“Observing this species (Visayan Warty Pig) from camera trap images or within captive enclosures, you can see how family oriented and socially intelligent these animals are. I was also surprised at how diverse the personalities and physical appearances were within different individuals.”

“These pigs will adapt to the area and be able to help turn the habitat into a viable and thriving ecosystem.

~ Matt Ward, Executive Director, Talarak Foundation Inc.

The Visayan Warty Pig is a highly intelligent animal that plays a vital role in creating thriving ecosystems. There was a time when this pig prevailed and was endemic to six islands in the Philippines, namely Cebu, Guimaras, Masbate, Negros, Panay, and Siquijor. Today, they are limited to fragmented areas of Negros and Panay. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists this animal as Critically Endangered.  Executive Director Matt Ward of Talarak Foundation Inc. told us more about this amazing pig by answering a questionnaire sent to him from Pressenza.

 P:  When did your passion for preserving wildlife begin?

MW: My passion for wildlife and conservation was apparent at a young age when I would visit nearby zoos in the UK and watch nature documentaries.

P: What caused you to have this passion?

MW: I was fascinated with the natural world and upon finding out that it was under threat, I always wanted to be part of the solution to helping nature recover and restore what humans had damaged.

P: How did it grow?

MW: From this eagerness, I drove myself to pursue more and more knowledge about animal biology and wildlife matters, taking college and graduate degrees in animal behavior and conservation to help set up a career in this field. I was privileged enough to be able to travel a lot and volunteer my time at organizations working in conservation and animal research, where I would then help out with my existing skills and knowledge, learning more along the way. Each new venture brings more learning opportunities but also more skills to help the next venture.

P: What according to you is the biggest environmental threat to the Visayan warty pig today?

MW: The biggest threats we have seen to the Visayan Warty Pig are three-fold. Firstly we have a lack of suitable habitat, as much of the lowland forests of Negros and Panay islands have been eradicated for agriculture and residential areas, and the remaining forests are only at isolated peaks and mountain ranges. This means that the remaining populations of warty pigs are fragmented, and often pushed into conflict with humans when they venture out of these mountain forests (or are poached from within these small patches).

MW: This leads to the second threat, which is persecution by farmers and landowners who see the pigs as a pest. It seems the direct hunting for food does not have as much of an impact on the pigs as the persecutory killings to prevent pigs from damaging crops or interbreeding with domestic pigs in livelihood programs. Here people are using traps, pit-falls, and explosives to kill pigs en masse and then either sell the meat, eat it personally or leave it in the forest as a warning to other pigs. It isn’t the farmers’ fault, nor is it the pigs, it is situational, which makes it more challenging. The pigs will actively go toward tasty and nutritious fields of cassava, taro and other vegetables, because these are items they don’t find in their forest ecosystems, and it’s on a platter waiting for them. But we also cannot blame the farmers, as the pigs are costing them income from the crops that are destroyed, and it’s very hard to keep the pigs out.

MW: Finally, the third major threat to the warty pigs is the African Swine Fever virus. This virus has spread across the Philippines arriving from mainland Asia where it has caused devastation to many pig species already. The virus does not affect humans, but can be transmitted by humans through traces of meat, feces and mucus from infected pigs, and is almost 100% lethal to the pigs which contract it. Not only is this virus spreading across the country and a major threat in its own right, but the government-mandated method of prevention includes mass culling of pigs within a buffer area of a known infection outbreak. Meaning that wild pigs or captive-housed warty pigs could be required to be killed in order to prevent the spread of the disease to other areas or pork farms. This virus really is a serious threat as we have seen to other wild pig species in Indonesia, and sadly it is so easy to spread in a country where we have pork, pigs and traces of pig all over our roads, vehicles and countryside.

P: How can it be overcome?

MW: One element that can help prevent the loss and persecution of warty pigs in the area is designing agricultural and pork farm landscapes in a way that prevents incursions from warty pigs. This is a major challenge however as it requires either government involvement or the financial abilities of farmers to develop such barriers to prevent warty pigs from entering undesired areas, which is currently not available. To help with this problem Talarak is experimenting with cheaper alternatives for rural farm communities to establish barriers that deter pigs whilst not costing too much.

MW: Another way we can overcome the challenges currently facing the warty pigs is through developing a sense of pride and passion in accepting the warty pig as an important part of the environment, especially as an endemic species to the West Visayas region. Warty pigs are environmental engineers and can be incredibly important in maintaining or restoring natural habitats. However, their negative impression in the public eye means they are not considered as important or valuable when people are supposed to impose biosecurity measures (preventing the spread of African Swine Fever) or adjust their own land use to work alongside wild pigs whilst also producing a livelihood from the environment.

P: What was your first impression when you first encountered the Visayan warty pig?

 MW: My first encounters with the Visayan Warty Pig showed me the intelligence and complicated social behavior of the species. Observing this species from camera trap images or within captive enclosures, you can see how family oriented and socially intelligent these animals are. I was also surprised at how diverse the personalities and physical appearances were within different individuals.

P: What have you learned from the Visayan warty pig since that time, that people should know?

MW: The biggest thing I would like other people to know is how intelligent and varied these animals are with their personalities. You can have a group of males, females or a breeding group, and see very different personalities within the individuals, and a clear hierarchy of dominance which also enables individuals to learn from each other.

P: Talarak President Fernando Gutierrez told National Geographic that he saw the Visayan warty pig throwing stones to see if a fence was electrically charged. Has this observation led to research on this animal’s intelligent behavior?

