Ask anyone out there which is the most important animal on Borneo, and chances are they would say the Orang Utan. The great red ape is big, is world renowned, is endangered and is the one animal most people want to see on Borneo. In fact, there’s a whole tourism industry built around this great ape. So, yes, the orang utan is important.
However, if you posed this same question to a native, his answer would be the pig. He’s not talking about the pig bought from the pork seller at the market, but the wild pig from the forest. The wild pig on Borneo is a special animal indeed. Let me tell you a little about this wonderful wild pig, and why I confer upon it the honourable title of Very Important Pig!
There is only one species of wild pig on Borneo, and it’s called the Sunda Bearded Pig. It grows to 100kg, large individuals reaching six feet in length with long curving tusks. It is called the bearded pig because of its prominent beard, growing to vast proportions in older animals of both sexes. The bearded pig occurs only on Borneo, southern Sumatra and south-eastern peninsular Malaysia.
Bearded pigs are omnivores, meaning they eat almost anything and everything. They particularly love roots and tubers, digging these from the ground, and making quite the mess. Upturned soil is a distinct sign of their presence. They also eat meat and batteries. We don’t know why, but discarded batteries (something quite common in forests visited by torchlight-carrying tourists and locals) are often found in the stomachs of pigs. Perhaps there’s some rare element used in batteries that is a health supplement for pigs?
The bearded pig of the past was known for a truly spectacular event. Every few years, thousands of pigs would move across the great island of Borneo. Scientists believe these seasonal mass movements, not unlike the great migrations of wildebeest across Africa’s savanna, were in response to mass fruitings of rainforest trees. These migrations were astounding events, and much looked forward to by the Bornean natives. This was a time of plenty. Groups of hunters could gather at river crossings, and hunt large numbers of pigs with ease.
These mass movements of bearded pigs have all but disappeared. Small scale movements are still occasionally recorded, but this behaviour is basically a thing of the past. Our landscape is just no longer the way it was. The vast unbroken forests have gone, and so have the pig migrations.
To come back to the question of why the pig holds the title of Very Important Pig on Borneo, one needs to look at its role as a food source. Yup, there’s nothing more important that what fills one’s stomach.
There is only one species of wild pig on Borneo, and it’s called the Sunda Bearded Pig. It grows to 100kg, large individuals reaching six feet in length with long curving tusks
The pig has always been the main sourceof protein (meat) for communities living off the forests. Natives hunt many animals, from deer to fish, bears, cats, monkeys and birds. But it is the pig that provides the biggest quantity, and most regular source of meat. Pigs are always around, and in good numbers. Pigs breed fast, and can maintain their populations easily despite being hunted regularly, as long as the forests remain.
A study was done in Sarawak in the 1990s that illustrated how important pigs are to rural people. The study revealed that one village hunted and consumed 429 pigs in one year. With an average pig conservatively providing about 50kg of meat, that’s about 20 tons of pork! And it is free. All this pig meat amounted to about 81% of the total weight of all animals they hunted. This shows how important the pig is to this village, which would otherwise have had to buy this amount of meat from far-away towns. Think back 50 years, and it is inconceivable that our Iban longhouses far up Sarawak’s rivers could have existed without the pig.
Let’s take this a little further. Let’s talk money. After all, we always value things in terms of money, don’t we? It is estimated that there are about 4,000 predominantly non-Muslim villages across the whole of Borneo, with limited access to urban centres and cash economies. If each of these villages hunt, say, 300 pigs a year, with each pig giving about 50kg of meat, and with a market price (at least in Sarawak) of RM10-12 a kilogramme, this works out to between RM600 million to RM1.2 billion a year of free meat!
This is an astounding figure, and this is not considering the fact that wild boar meat is available today in most restaurants in towns. Would you not agree now that the bearded pig deserves the title of Very Important Pig? Here’s a salute to Borneo’s bearded pig.
Tony Sebastian was born Sibu, grew up in Marudi, Limbang and Serian. Nature his profession, history his passion, Kuching his home. A naturalist, traveller and author, Tony is part of Borneo Futures, an organisation focused on Science for Change throughout Borneo.