Last month I spent two weeks in the province of Assam in North-eastern India to cover the 100th Pygmy Hog release for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust that are based in Jersey. The work being done to save this critically endangered species was just amazing to witness and be part of. The following images show you some of the amazing things I witnessed during this incredible trip.
The people of Assam are a mixture of Mongolian, Indo-Burmese, Indo-Iranian and Aryan origin, this mixture of people makes up the population of the state and they call themselves “Asomiya’” or “Assamese’” the language is also referred to by the same name. The culture is a mixing pot of rituals, customs, heritage, lifestyle, faith & beliefs which I found truly fascinating during my time there. The people I met where really kind and lovely to me and I thank them all.
The Pygmy Hog comes from the foothill plains south of the Himalayas, it’s population has been decimated; by habitat destruction due to the expansion of human and cattle populations, uncontrolled thatch burning in the region and the development of commercial plantations. It is the rarest, the smallest and the most critically endangered wild pig species found in the world. It is the sole surviving representative of the ‘Porcula’ genus. If we lose the pygmy hog then an entire evolutionary branch of the pig family would be lost.
Sadly there is very little public awareness and support for the smallest pig in the world. The only conservation program for the Pygmy Hog was started in 1995. Named as the Pygmy Hog Conservation Program (PHCP), it was initiated by scientist Goutam Narayan with the help of the government, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT) and IUCN Wild Pig Specialist Group.
The PHCP started a captive breeding programme in Basistha, Guwahati, with the goal of reintroducing captive bred hogs back in the wild in 1996. The captive breeding programme has been a great success and the month of May marked the 100th release of captive bred Pygmy hogs into the wild.
These critically endangered animals number around 250 in the wild and every life counts in increasing the wild population. The guys in Assam are doing truly amazing work to save these little fellows from total extinction. This is the way you save species from extinction by empowering local people to save what they have and help them do this with support.
After my three flights from the UK I finally landed in the capital of Assam, Guwahati and was met by the head of the whole project Goutam Narayan. I have done some homework on the project prior to flying out there, on both Goutam and the chief vet and project manager Parag Jyoti Deka. They are famous for their work in saving this Pygmy hog. We then headed by car to Potasali, one of the captive breeding centers for these Pygmy hogs.
When I arrived it was almost dark and I was shattered, I was shown to my room by Goutam where I unpacked. I chose to soak up the atmosphere of the Eco lodge in Nameri and slept outside in my hammock, that contact with my environment and nature is a strong one and when and where I can I prefer to sleep in this way. The next morning the six Pygmy Hogs were round, the movement of them had been put on hold for my arrive so that I could capture this whole series of events.
In order to prepare the hogs for release into the wild, they are kept in specially designed enclosures where the aim is to encourage natural foraging, nest-building and other behaviours that these hogs do in the wild. Simulated natural habitats were constructed and husbandry techniques are adapted to minimise human contact to stop tameness and other behavioural characteristics that can develop from captive management.
These six Pygmy hogs had lived with little contact with any humans on the lead up to this release. I witnessed them moved into a pen from where they were let through to a smaller area in which they were caught, weighed and then sedated to help them cope with the stress. These enduring creatures don’t really do well with stress which is a major factor to their demise in the wild.
Vet Parag Jyoti Deka had worked so hard for this release and all the previous ones to make sure eveything went well and the care of the Pygmy hog was paramount at all stages. It was a well, drilled routine by dedicated staff, everyone was doing their best for the end game which was getting these Pygmy hogs caught, checked and on their way to the wild in the best way they could.
The following images take you through this sequence of events I witnessed and just how fast and difficult the hogs were to capture. Often the hogs would stop dead in their tracks and almost freeze to the spot to then dart off in another direction often following the others. They were very carefully caught using a net one at a time, checked and tagged and given another sedative to calm them down for the journey by road to Bornadi.
In order to monitor the survival of these animals post-release, radio-tags were specially designed and fitted to the hogs as they were being checked over. Dummy tags had been fitted whilst they were being kept in the pre-release enclosures, getting the hogs used to having something attached to them. This was removed and replaced with new ones in readiness for the release in a few days time.
