Monday, February 7, 2011

Wee weird warthogs

Warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus).
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

I'm sorry I haven't posted recently; I've been going through a bit of a stressful patch.

However, outside in my front garden, there's a family that's clearly not stressed.
You could be forgiven for thinking they're feeling pious, because the two adults are down on their knees.

But they aren't facing Mecca.

Yes, you guessed it, they're warthogs.
Now I realise that you know all about warthogs. They trot past as non-speaking extras in every African wildlife documentary ever made.
Warthogs are passé.

But believe me, warthogs are weird. Pigs that live down burrows? Rabbits, wombats, prairie dogs – these are the critters that pop up out of holes. But pigs? And when tooth-and-claw threatens, warthogs don't just hurtle headlong down their holes like any self-respecting burrow-dweller. No, they skid to a halt at the tunnel mouth, whirl around (as much as anything pig-shaped can whirl) and reverse down backwards – now that's just perverse.  

When your the only pig bizarre enough to specialise in grazing, why not go the whole hog and gad about on your knees. This is said to give more leverage for snouting up grass roots, but I reckon they're trying to garner sympathy by looking obsequious. And it's premeditated: their gnarly knee calluses are present in the womb.
Photo by Brian Gratwicke.

But the reason I've been lured into writing about my common-or-garden warthogs is because, over the last couple of weeks, there's suddenly a whole lot more of them. Out in my garden - along with Mum and Aunt Mabel - are five little hoglets, currently leaping, spinning in the air and madly snout-jousting with one another. I've never figured out why warthog piglets are so appealing. I mean they're semi-bald and always look so... well, earnest. I guess it's partly because they're so tiny next to Mum (only 1% of her weight at birth), and they trot along in single file, tails stuck up and Mohican hairdos billowing in the breeze.

I first noticed something untoward in the world of hogs about two months ago. I pass several families (called sounders) on my way to the mongooses each day and, back then, all the mums suddenly disappeared. This set me in a panic because, around here, warthogs are popular guests at Saturday night's braai/barbie. But once I'd seen that last year's youngsters were pottering about normally, despite the lack of maternal care, I regained my composure and realised what was happening. You see when a mother-to-be's happy day arrives, she deserts her teenaged kids and retreats down a burrow. Here she'll stay, tending her tiny newborns, for at least a week. Even after she emerges, she'll still go hungry for several weeks, guarding her burrow-bound piglets and suckling them at 40 minute intervals.

Who wouldn't stay underground, if they looked like this? Warthog piglets don't leave their hole until 6-7 weeks old.
Photo by Martin Heigan.

Mother warthogs defend their piglets. That doesn't sound scary, does it. But then it fails to evoke the piglets' blood-curdling squeals, the dreadful roaring bellows and grunts of a charging sow or the hysterical yelping of an injured dog.

Maybe I need to go back a step. The summer before last I was letting my two huskies gallivant in the bush at the local mine when they flushed a young warthog. The little fellow took one look at the dogs and began hollering for Mum. His piercing 'I'm-being-torn-apart' screams were so shocking that Wizard and I stood transfixed, but Magic took off after the critter. Suddenly a large grey shape erupted from the bushes. Roaring and growling, Mother Warthog hurtled straight toward Wizard. I couldn't see what was happening because of the undergrowth but my heart contracted as a volley of dreadful yelping arose. Warthogs have a penchant for disembowelling dogs; their upper tusks can reach 60 cm (23") in length and the lower ones are razor-edged (honed by the upper tusks whenever the warthog chews).

Looking mean. The piglet's white cheek fur is thought to give an illusion of tusks (technically they're called tushes, not tusks, because they're canine teeth not incisors).
Photo posted on Flickr by Piglicker.

Straining to catch sight of Wizard, who - still yelping pitifully – was fleeing through the undergrowth, I suddenly realised that Mum was now charging straight at me. This didn't alarm me at first because warthogs often appear to be attacking you when they're actually just fleeing to a burrow behind you. I'd been fooled before. I was much more worried about Wizard. But as the massive creature hurtled down the hill toward me (mother warthogs weigh in at around 65 kg/143 lbs), I began to think, 'Surely she's not going to attack me too?' I'd never heard of warthogs disembowelling people. As she got closer and closer, I wondered, in a panicky sort of way, whether it was possible to play toreador with a pig. By that stage, of course, I really had no other option. Fortunately, when she was just one metre (3 ft) away from me, and I was getting ready to leap, she swerved sideways, dashing past in a flurry of dust.

Meanwhile, the piglet had given Magic the slip by squeezing under a fence, and both dogs were standing together on the track. Wizard, whimpering constantly, was trembling from head to foot, and his white fur was splashed liberally with scarlet. Heart in mouth, I rushed up to assess the damage. One of the warthog's tusks had speared his thigh, leaving behind a deep stab wound. But much worse, the other one had pierced into his groin and there was blood everywhere. Only after I'd flushed out the wound did I realise how lucky we'd been. The tusk had penetrated more than 20 cm (8"), but it had gouged up between the skin of his thigh and abdomen, slicing - but not actually penetrating - the abdomen wall. Although the wound was not life-threatening, it still took many painful weeks to heal.

