Locals Feeling Loss of Wild Pigs

African Swine Fever in Sabah has devastated wild pig numbers since February last year. Has this hurt the Kadazandusun-Murut communities, whose livelihood and culture are tied to this wildlife? Part 2 of a series on the impacts of the disease.

LEAN HUNTING dogs eagerly patrol the dirt roads, viewing strangers with caution. Stands of oil palm, rubber and food trees surround houses with zinc roofs. A large cross marks St Bede’s Catholic church.

This is Kampung Pangas Ulu, a village in Keningau, Sabah.

Like all rural indigenous Kadazandusun-Murut (KDM) villages, this kampung was once surrounded by forests. And one forest animal, babi hutan, the Bornean bearded pig (Sus barbatus), was integral to their culture and identity.

(Photo: All dressed up and no pigs to hunt: Ahmed bin Pintin (right) with his buddy and hunting dogs  | Pic by Alven Chang)

“I began hunting [wild pigs] the moment I learned how to walk,” says villager Ahmed bin Pintin, now 63.

His fellow villager Zainal Ebin agrees. “It is a traditional activity [to hunt] our own food. We like the taste of wild meat. [We] must have [it] from time to time.” In addition, some villagers earned an income from hunting too.

Hard impact

It is indigenous hunters and communities like Ahmed’s about whom researchers were concerned when the African Swine Fever (ASF) raged through Sabah last year.

Largely anecdotal data suggests that the fast-spreading virus devastated bearded pig populations throughout the state.

This is because for some communities, “bearded pig meat remains deeply tied to food provision, gifting and sharing customs, and cultural components of celebrations and feasts,” said conservation ecologist David Kurz and his co-authors in a recent paper.

However, Kurz noted that the communities’ relationship to wild pigs had already changed before the ASF outbreaks. Already, “oil palm and urbanisation are helping reshape the KDM-bearded pig socio-ecological system.”

KDM hunters have to travel ever further to hunt or hunt in plantations (Alven Chang)
Deforestation has changed the way KDM hunters hunt (Alven Chang)

“Now with the ASF outbreak and bearded pig population collapse on top of that, there is even more uncertainty about the role of bearded pigs in KDM communities going forward,” Kurz told Macaranga.

“How are KDM communities adapting? Will KDM hunting practices continue to change? When will bearded pigs come back?

“There is a lot we don’t know, especially with so many connections between pigs and people changing quickly.”

Wildlife aplenty

At Kampung Pangas Ulu, Ahmed recalls how easy it was to hunt before deforestation began in the 1970s.

“Outside our house, we saw plenty of babi hutan and deer. Whatever type of animal you wanted, you could get it. If one day, I wanted to cook wild boar meat for dinner, I could get that meat by the end of the day.”

But it has long been a different story. “No matter what I do [now], I can’t really get babi hutan meat [regularly].”

New hunting grounds

In fact, in line with Kurz’ findings, Ahmed and his community hunt more in oil palm plantations now.

Otherwise, says Ahmed, “we must travel by car to go deep into the forest. It takes days, weeks, or even months to get a single pig or deer.”

And since ASF hit, have there been babi hutan? “Not a single one.”

Before ASF (left), wild pigs were easily caught and made a meal. After ASF, communal gatherings like this Murut one, see a marked absence of wild pigs (Rohid Kailoh)

But Ahmed and Zainal actually have little time to hunt anymore. They have become fulltime rubber and oil palm smallholders. They do however, have an interesting take on planting commodity crops.

“Planting rubber trees is like giving back to the forest and nature,” says Zainal. “We know the beauty of the forest.”

In addition, he says planting trees that fruit, like rubber and oil palm, “will attract the mouse deer and wild pigs to these places we have been hunting. It becomes a regenerative feeding ground.”

THE WAY Kadazandusun-Murut hunters hunt wild pigs in oil palm plantations has changed because the pigs’ behaviours have changed.

Keningau hunter Zainal Ebin comments that “the wild pigs, deer, and mouse deer have already ‘attended school’. They have learned and adapted…

"Because [the plantation] is an open area, they are more vulnerable and vigilant of being hunted. That’s why we say they have gone to university!”

Same thing in Sandakan

This was also observed by KDM hunters in Sandakan, eastern Sabah, says ecologist David Kurz.

Based on interviews with 38 hunters, he and his team published a paper last year on how KDM hunting practices have been reshaped by the increase in oil palm plantations and urbanisation.

His respondents stated that oil palm plantations were their primary hunting ground. They perceived bearded pigs as becoming more sensitive to the presence of hunters, including the smell of gunpowder and headlamp lights.

“Hunters explained that the pigs respond to these stimuli by fleeing more readily”.

As a result, hunters “hunt differently in oil palm plantations as compared to in forests,” says Kurz.

Easier hunting

However, while the animals are more skittish, hunters actually have it easier.

Among other things, hunting now includes “more waiting for pigs to forage on oil palm fruits at predictable locations”.

This makes hunting “typically easier and less tiring, requiring less walking for extended distances as compared to hunting in forests”.

In the paper, Kurz urged for “location-specific management approaches that ensure fair access to the dietary and social benefits of bearded pig hunting while preserving the critical conservation needs of bearded pig populations and habitat.”

With forests located ever further away and less time to hunt, some KDM communities started domesticating wild pigs in their backyards.

One such community is north of Ahmed’s village, in Kampung Pangasaan on the outskirts of the state capital of Kota Kinabalu. Here, ‘backyard pig farmers’ have long raised what are called babi kampung, literally ‘village pigs’.

These were once wild bearded pigs, but are likely to have been interbred with domesticated pigs for generations, according to forest ecologist Sui Peng Heon. Domestic pigs would be Sus scrofa domestica.