Following a five month period of preparation in the pre-release enclosures at Potasali, these six pygmy hogs were then transported to a soft-release enclosure in Bordadi Wildlife Sanctuary within a relatively secluded but easy to access area of natural habitat within the release site. The enclosure was surrounded with two lines of electric fencing and kept under continual surveillance as a precaution against potential predators and to deter incursion by wild elephants.
Bornadi Wildlife Sanctuary is situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, bordering Bhutan in the north and in Udalguri District of Assam. This sanctuary is named after the river Bornadi which flows on it’s western border. This amazing sanctuary was established in 1980 to protect the Hispid hare and Pygmy Hog
After the long drive that took most of the day we arrived at Bornadi and as we parked up there was quite a large group of people that had been waiting for our arrival with our special passengers. This included local press, local governors, the field director of Manas National park and many others. The Pygmy Hog story had become big news in the surrounding area and people wanted to see them and meet those involved with this special release.
The Pygmy Hogs were last seen in Bornadi in 1993 so this release was massive and the interest gained was really good for all those involved. Once all the greetings were done the six Pygmy Hogs were officially presented to the national parks director by Goutam Narayan. It was quite a big thing to witness and a big responsibility for all involved.
After we all drove to the specially designed enclosure that was to be the Pygmy hogs home for a few days before their official release back into Bornadi national park and their first taste of freedom in the wild.
The local press reported on this amazing event and you can see one story here in the Telegraph. It was really great for all those that worked so hard to make this day happen to get the coverage and respect they greatly deserved.
Once everyone had gone home I spent the night there in my hammock and came back the following day to just sit and watch these wonderful little creatures and learn more about them and try and capture this with my camera. Incredibly dependent on each other for their survival which is very evident once you spend time watching them. They build nests on the ground by digging a small hollow in the earth, and then cover it with tall grasses and anything else they can get. They then climb inside to sleep which is just amazing as very few animals outside of birds build a nest like this.
I got used to their movements and calls over those several days I watched them. I loved the experience, often smiling to myself when I moved and they made a “grunt” noise for me to reply with “oh come on you know it’s me you can smell me just relax” if anyone had been listening they would have laughed. Nature is amazing, I feel at home amongst it my images capture exactly what I see. They capture the essence of the animal and their own character and lives.
On the morning of the release many people once more had turned up to witness history in the making with the 100th release of the Pygmy hog back into the wild and back to a place they hadn’t been seen in since 1993. After speeches by the various people involved it was left to the director to say a few words and then the gate was pulled back on the enclosure and we waited to see what would happen.
The image below shows the moment the gate was pulled back from their temporary home and they tasted freedom for the very first time. They just walking calmly out and back to where they belong. “Good luck” I said under my breath as I took my images, wishing them luck in their lives in the wild. I was expecting them to run out really fast but in the end they casually walked out. The male was first then they all followed. Within a few minutes they had disappeared into the long grass and were free.
The whole experience was really moving for me on a personal front as I had spent a few days with these little fellows beforehand. Now seeing them start their lives in the wild was just magical and a really happy ending to months and years of hard work for everyone involved.
Later on Parag set up the transmitter and he got back a signal for each one of the Pygmy hogs that was tagged just letting him know that the signal was working and all looked well for the future. Those last several days had been very moving for me, watching and learning about these critically endangered creatures I had become very attached to each of them during that time, and I now felt lost that they had gone.
The following day I headed back to Potasali, the captive breeding centre I had visited several days earlier. I wanted to capture some images of this place as most of the hogs that go back into the wild come from here and the other breeding center in Guwahati. They live in small walled enclosures with an inside part that they can come into at anytime. They are fed fresh, natural food in this part of the centre and vitamins, and any medicine is added to their food should they need it. Contact with humans is minimal and it’s incredibly hard to get close to these nervous little creatures.
As the light faded on the first day at the breeding center I witnessed a male Pygmy hog building a nest for the night. At first I didn’t see him but then I heard the crashing noise of vegetation. I stopped and watched something that is incredibly rare in the animal kingdom as not many ground dwelling animals make a nest. The three young male Pygmy hogs just watched and followed him around and at times they give a hand by trying to pick some of the vegetation up it was so amazing to witness. The following images and short video will show you this rare event unfold.
