In early 2003, I went to the jungles of Kalimantan looking for a pig hunter who would be prepared to take me into the forest. I needed to get a pig’s stomach for my research. Everyone I talked to was intensely curious.
They asked me, ‘What are you, a Muslim woman, going to do with a pig?’ I was a bit lost for words, because I hadn’t thought that people would ask me such a question. I had assumed that people would focus on the animal rather than on my own personal issues. I struggled to find a suitable answer. Eventually I replied, ‘Of course I don’t eat pork. But I really care about bearded pigs.’
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for me in Kalimantan. In the beginning I found it hard to integrate into a society that was totally different from my native Java. But I realised it was important for me to respect and understand their way of life, not the other way around. The Dayak had experience with women (especially foreigners) working in the forest, who would squeeze into the same hut with all the men. However, they thought it was unusual for a Muslim woman wearing the jilbab (headscarf) to do so. When they asked me about why I wear a jilbab, I gave them a simple answer. Covering my whole body, including my hair, makes me feel more secure. I explained that wearing the jilbab makes it is easier for me to pray without changing my clothes. It also assists men because they won’t be attracted to me.
The men weren’t attracted to me, but the leeches were! They hid under my jilbab for a whole day. In the end I swapped it for a beanie covered in repellent spray. Wearing the beanie made it easier for me to jump, walk, crawl, or sleep under bushes. These are important considerations when you’re after a bearded pig.
The beautiful bearded pig
I am researching the ecology and dietary habits of the bearded pig in the lowland forest of Malinau, East Kalimantan. The Malinau forest adjoins Kayan Mentarang National Park. It is considered the heart of the Asian region’s largest remaining tropical rain forest. The Malinau area is almost entirely covered by forest, which provides a suitable habitat for wild animals, including bearded pigs. The seeds of the dominant dipterocarps tree are important for animals because of their high nutritional value, but they also provide local people with cash crops.
Many people are unaware of the importance of bearded pigs within the forest ecosystem. Bearded pigs act as seed predators for most of the dipterocarps tree family but also play an important role in dispersing seed and providing seed beds for germination because they loosen and aerate soil by digging and churning it as they rummage on the forest floor.
Bearded pigs are large bodied mammals, up to one metre in height. They can weigh as much as 150 kilograms, depending on the quality of the food they eat. When I was in Kalimantan, I encountered pigs of no more than about 35 to 60 kilograms. It seems likely that lack of food sources, caused by extensive felling of the dipterocarps tree, may be the reason why the pigs have diminished in size. Even so, the bearded pig is more sought after than animals such as deer, mouse deer and birds.
Some of my colleagues think bearded pigs are the ugliest animals in existence, but I think they are beautiful! Adult male bearded pigs are very macho. They have a bushy tuft of hair on the cheek, which looks like a beard, hence the name. The bearded pig has a slender body and a longer head than most pigs, and is supported by thin legs and a two-rowed tuft on its tail.
A pig for the wedding
After a day’s rest when I arrived in Kalimantan, I joined a hunting trip for bearded pig with a group of Kenyah Dayak from Setulang, a village established in 1968. With fewer than 1,000 people in an area covering 11,000 hectares, Setulang is home to one of the few remaining primary lowland tropical forests on earth. Pak Kole Adjang, the village headman, invited me to join a group of experienced pig hunters. The men were about to set off on a four-day hunting expedition in the jungle located in the upper reaches of the Setulang River.
Normally, only men go hunting and the women stay at home. If the men return with a pig, it is the women’s job to prepare the meat. Hunting a bearded pig is believed to be a symbol of reaching manhood for boys. When a boy kills a pig, the news spreads quickly. It was my lucky day, because the four-day hunting trip was actually part of a wedding ritual. The family and neighbours of the bride and groom were hunting for bearded pig, to serve at the wedding. (Bearded pig is normally served at wedding and birth rituals.)
Unlike Punan Dayak, who eat pig’s meat with taro (cassava), Kenyah Dayak prefer rice porridge with pig’s meat in it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to watch how the women prepared the meal for this special occasion. But I saw some young women decorating the village hall and setting a long table for serving the meals a day before the festivity.
These days, it’s not so easy to catch a bearded pig. Pak Martinus, one of the hunters, said that while bearded pigs used to be heavily hunted, nowadays people tended to hunt for deer instead, or raise domestic pigs in their backyard. On my trip, I saw many hunters return with nothing after having spent several nights in the forest hunting for bearded pigs.
Local people have also noticed that the forest has been opened much faster under decentralisation. This has reduced the habitat for bearded pigs. As a result, the bearded pigs may try to survive by moving out of the forest interior. If their habitat continues to decrease, bearded pigs might start acting in a destructive manner like wild boars, invading villagers’ gardens located close to the forest. To date, according to the villagers, bearded pigs rarely come into villages. But if they did, their size and sharp tusks would be dangerous.
Although locals are now more aware of the decreasing number of bearded pigs, they are less aware that the animal may disappear under current hunting conditions. The Punan people, who still hunt with traditional blowpipes and spearpoint daggers, have complained about the increasing number of outsiders who use vehicles and sophisticated guns for hunting. The Punan people cannot compete with the hunters who use these methods.
Some of the traditional Dayak norms regarding the hunting of pigs have been violated by a number of Dayak hunters too. These include not killing a pig at the spot where they start to swim across the river and not entering areas where bearded pigs have recently been hunted. The older generation believed that if they violated these rules, then their god would punish them by taking away the bearded pig. Most of the younger generation and outsiders are unaware that these unwritten Dayak norms were designed to protect the area’s natural resources for long term benefit.
During my two visits, it was obvious that hunting was becoming a bigger and bigger problem. At the current population level (unfortunately, no data is available on the population in Kalimantan), even traditional hunting will result in a rapid decline of bearded pigs. I have no doubt that bearded pigs will not survive if current levels of hunting pressure continue.
There are several practical top-down ways to reduce human impact on the bearded pig population, which include documenting the status of bearded pigs, changing its status with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) from unprotected to threatened, and conducting further research into aspects of the biology, ecology and human utilisation of these animals. However, it is equally, if not more, important to make the local population aware of the role the bearded pig plays in sustaining the lowland forest ecosystem.
In the end, only the people who share its territory can save the bearded pig from extinction.
Titiek Setyawati (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.