the partners, we will be reviewing our progress over the years and developing a new Species Action Plan in 2015 that will set a new strategic direction for this charismatic, if tiny, conservation flagship. So watch this space, as we congratulate Goutam on this well-deserved award, we also look forward to the future for the pymgy hog.

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