Free range pigs

Kampung Pangasan backyard pig farmer Paulus Angis explains, “We don’t have the ladang (large commercial farms) people are used to seeing. Instead, we use our own small-scale backyards.

“We rear pigs openly in an organic way. We open our backyards and let our pigs walk outside around the house.”

Catch me if you can: the last remaining babi kampung in Kampung Pangasaan (Alven Chang)

In taste, these pigs are closer to their wild cousins, and considered better than commercial pigs. Babi kampung can fetch RM400—600 per 20—40kg animal, says Paulus.

These backyard pigs are a way the communities can remain connected to their culture, says Paulus.

“It depends on each village but when people do harm to others, they have to buy babi kampung as a gift in some KDM communities. It’s a way to address their wrongdoings.”

Old ways dying out

However, such customs are dying out, he laments.

“We used to pray for nature and believe in animism. We would pray for the fire, for the ocean, for nature, that’s what our ancestors did…

“[But] as time goes by, our practices are getting slowed down. We feel like [our culture]’s going backward.”

Today, pigs are generally served at weddings, funerals and the traditional Kaamatan harvest festival.

Adapting to times

In addition though, the animal continues to be significant even for those who have converted to Christianity and in contemporary times.

For December is peak sales month for babi kampung sellers because they are a must-have at Christmas and New Year.

Last year though, ecologist Sui noted that babi hutan and babi kampung were markedly absent from year-end celebrations.

When ASF hit

Since ASF hit, Kampung Pangasaan for one, has lost all its babi kampung. The backyard pig farmers used to raise 300—400 babi kampung.

When ASF was detected, the community contacted the Sabah Veterinary Department Services, who visited and advised the farmers to cull them all to prevent the highly contagious virus from spreading. (There is still no treatment for ASF)

When Macaranga visited the community last December, only a single babi kampung was spotted running through the village.

Losing babi kampung in Kampung Pangasaan
Images courtesy of Paulus Angis and by Alven Chang
Warning: Graphic
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Fortunately, the economic impact of ASF on these farmers is not severe. Most reared babi kampung only for side income.

So they were able to continue earning their living as mechanics, drivers, vegetable farmers and civil servants.

In fact, crop planters are glad about the absence of the pigs.

Pesty pigs

Says Paulus, “We feel simultaneously happy and sad when dealing with the babi kampung. Happy for us means we get to have the food and meat to eat.

“However, a disadvantage is that wild pigs destroy our crops. So farmers [who] plant fruit trees and vegetable crops are okay and feel relieved that plants are not being disturbed.”

But babi hutan and babi kampung will continue to be part of their lives. Back in rural Keningau, Ahmed and his fellow hunters are certain the pigs will return. “We never want pigs to ‘end’.”

Babi kampung piglets at Kampung Pangas Ulu symbolise hope for the recovery of wild pigs for KDM (Alven Chang)

A note on terminology: we use ‘backyard pigs’ and ‘babi kampung’ to refer to pigs farmed by KDM communities; we use ‘wild pigs’ interchangeably with Bornean bearded pigs (Sus barbatus).

[Edited by YH Law]


In Part 1To understand ASF’s impact on the animals, the forest, and people, data is needed. But counting pigs is tricky.

This story was produced with the financial support of the European Union in the form of a grant from Internews Malaysia. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Internews and Macaranga and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. Kymberley Chu also received training under the Macaranga Sprouts programme.

Davison, Charles W., et al. “Shifts in the Demographics and Behavior of Bearded Pigs (Sus Barbatus) across a Land‐Use Gradient.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 21 Nov. 2019, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/btp.12724.

Ke, Alison, and Matthew Scott Luskin. “Integrating Disparate Occurrence Reports to Map Data-Poor Species Ranges and Occupancy: A Case Study of the Vulnerable Bearded Pig Sus Barbatus: Oryx.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 1 June 2017, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/oryx/article/integrating-disparate-occurrence-reports-to-map-datapoor-species-ranges-and-occupancy-a-case-study-of-the-vulnerable-bearded-pig-sus-barbatus/BD031BDF3FB61A3B81390F72C77979FC.

Kurz, David J., et al. “Transformation and Endurance of Indigenous Hunting: Kadazandusun‐Murut Bearded Pig Hunting Practices amidst Oil Palm Expansion and Urbanization in Sabah, Malaysia.” Besjournals, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 26 Aug. 2021, https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/pan3.10250.

Lee Tian Tong, Sheryl. “Borneo's Bearded Pigs and Traditional Hunters Adapted to Oil Palms. Then Came Swine Fever.” Mongabay Environmental News, 8 Sept. 2021, https://news.mongabay.com/2021/09/borneos-bearded-pigs-and-traditional-hunters-adapted-to-oil-palms-then-came-swine-fever/

Luskin, Matthew, et al. “Wildlife Disturbances as a Source of Conspecific Negative Density-Dependent Mortality in Tropical Trees.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 3 Mar. 2021, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2021.0001.

3 thoughts on “Locals Feeling Loss of Wild Pigs”

  1. I have recently returned from Sarawak where I found the Penan reporting that they can no longer find wild boar. They say they cannot even find their tracks. I am keen to hear if these pigs are to be found anywhere in Borneo? (Perhaps on some of the islands, or in isolated regions that have so far avoided coming into contact with ASF?) The disappearance is a very serious matter that does not appear to have been recognised by the authorities and by international wildlife agencies.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Paul. Local wildlife agencies and some researchers are aware of and are doing various levels of monitoring on how ASF is wiping out wild pigs in Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia. I suggest you get in touch with the Babi Hutan Project at Danau Girang who are monitoring post-ASF wild pigs populations in Sabah. They might have information on Sarawak too: https://www.babihutan.com/

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