Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ware warthogs!

Photo by Arno Meintjes.

I’m writing this post for people, like myself, who felt irritated when the Lion King portrayed Pumbaa (the insouciant warthog) as living on bugs ('slimy... yet satisfying').

Alright, it was probably only me, but warthogs are grazers for Heaven’s sake!

Of the 16 pig species trotting about the world today, the warthog is the most deeply committed vegetarian.
And its veggie of choice is grass.

Look inside a warthog’s mouth and (if you can avoid losing a finger) you’ll discover a highly sophisticated grass processing plant. The incisors are designed for nipping shoots from closely cropped lawn, and behind the seriously off-putting canines (i.e. the tusks), the entire tooth row is given over to one mighty mother of a molar.
Young warthogs shed their normal piggy assemblage of premolars and molars so their third molar can grow to immense proportions. This behemoth, which is open-rooted and grows continuously, is designed to combat the gritty rasp of silica-rich grass. Even a warthog’s jaw hinges differently to that of other family members, allowing its chops to work up a good sideways swing for grass grinding.

Of course you may be wondering how such a specialised grass-muncher copes with the dry season when all the grass has withered away? Well hungry warthogs switch to rooting up the grass’s underground rhizomes and bulbs.

Now don’t get me wrong, although warthogs are connoisseurs of pasture they’ll also munch fruit and berries. But they have surprisingly conservative tastes; even when starving, they turn their snouts up at veggie scraps, apple peelings and bread (I’ll tell you about that fiasco some other time).

A warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) relishing a meal of marulas.
Photo by Brian Gratwicke.

But warthogs haven’t totally forgotten their omnivorous ancestry. This was brought home to me as I watched a large female warthog marching along a road in Kruger National Park. Up ahead, lying in the centre of the tarmac, was a road-killed squirrel.
‘Oh this will be interesting,’ I thought niavely, ‘I wonder if she’ll react?’
I imagined her pausing to give the little body a cursory sniff.

I was wrong.

As the warthog approached the body, she quickened her pace. And then, when she was still a meter away, she leapt. Yes, that’s right, leapt. It was a lightning fast strike and I gazed open-mouthed as she snatched up the dead squirrel and beat it viciously against the tarmac. I could hear the thwack, thwack, thwack from the car.
Moving at a frenzy, she hurled the squirrel high into the air and as it hit the ground she lunged forward and trampled on it, over and over, with her front trotters. It was like someone treading grapes, only ten times the speed. She repeated these manoeuvres like a creature possessed for some minutes and then, pinning the body with her front hoof, began tearing it apart.

I have to admit I was stunned. So much for darling little warthogs!

Cannibalism? No, a bit of hakuna matata; they’re grooming.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

I was reminded of this illusion-shattering incident as I drove home from the mongooses earlier this week.
Now, I should explain that my landlord often sups on impala at his weekend braai (barbeque), and he tosses the less edible bits out for the delectation of the local vultures. So it’s not unusual for me to find myself engulfed in a flapping cloud of monstrous birds as I pass by on a Monday.

But this week the vultures weren’t enjoying their usual feast; they were all sitting waiting disconsolately in the trees.
Was a leopard keeping them off?
A lion...?

As I got nearer I saw that a warthog family was gathered at the carcass. This sounder (comprised of two big mums and nine piglets) is one of my favourites because the little hogs are always gambolling and jousting with one another or trotting along decorously - tails raised - in single file. But this week I was a little dismayed to see them tucking in enthusiastically at the bloody remains of the impala's ribcage. Each charming little piglet - its face spattered with gore - was tugging with great vigour on the end of a rib!

With my usual aplomb as a wildlife photographer, I failed to capture the moment (although you can see a camera-trap image of warthogs munching carrion here, if you need proof of this perfidy), and the best I can offer you are ‘after shots’.

The culprits fleeing the scene of the crime.

Pissed-off vultures (white-backed) waiting for the swine to relinquish their lunch.

So next time you’re watching the Lion King, be thankful that grass-eating Pumbaa is dining on nothing worse than bugs!


  1. waiting for the swine to relinquish their Lunch!

  2. I have to admit I thought they were purely vegetarian. That last photo of them trotting off with tail in the air reminds me of the ones that we had at the Vet research Station in what was then Salisbury, Rhodesia. Six got out and took off down the main road with half of the staff after them. It was hilarious afterwards but not at the time! We caught 5 the same day but the 6th only came back a week later after taking cover in a large park. Those were the days!! Diane

  3. uh... "mighty mother of a molar" and "proof of their perfidy"?!?

    More reasons I LOVE YOUR BLOG.

    =) Plus the lovely, image-shattering truths of wildlife behavior.

    I can't remember if it was a ground squirrel (ooh, no pun intended) or a bunny whom I saw dining on the road-kill remains of ITS OWN SPECIES but I was shocked. I think it was a bunny, 'cause I saw that, froze, jaw dropped, then though "wow, they CLEARLY did not read the text book that calls them herbivores."

    Kinda love when nature does that.

    Think you understand us? Think we're cute and sweet?

    Think again. =)

  4. When I read about warthogs turning up their snouts at apple peelings, I was thinking that they might be useful lawn-mowers in an orchard. Keeping the grass down, while not damaging any other plants. But while that may be true, I don't think I'd feel safe with a sounder of warthogs around. I can see it now. One of them 'accidentally' nudges you in the back of the knees. Oh, how clumsy! And then the others rush in ...

  5. Elephant's Eye,
    Swine certainly do suffer bad press. Pigging out, hogging the limelight; I can't think of a single positive pig-related expression.

    What a fun image! I'm sure you must miss Africa (if not actual warthog pursuit).

    Thank you for your encouragement. I love your 'ground' squirrel.
    The most horrid example I know of, is sheep chewing the legs off ground-nesting birds. Urrgh! Still, as you say, it's good to have complacent expectations jolted every now and again.

    Ahh guard hogs! Just what you need to deter apple-thieving youngsters!


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