From the Field

Encountering Wild Boar in New Guinea

September 29, 2015

A wild boar caught in a camera trap in Papua New Guinea. Photo © The Nature Conservancy

We were hiking back down the ridge when we heard it — menacing squeals of rage coming from the forest.

A very angry pig was nearby.

Our guide told us to stop; he did not look happy. This was not just some little domestic pig snuffling in the undergrowth. This was a big, wild boar. With very large, very sharp tusks. And it sounded like it was in a very bad mood.

Our entire team spent a night up on a mountain ridge — Conservancy lead scientist Eddie Game and Princeton tropical forest ecologist Zuzana Burivalova had done an intense hike the day before to deploy some acoustic sampling recorders, while science writer Justine Hausheer and I had put out a camera trap at a Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise lek, or dancing site.

The next morning, Justine and I, along with our guide, were on our way back after checking the camera trap and getting a glimpse of the bird. Still pumped about seeing a bird of paradise, we were not expecting a wild boar.

Especially not in New Guinea.

This was not just some little domestic pig snuffling in the undergrowth. This was a big, wild boar.

Timothy Boucher

The Pig Comes to the Island

Our surprise was understandable. Wild boar are not a native species here — most native mammals are marsupial-like species — so what is it doing in Papua New Guinea? To find out, we need to go back 50,000 years, when the first settlers are thought to have arrived in New Guinea.

Then the global climate was in the midst of a glacial freeze, with sea levels about 200 feet lower than today. Connected by a land bridge, Australia and New Guinea formed a larger land mass called Sahul. People had already been moving out of Africa for many thousands of years, and its thought that the original settlers of Sahul came from somewhere in Southeast Asia. These people where mainly hunter-gatherers, but there is evidence that they managed the forest, too. So people have been in this area for a very long time.

When people travelled in those days, exploring and expanding mostly by boat, they often took pigs along. Pigs were a good source of protein, not too big, and easy to look after. The archeological records suggest that pigs were introduced to New Guinea between 2,500 and 10,000 years ago. That may explain why pigs were not found in Australia until Captain Cook deliberately released them when he first visited there in 1770 — the land bridge had disappeared by then.

Pigs being pigs, they probably escaped very soon thereafter and quickly colonized the forests.

Pigs are not benign little animals. They had a disturbing ecological effect on the forests of New Guinea — especially the lower levels. Pigs dig up large areas, rooting for tubers and such. During our 11 days of fieldwork in the Adelbert Mountains, we often encountered large areas of soil turned over by wild hogs.

Hunting is a fact of life in New Guinea — to survive you have to hunt and be good at it — because supplementing their restricted vegetable diet with animal protein is important for their health. There is no supermarket nearby, and eating yams everyday gets old very quickly!

No doubt, people started hunting the pigs very soon thereafter they were introduced and went feral.

Hunting spears, some carved in the shape of guns. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer / TNC
Hunting spears, some carved in the shape of guns. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer / TNC

The Great Hunt

And so it was, on that steamy morning, that we came across a very angry wild boar as we made our way down the mountain.

Our guide stopped us. Quickly he explained not to go any further, that he would call others. Others? Where?

He turned to his right and yelled, very loudly. From across the valley came an answer in Tok Ples, entirely unintelligible to us. In the distance we could hear what sounded like rushing through the forest. Hunters were coming fast. Very fast.

We could hear them charging up a steep ravine towards us, sprinting through a forest so dense that we could barely walk through it. In what seemed only a few minutes, two hunters burst out of the forest, both carrying their formidable hunting gear.

One hunter paused for a brief moment to confirm with our guide. The other, not even breaking his stride, leapt over trail and vaulted down the very steep ravine in pursuit of his prey. Within seconds they disappeared again into the forest.

Silence ensued. At that moment I am sure the wild hog was running for its life.

Justine and I stood breathless, and not just from the tough hiking. This was hunting at its most formidable, its most primal, its most pure. No shooting rifles from a distance (useless in this forest), no sitting in a blind waiting (again, useless), no fancy gear (they didn’t even wear shoes).

That moment, however fleeting, is one of the most incredible memories of our trip. I will never forget it.

We never found out if they killed that pig; that seemed immaterial at the time. Just witnessing the hunt was enough for me.

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