Feral Pigs Part 1 – Native species suffer as ferals make pigs of themselves

Christine Hof checks on the condition of a turtle on the beach.

Dave Rose

The insatiable appetites of feral pigs mean that some staple species of Australian wildlife can face unwelcome harassment and even have their status endangered.

Unlikely as it seems, wild pigs have targeted sea turtles as food sources. And their voracious feeding habits are indirectly affecting the fate of koalas. The gluttonous swine gorge on any foliage they come across, which means wrecking the leafy landscape and its surrounds that the koalas frequent.

The koala population is in enough trouble as it is, due to the effects of defoliage and the last thing that they need are feral pigs having an unwanted influence. Make no mistake ‑ if the pigs need to nosh, their instincts know no bounds. When drought has gripped in areas frequented by hogs, there are tales of desperate groups of them attacking tiny calves.

Deborah Tabart, CEO of the Australian Koala Foundation, has not seen any evidence on her many travels around Australia, to consider feral pigs an immediate danger to koalas but is still concerned.

“I have never heard of wild pigs eating eucalyptus trees, but I wonder whether their destruction of the ground when they burrow for food would stop the regrowth of koala food trees,” she said.

Deborah resides in Queensland but her roving duties take her all over the continent. She worries that attempts to eradicate certain pest creatures can have a rebound upshot for other breeds of wildlife. Perhaps baits put down could be munched by unknowing innocent parties such as pets wandering onto properties they shouldn’t.

“I remember on Kangaroo Island, when our teams were researching landscapes, seeing a huge, I mean huge, feral pig that just appeared to be burping after eating a bait. He was enormous, like the size of a hippopotamus,” she claimed.

The pigs themselves are faced by apparatus and tactics to curb their antics but they give the impression of being as clever as they are brash.

“There were pig cages all over the island. Big cages!” said Deborah.

If the koalas have largely escaped direct suffering at the hands of the marauding feral pigs, other groups have not been so lucky. It is estimated that there are least three million porkers, perhaps even more, roaming Cape York Peninsula, eating whatever they can.

They possess the perfect genetic credentials to survive and thrive in this harsh tropical landscape. As the pigs multiply, they ride roughshod over other species. This is certainly true in the case of the turtles that breed along the beaches of Western Cape York.

In many examples, including one as reported by the ABC, feral pigs are preying on nests of newly-hatched flatback and green turtles along the north Queensland coast. The pigs are apparently guzzling a combination of eggs in nests and turtle hatchlings.

Feral pigs dig up turtle nests not long after mother turtles lay their eggs in the sand, then wolf them down and often come back for another helping when the eggs are close to hatching. At some locations, Rangers and scientists have observed 100 per cent of turtle nests eradicated by pigs. Other raiders will chomp on turtle eggs – dingoes and goannas in particular ‑ and various creatures try to move in on the hatchlings as they crawl along the dunes on their way to the sea. But the pigs scoff more eggs than other killers, and there are so many of them that the turtles don’t stand much of a chance.

“In northern Queensland, feral pigs are still an issue in relation to the turtles,” said Christine Hof, Marine Species Project Manager with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“It is a real challenge to address the threat of feral pigs but there are organisations which are having success.

“The Western Cape Turtle Threat Abatement Alliance is one of those. They are doing some incredible things.

“Don’t forget the turtles are also under threat from goannas, plastics being washed ashore as well as climate change.

“It is a finite balance between native and feral animals and very complex.”

Deborah Tabart holds one of her beloved koalas.
A helicopter takes off to launch an aerial cull on feral pigs. Photo Kerry Trapnell

That view is echoed by Kerri Woodcock, Coordinator of the Western Cape Turtle Threat Abatement Alliance. Kerri has more than 10 years experience in community-based natural resource management and has worked primarily with the coastal zone. Kerri supports the WCTTAA member organisations (Kowanyama, Pormpuraaw, Napranum, Mapoon and Northern Peninsula Area Councils) whose goal is “to efficiently manage threats to coastal habitats and enhance opportunities for nesting marine turtle populations of the Western Cape”.

“The greatest direct threat to marine turtles on the Western Cape is the predation of the turtles’ nests by feral pigs,” said Kerri.

Something had to be done to halt the incursions on the turtles and one of those options is culling of the feral pigs

“We carry out aerial culling programs as well as land culling programs,” said Kerri. “The culling is carried out by Indigenous Ranger groups on Indigenous land.”

Such procedures are embarked on under the auspices of the Nest to Ocean Turtle Protection Program, with the support of Cape York Natural Resource Management. The program involves the Australian and Queensland governments each committing corresponding funds of up to $3.5 million across six years until mid-2020 to help lessen the perils of predation on marine turtle nests.

“It’s not cheap to send a chopper up in these remote areas, so by coordinating and prioritising our efforts, we can be more efficient and effective,” said Kerri.

It seems like a full-time task to stem the intimidation imposed on the turtles by the feral pigs but Kerri is encouraged by the way things are heading.

“Are we winning the battle? ‑ at the moment,” she said. “The WCTTAA Ranger groups work tirelessly throughout the turtle season on the remote coastline of the Western Cape to protect the turtle nests. Aluminium cages are used to cover the nests of the endangered turtle species, to protect them from the pigs that are missed during culling activities.

