>Unique ‘babirusa’ hard to find in the wild

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Bambang M, The Jakarta Post, Palu, Central Sulawesi

With its distinct white tusks growing right from its jaw, the babirusa
(Babyrousa babyrussa), or pig deer, looks a bit bizarre.

At first sight, the babirusa, which is about 85 to 100 cm in length and
weighs up to 100 kg, looks no different from the Sulawesi forest pig (Sus
celebensis). Though it also has upper tusks, the babirusa is gray and
hairless, while a forest pig is black and hairy. Moreover, they eat
different food. The babirusa only eats fruit, leaves and sometimes beetle
larvae from dead wood. Unlike other pigs, the babirusa never eats deep lying
roots using their snouts.

Sadly, the animal, which is unique to Sulawesi, is rarely spotted in its
natural habitat anymore, and has been listed as “vulnerable” by the World
Conservation Union (IUCN)’s Red Data Book.

According to experts, there are at least three subspecies of babirusa: the
Babyrousa babyrussa celebensis which lives in Sulawesi; B.b. babyrussa on
Sula and Buru islands; and B.b. togeanesis on Togean island. Two other known
subspecies, the B.b. beruensis and B.b. bolabatuensis, have gone extinct.

Famed biologist Alfred Russel Wallacea, who divided Indonesian fauna into
two categories — western and eastern territories — found thriving babirusa
populations in what is now the Tangkoko-Duasudara Nature Reserve and Lembe
island. Now this endemic animal has disappeared from these areas.

The unique animal is hardly found in national parks or nature reserves
across Sulawesi Island, like the Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park, the
Rawa Aopa National Park, the Fahrumpeae Nature Reserve and the Lore Lindu
National Park.

Lore Lindu was an important area for the babirusa. Before the Red Knobbed
Hornbill (Rhyticeros cassidix), the park used the babirusa as its symbol,
because of the large babirusa population in the area. But now the animal is
rarely encountered, even by the park’s forest rangers who go into the forest
almost every day.

“The last time I saw a babirusa was in 1989,” Thamrin, a forest ranger at
the Bobo checkpoint, said.

There is no exact number for the babirusa population in its natural habitat.
But it is safe to say that this nocturnal animal is in danger.

A 2001 survey by a Palu-based non-governmental organization on the
environment found that residents living around Lore Lindu National Park saw
only 11 babirusa between 1987 and 1991. For the survey, the organization
questioned 170 people from 18 villages around the park. About 65.29 percent
of the respondents said the babirusa population had fallen over the past
five years.

Poaching is one of the main factors for the diminishing number of babirusa
in the wild.

Although the animal is protected by law, people still hunt it down for its
meat. At times, one can find babirusa meat being sold in traditional
markets.

“Its meat is more delicious than ordinary pig or forest pig meat. But since
its rare to find the animal, I have not eaten babirusa meat for 20 years,”
said Paulus Tampinongo, a resident of Kulawi, Central Sulawesi.

Also, the skulls of the babirusa, with its tusks, are sought-after
keepsakes, a tradition that can be traced back hundreds of years when kings
in Sulawesi made presents of the skulls. Now a babirusa skull costs as much
as Rp 500,000.

Quoting Quoy and Gaimard (1830), babirusa expert Alastair A. MacDonald said
that kings in Sulawesi often kept and raised babirusa to present them as
diplomatic gifts. In 1820, the first pair of babirusa arrived in Europe and
were kept at the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where a male
piglet was produced in March 1821.

Another factor blamed for the disappearance of the animal is land clearing,
which has destroyed the babirusa’s natural habitat. The species lives in
lowland forests, but continued forest exploitation has driven it into
mountain forests.

A female babirusa begins to reproduce between the age of five months and 10
months. The gestation period has been listed as between 125 and 150 days.
Generally, female babirusa give birth to one or two piglets at a time.
Thought to be seasonal breeders in the wild, Kathleen A. Maclaughlin and
Patrick R. Thomas from the New York Zoological Society wrote that in that
zoo, young babirusa were born every month from June through November.

The younger animal is vulnerable to natural predators such as pythons and
the Sulawesi civet. And at times, adult babirusa eat the newborn piglets.

In the wild, an adult male babirusa is solitary, while the females are
usually accompanied by two or three young babirusa. Although the babirusa is
an nocturnal animal, in the daytime they still look for food. Their most
active time is around dawn and dusk.

People living near Lore Lindu say the babirusa is a quiet but dangerous
animal who will attack when threatened.

“I have heard many stories about men who were attacked by babirusa in the
wild,” said S. Gulo, a primary school teacher in Biromaru village, Donggala,
Central Sulawesi.

People living around Lore Lindu National Park have another story about the
animal’s tusks. According to them, the upper tusk is used by the male
babirusa to hang from a low tree branch while waiting for a female.

Is that true? It might be. But according to research by John McKinnon,
Victoria Selmier and Colin Groves of the Australian National University in
The Sulawesi ‘Special’, Archaic, Strange, Endemic (Australian Natural
History Vol. 21, No. 101985), the upper tusk is used as a weapon by male
babirusa when they fight one another for the right to mate with a female.

Unique as it is, how long will the babirusa survive in the forests of
Sulawesi? This is a difficult question to answer.

Like other forests in Indonesia, the forests in Sulawesi are in danger. Land
clearing and illegal logging remain serious problems.

Children in the villages around the Lore Lindu National Park know the
babirusa is an endemic animal that can only be found in the wild not far
from their houses. It’s just that most of them have never seen a babirusa.

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