MW: We have known about the intelligence of the Visayan warty pigs for many years and the published observation of a warty pig using tools in a French zoo re-highlighted the importance of recording evidence of this species’ intelligence. We are recording lots of different elements of warty pig behavior and ecology within the wild and captive pigs, but we are also conducting an experiment with our warty pigs to identify suitable barriers to prevent warty pigs from invading farmland or other human areas. One of the benefits of this experiment is that we will also be able to observe the intelligence of the species in how they overcome and assess new challenges, which we will also be publishing for wider audiences to see and appreciate.

P: How does this animal compare to other wild pigs in terms of intelligence?

MW: Unfortunately we don’t have much to compare against, as few wild pigs (aside from the Eurasian Wild Boar Sus scrofa) have been observed or recorded in the wild or captivity, we don’t know whether this level of intelligence is found across many pig species or is unique within the Visayan warty pig. I would think however that this level of intelligence is going to be found in many pig species, as most pigs are social animals who are prey to large carnivores, and intelligence is a great way to maintain social organization and avoid being predated against.

P: From your observation and experience, how is the Visayan warty pig different from other wild pigs?

MW: So far we can see that there is a very complex social structure within the Visayan warty pigs, which seem to have more complicated vocalizations, body language and organization than other wild pig species. We can also see this when we look at the domestication/captive housing of this species, which seems to be able to adapt very capably to a domestic or captive environment compared to some other wild pig species. We have some evidence of individuals choosing to stay “captive” inside an enclosure than be in the wild. This is a little strange as predominantly, you would expect any wild species given freedom to go, eat and interact with whatever and whoever they want, would jump at the chance. But some of our Warty Pigs that were released into our nature reserve actively decided to re-enter the temporary enclosures we had set up and shut the doors behind them. Maybe understanding that in these enclosures they had constant food, water and shelter was the driving factor, but that would mean levels of intelligence that allow for future predictions of your outcomes and expectations from another species (our keepers to provide the food and water).

P: In what ways are Visayan warty pigs needed for an ecosystem?

MW: Visayan warty pigs are environmental engineers, meaning they have a great effect on the ecosystems they are in, and within their day-to-day activities they help the restoration and regeneration of a healthy forest habitat. These activities include their foraging methods, digging and upturning topsoil, which enables water to get into the soil, provides seeds the ability to see sunlight and get to nutrients, aerates the soil to maintain good nutrient levels, and gives access to invertebrates for other insectivores. They are also omnivorous and will eat any fruits, seeds and animal products, which as they travel through the forest help to spread important seeds and fertilize the forest ground. Many people know about pigs and wallowing, but these wallows that are made by Warty Pigs create temporary water holes for many animals. As the wallows are used they become deep dishes in the ground, which soon fill with water for all the animals of the forest to drink from. Vitally important in areas where constant water sources are scarce or drying up.

P: Does this animal pose some risks to an ecosystem?

MW: As I mentioned this species is an engineer because of its impact on ecosystems, however, these impacts require a large and diverse habitat. The Visayan warty pig breeds very quickly with around 4 piglets per litter and two litters per year, so in a small area these pigs can multiply quickly and their destructive feeding and digging behaviors can overwhelm these habitats. However, with space and less human intervention, these pigs will adapt to the area and be able to help turn the habitat into a viable and thriving ecosystem.

P: What does the Visayan warty pig contribute to an ecosystem?

MW: The Visayan warty pig provides an active engineer to an ecosystem, actively changing the ecosystem services and layout of a forest habitat through their feeding, digging, defecating and movements within an area. Unlocking hidden nutrients for other species of plant and animal, access to water in the wallows, and all-around daily gardening of a Visayan forest.

P: Why do poachers go after the Visayan warty pig?

MW: Our surveys have highlighted that most of the pressure on the warty pigs is conflict with farmers and residences, however, poaching is still a concern. From discussions with local communities and various videos on Facebook and YouTube we see that most of the poaching threat comes from groups of people from urban areas that want to venture into rural habitats to hunt animals for the thrill. The warty pig is a classic animal in this poaching threat as they are large, potentially dangerous, and more importantly, provide lots of meat for personal consumption with some available for local sales. We do know there are areas where the warty pigs are being pressured by the commercial food trade. However, most of the poaching areas are occasional and not under severe threat (as far as we can tell). The concern is when other threats, such as ASF or habitat loss, cause population declines, that the poaching impact is now so much more devastating.

P: What is the situation now with poachers?

MW: Currently as mentioned above, poachers are occasional and use more techniques where they are not out to capture multiple animals but one individual per hunt. Sadly this does mean that the amount of protection available from law enforcement or rangers is limited, and as the videos on social media can attest there is still an unrestricted ability for people to hunt the warty pigs at will. As the populations of warty pigs decline from other threats, these threats from unrestricted poaching can be even more of a danger to the whole population.

P: What are the latest news/updates on the Visayan warty pig?

MW: The positives for the Visayan warty pig are that we are still able to find populations within many degraded or pressured areas across Negros and Panay. They are adaptable to different environments and their ability to reproduce quickly means they have a great chance of repopulating an area when there is a reduction in external threats.

Unfortunately, the biggest worry for the species is their continued persecution coupled with the arrival of African Swine Fever in the country. At present, the virus has not made it to Negros (although it is now on Panay). However many of us are concerned it is a matter of time until it does reach the island. If this virus spreads, it will be uncontrollable and could devastate the wild populations of warty pigs.