I spent the following day at the breeding centre before leaving for Kaziranga national park and then onto Manas national park the following day. I had some amazing encounters watching wild Asian Elephants feed and play with their young, I also saw a Greater One-Horned Rhino with her young and a male the following morning. I plan on going back to this park in the future because the few days I spent there just wasn’t enough.
As I was photographing, this woman with her children came from their small village to see me, she proudly held aloft her youngest daughter as her two others daughters accompanied her which was just wonderful to witness. I had a brilliant guide over those two days there and I will be working with him again in the future.
I left Kaziranga and headed to Mathanguri forest lodge in Manas national park. This truly remote and incredible place is situated just by the side of Manas river that divides Manas Nation Park and Royal Manas National park of Bhutan. I chose to sleep on the balcony in my hammock instead of my room to witness the beauty of this amazing landscape.
Manas national park is the only place on earth that still has a tiny population of wild Pygmy Hogs, I was hoping to see signs of them but in the time I had there it was impossible. Great to see the habitat there, which is the grassland habitat favored by these hogs. I also witnessed anti poaching patrols there that use elephants to patrol this dense landscape.
When you meet people unplanned and spend time with them where English isn’t the first language you see people in a simple uncomplicated way. You see more of that person really in the absence of communication as we know it in the UK. When I travel to countries I always try and engage with the locals, spend time with them and learn from them. using signs, hand gestures, a smile and broken English you can achieve a great deal.
These people touch you with their kindness, they unlock something inside you that is so lacking our modern “dog eat dog” world back home. The second week in Assam I was on my own, it was unplanned but in the end it turned out perfect for me. I went to villages, I stayed with Sanjeev and his family for several days and nights and we visited projects, locals and then had 2 days in the forest looking for Golden langurs. His family looked after me really well and his young son would always follow me around wondering what I was doing as you can see in the below images.
It was an amazing and humbling time. I also had the privilege of giving a talk in a local school about the importance of nature and protecting what we have on the lead up to world environment day. The following images show my time spent with Sanjeev and all people I met during those days I spent with him. I also met Bipen Barman, who is 100 years old, a remarkable man full of wisdom, knowledge and kindness.
Golden langurs are considered to be sacred by Himalayan people,they only came to the attention of scientists as a distinct species in the 1950s so little is known about their behaviour. Named after their gorgeously coloured coats. These secretive leaf-eating monkeys are one of India’s most endangered primates and I spent two days looking for them and on the second day I got very lucky thanks to Sanjeev. The colour of their colour was just amazing, I’ve never ever seen them or heard much about them until this visit. They live inside Manas National Park and also on the fringes of this park too, truly beautiful that nature gave them this stunning coat of gold.
For the last couple of days in Assam I headed back to the capital to capture some of the images at the Guwahati breeding centre. I then wanted to do some laundry as for two weeks almost I hadn’t had time or the opportunity to wash my clothing and I wanted to do this before flying home. On my last day/night in Assam I paid for a hotel and did all my cleaning and admin while having my first night in a proper bed for many days in readiness for my 16 hour journey back to the UK. It was heaven and it was a lovely end to an amazing , action packed two weeks there.
My last image I took in Assam and the one I want to finish this massive blog post with is of a female with three very young babies that had not long been born at Guwatati. I smiled as I took this picture knowing what was waiting ahead of them in the long road to the wild. Knowing what I had witnessed and seen with my own eyes that was coming to them in getting them back into the wild to preserve these truly incredible creatures.
I’d like to thank Durrell Wildlife Conservation trust for asking me to cover this 100th release. Thank you to the guys in Assam from Pygmy Hog Conservation Program (PHCP) for looking after me out there. Thanks to everyone I met and for doing what you do to preserve the wildlife and the habitat there and keeping alive many creatures that otherwise would be in grave danger without such help. It was an amazing place, amazing wildlife and people and I will be back there one day, many thanks.