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Curly-tusked boxing pigs rejoice


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Date: 2020-02-27

Source: BBC

By Alex Kirby, BBC News Online environment correspondent

A wild pig found only in Indonesia will be a little safer, thanks to the near-doubling of the reserve where it lives. The babirusa, known for its distinctive curly tusks, is found only in Sulawesi and some neighbouring islands, and now numbers fewer than 10,000 survivors.

The government of Gorontalo province on Sulawesi has increased the size of the animals' stronghold, Paguyaman forest.

A UK scientist and a team of Indonesian colleagues have pioneered new ways of conserving the forest to keep it safe.

Wildlife treasure trove

Paguyaman, home to many of Sulawesi's babirusa, is being increased from 31,000 to 52,000 hectares (from 120 to 200 square miles).

It also harbours many other species endemic to Sulawesi (creatures found nowhere else), including the anoa, a type of buffalo, a tiny nocturnal primate called the spectral tarsier, and more than 100 bird species.

Paguyaman was designated as a protected rainforest reserve in 1999, but illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture continued to eat it away.

Dr Lynn Clayton, a British zoologist, has spent the last 15 years in Sulawesi studying the babirusa population (the name means "pig-deer").

With a team of Indonesian colleagues which includes scientists, forestry department officials and former hunters, she has helped to introduce new methods of forest conservation.

Elite special police forces patrol the reserve with local people, an initiative which has seen the end of illegal logging from within Paguyaman. Formerly, ten rafts of illegal timber passed the project's field camp daily.

Forest pugilists

Special education and publicity programmes reinforce the message, and 8,000 teak trees planted outside the reserve provide villagers with a buffer zone crop.

One of Paguyaman's distinctive features is a natural salt-lick where the babirusa congregate in large numbers to devour the mineral-rich soil.

An adult animal weighs up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds), and is the only mammal in the world in which the upper canine teeth in males are completely reversed, emerging not from the upper jaw but through the skin of the snout. Two other tusks curve out from the lower jaw.

Another singular characteristic is the males' habit of rearing up on their hind legs and appearing to box with one another as they try to assert their dominance.

The estimate of up to 10,000 live babirusa in the wild may be much too optimistic: some experts think the true figure is half that.

Losing the taste

The babirusa have suffered badly at the hands of poachers, who trap them in string leg snares for their meat.

But the Paguyaman project worked with local officials to bring about the first completed prosecution of a babirusa trader in 2002.

As a result of this and other anti-poaching steps, it says, the number of animals sold in local markets has fallen from 15 a week in 1991 to two a week now.

The project is supported by the UK's Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Environment Project Fund.

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