“For the last three years the beaches monitored by the WCTTAA groups have had predation rates averaging 10 per cent. At one stage during the early 2000s, that was running at about 90 per cent.”

Damien Ferguson, President of the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia Queensland Conservation and Wildlife Management Division, knows all about the miscreant tendencies of feral pigs in his neck of the woods and their ability to adapt to varying conditions.

A flatback turtle on the beach at Cape York. Photo Kerri Woodcock (Cape York NRM)
A flatback turtle makes itself at home as a Ranger hovers in the distance. Photo Kerri Woodcock (Cape York NRM)
Turtle hatchings crawl towards the sea. Photo Kerri Woodcock (Cape York NRM)
Turtle hatchings crawl towards the sea. Photo Kerri Woodcock (Cape York NRM)

As Exhibit A, Damien supplied a video of a crafty pig pushing itself against a circular livestock food tray in order to disperse the tics and bugs on top of the victuals for the pig to then steal the fodder to swallow itself.

Damien said that the feral pigs are highly intelligent and are similar to humans in their consumption conventions.

“Whatever we eat, they eat,” he said. “And remember a lot of human testing is done on pigs.”

The environmental harm that these rascal ferals perpetrate is significant. “They can take five, six, seven lambs a day,” said Damien. “The CWM’s aim is to work with landowners to maintain pig levels at a low order.

“The aim is to keep the numbers down at a level enough that they are not causing too much damage. You can’t hope to eradicate them ‑ unless you are on an island. It’s just so long as they are not affecting the farmers or the food chain.”

Damien reckons that 70 to 80 per cent of Australia’s feral pig population can be found in the Tropics of Queensland.

“All they need is water, shelter and protein,” he said. “They can survive in the Tropics because they just snooze all day and are nocturnal.

“As for potential predators, the only things pigs have to fear are humans. Or perhaps crocodiles. But there are not enough crocodiles to deal with the pigs. It’s just the same as having a barn full of mice. Could a cat kill them all? ‑ no!”

And the cunning mindset of the pigs keeps them one step ahead of possible hindrances. “They coat themselves in mud so that the bugs can’t bite them,” said Damien. “That’s why people like to hunt them – because they are so clever.”

He reckons that the Outback pigs are natural-born survivors. “Pigs in the bush are not fat,” said Damien. “They have to compete for food. They are not the barrel shape that people think they are. They have to walk to earn their food or work hard to dig it up.”

On top of all this is the feral pigs’ propensity to disturb the living space of rival species. The ability of pigs to adopt predatory characteristics should not be underestimated. Down the centuries in Europe, there have been countless references to fears about what physical impairment could potentially be meted out to humans by irate porkers that had been stirred into defending their turf.

Stark evidence of feral pig diggings at Cape York. Photo Kerri Woodcock (Cape York NRM)
A Ranger watches as a tiny turtle hatchling edges nearer to the waves. Photo Kerri Woodcock (Cape York NRM)
A turtle nest predated by feral pigs. Photo Pormpuraaw Land and Sea Management

Many of Australia’s feral pigs look more similar to Eurasia’s wild boars than their domestic counterparts. Experienced hunters have told stories about shooting any feral pig in far north Queensland then having to hold their breath as the wounded animal, with nothing to lose, launched a charge at the shooter. In most episodes the enraged boar has fallen just short of its intended victim, slumping to its demise. Equipped with thick, razor-sharp tusks and an alert mind (hogs are the reputedly the fourth most intelligent animal in the world) a wild boar can weigh a hefty 100kg-plus and display extremely malevolent and erratic behaviour.

So there is plenty to be scared of in these happenings. And such anxiety is easily translated into various strands of modern art forms.

For instance, Boar is a 2017 Australian horror film about a family who find themselves on the road in the Australian Outback, being stalked by a bloodthirsty wild pig.

The animal is of gargantuan size, with a callous, perpetual thirst for blood and mayhem. Staking out its territory, the beast tolerates no intruders and kills with a brutal, intense intent.

The film may be implausible and even evoke laughter but other offerings on the big screen like Hannibal and Snatch seemingly suggest, via some harrowing scenes, that all pigs desire to gobble on human remains as another snack interlude.

Nervousness about pigs reaches new heights with Swinophobia. This refers rather aptly to the phobia which is a fear of pigs. Its name stems from the word ‘swine’, which in turn arises from the Old English word “swīn”. It is not only a universal fear of pigs, but can broaden to a disliking or even an immobilising dread of pork.

The indiscriminate pillaging and downright anti-social leanings of feral pigs in relation to their fellow animals appears never ending. The irreverent invaders can inflict environmental carnage. They clearly have a lot to answer for.

A pig caught on trail camera raiding a turtle nest after sunset. Photo Pormpuraaw Land and Sea Management
A pig caught on trail camera raiding a turtle nest after sunset. Photo Pormpuraaw Land and Sea Management
Pormpuraaw Rangers install a nest protection cage to keep out the pigs. Photo Pormpuraaw Land and Sea Management

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