Of course even as I write this, Wizard and Magic are racing up and down the fence, desperately eager to get out and chase those tempting little piglets. Oh, aren't dogs a blessing!

Pigging out. Unlike domestic pigs, warthog piglets don't own and defend a particular teat. They're so into sharing that females will suckle one another's kids. But milk-drinking is a frantic business: once flowing, the supply lasts only one minute.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.


  1. This reminds me of when I worked for the wild life officer in Zimbabwe. We had we had 6 warthog piglets in stables. One day they escaped and took off down the main road tails in the air at top speed with us all in full pursuit. LOL. We caught 5 of them quite quickly the other one was only brought back one week later!
    Hope your floods have gone down and that your beast has disappeared :) Diane

  2. Yes - what about the beast in the roof?

  3. I've been hugely, and probably unreasonably, fond of warthogs ever since I made a pop-up book about them in 7th-grade science, so this post is especially thrilling for me--although the tale of poor Wizard's near-death experience would be blood-curdling regardless. Hope the dogs manage to avoid any hostile-mother encounters this season.

  4. Thanks for another gripping, hugely informative account of how life works over there.

  5. Dogs never learn, do they?! I'm glad everything ended happily. I'm another reader that's fond of wild pigs, including those wee weird warthogs.

  6. Wow. I probably should have eaten breakfast before reading. =) 1. I think that piglet is super cute, 2. I like the "earnest" description, 3. I had a freaky wild boar dream last night. A wild boar was in a garden (my garden??)/yard. I was in a building with HUGE arched brick entryways and I thought, surely that thing is too big to get through that and into the house. Wrong. Freakish-Godzilla-like-huge boar entered the house and I exited, using my cellphone to dial 911. And now I read your post. =) Glad you escaped damage, and glad your dog has recovered. (P.S. inordinately fond of red river hogs at the San Diego zoo. I think they're gorgeous.)

  7. Diane,
    I can imagine the chaos of trying to catch six little warthogs!
    The river is in retreat since we've had no rain for three weeks. Sadly, all the pans are dry again and I'm trying to convince myself that frogs produce hundreds of tadpoles because they're EXPECTING them to die. Currently the terrapins' shrunken pool is the sole survivor, and I'm surreptitiously adding water to forestall the evil day (oh, such shameful bunny-hugging behaviour).

    Elephant's Eye,
    My roof-dwelling beast has moved out (hooray, celebrations, fanfare, etc.!).
    I think it was lured away by lust, since it's the season of love for most of the snakes here. My suspicions about its departure have been confirmed by the sudden arrival of every rodent and gecko in the district. My house is full of squeaks and scuttles, and I'm expecting the local cane rats, carrying little suitcases, to arrive on my doorstep any day.

    Ah, the power of pop-up books...
    I'm wondering whether to equip my dogs with lovely shiny breast-plates (tummy-plates?) for the piglet season.

    Perhaps I should buy shares in the local veterinary clinic, knowing the way life works over here...

    It's surprising how many people have a fondness for pigs. I wonder if there's a word for it. Swinephilia? Hogmania? Porcine-passion? Personally, I have trouble getting past their lack of fur and facial expressions.

    Isn't it called psychic resonance? I'm sure all the world's greatest minds are currently pondering ravening pigs.
    Red river hogs are stunning. We have bush pigs that are closely related (to river hogs, not to each other... or me!) but they're not quite as colourful. Sadly I see little of them because they gad about at night.

  8. A wart hog could never be passe! I can almost feel your adreline rush when you encountered mad Mama with your dogs.

    I was worried you might have flooded out. I hope the water has receded some.

  9. Elva,
    Thank you for your concern. Yes, the river has gone back to where it belongs; I even unpacked my books yesterday (so I'm expecting deluges at any moment!).

  10. Hi!
    Very nice post! Love the warthogs!
    Just wanted to leave a comment to correct a common mistake.
    The warthogs that inhabit South Africa nowadays are common warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus). There is a second species of living warthog that is called desert warthog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus), it is restricted to the Horn of Africa (some parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia). Interestingly, the desert warthog was also inhabiting South Africa during the historic times but it has become extinct at the end of XIXth century, mostly because of pandemics of rinderpest.
    Look forward to seeing more posts on warthogs!

    Antoine S.

    1. Thank you for the info (I've amended the post). It's intriguing that the Cape had desert warthogs, and sad that they're lost! I wonder if any of the private reserves are thinking of reintroducing some?

    2. I am not sure if that would be a good idea to reintroduce some desert warthogs in South Africa now that the other species has become widespread. There would be some competition between the two species and maybe even hybridation. But maybe that was already the case in the past...

      Antoine S.


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