Warning sounds for white-lipped peccary

Wildlife Conservation

Because they live and move in large groups white-lipped peccaries can be especially vulnerable to hunters. (Photo, Rafael Reyna)

For centuries, the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) ranged in herds of up to 120 animals through much of Mesoamerica, helping to maintain the ecological balance of the forests and serving as a food source for indigenous and farming communities. But in recent years the wild relative of the domesticated pig, with its black bristly coat and white facial hair, is rarely seen in groups of more than 30 or 40. Worse, it has been eliminated completely from 87% of that portion of its former Latin American range that runs from southern Mexico to Panama. Experts say that in Mesoamerica the animal faces a real possibility of extinction.

“This is a species that makes long seasonal migrations through primary forests in search of food and water and is extremely sensitive to habitat loss and hunting,” says Jeremy Radachowsky, an ecologist who heads the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mesoamerica program. “It is so sensitive, in fact, that conservationists tend to see it as a ‘canary in the coal mine’ whose loss could anticipate the elimination of other vulnerable mammals like the howler monkey (Alouatta sp.) and the Central American tapir (Tapirus bairdii).”

White-lipped peccaries also can be found in much of South America, including in its Amazon region, Pantanal wetlands, Gran Chaco plain and in the Chocó department of northwestern Colombia. South America’s comparatively larger wilderness expanses generally offer greater protection than those of Mesoamerica. But there, too, the white-lipped peccary faces serious threats, among them hunting and habitat loss. Experts say that in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest and its Cerrado tropical savanna, for instance, around 85% and 50% of forest cover, respectively, has disappeared.

The animal’s plight in Mesoamerica is particularly dire. The white-lipped peccary has been completely wiped out in El Salvador. So precarious is its situation in the rest of Mesoamerica that numerous experts from the region gathered in Belize City in August 2016 to discuss its dwindling numbers. In November 2018 they issued a report entitled “Rapid Decline of White-Lipped Peccary Populations in Mesoamerica,” warning of the “precipitous regional decline in range and group size” and exhorting national authorities to develop conservation actions that will “arrest or at least slow population collapse.”

The dramatic decline in numbers is due partly to human population increases of around 60% in Mesoamerica during 1990-2016 and to the massive expansion of farming, ranching and road building in primary forests, in some cases inside national parks. Two of the animal’s most important wilderness habitats, the Mosquito forests of Nicaragua and Honduras, and the Maya Forest of Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, have lost around 30% and 25% of their tree cover, respectively, during that time. The problem has been exacerbated by the presence of illegal loggers as well as drug traffickers, who have cleared large areas to install ranches, landing strips and roads.  

All this has left the white-lipped peccary extremely exposed. The animal typically needs between 120 and 200 square kilometers (46 and 77 sq. miles) in a given year in which to roam in search of fruits. It also requires rivers, streams and water holes, where it can drink and—since, like other pigs, it doesn’t sweat—bathe in mud to keep cool and ward off ticks and other parasites.

Moreover, when cutting degrades forests, making them accessible to population centers, the white-lipped peccary becomes an easy target of hunters—whether these be city-dwellers looking for sport or local subsistence hunters—many of whom consider peccary meat amongst the most delicious in their diet.

“This is an animal that travels in large groups, makes a lot of noise and will protect members of its group,” says Rafael Reyna-Hurtado, a tropical-fauna researcher at Mexico’s Colegio de la Frontera Sur and the study’s lead author. “That is good defense against a predator in the wild, but it also makes them very vulnerable to being killed by human beings.”

Climate change has worsened matters by making the Maya Forest more susceptible to fires and by limiting the number of water holes where the peccary can congregate. “It’s very easy to find peccaries in the dry season,” says Radachowsky, a co-author of the study. “As a hunter, you can shoot eight or ten [peccaries] in one sitting, and since they are a very social animal that sticks around to protect the injured rather than run away, the hunter’s job is that much easier.”

In parts of South America, climate change has affected the animal differently. Each year, one-third of northeast Peru’s Loreto region is flooded by great whitewater rivers that descend from the Andes, part of an age-old cycle that has created a fecund ecosystem of jungle, lagoons and teeming wildlife in the heart of the western portion of the Amazon.

Typically, that flooding covers more than 120,000 square kilometers (46,332 sq. miles) and lasts around four to six weeks—a time when white-lipped peccaries, along with other terrestrial animals, take refuge on small islands or levees. But in 2012, a year of record flooding, the amount of above-water levee space shrank from the typical 20% to 30% to around 1%, causing animals to drown or crowd onto tiny spits of land where they had to compete for limited resources and became more vulnerable to predators, disease and starvation.

As a result, an estimated 2 million animals—or 95% of terrestrial mammals in the flooded forest—were wiped out. “We would examine our camera traps [sites with motion-activated cameras] during 2012 and see very emaciated and sick animals on the levees,” says Richard Bodmer, a professor of conservation ecology at the University of Kent in England. Intense flooding in 2013 and 2014, followed in 2015 by another flood nearly of 2012 proportions, dealt additional blows.

In the case of the white-lipped peccary, the population has yet to recover. White-lipped peccaries can swim, and many of them may have moved to safety in the drier upland forests. But even there, Bodmer adds, the population has fallen by around 80%, perhaps because there were too few resources in the area to accommodate the refugees.

Says Bodmer: “Climate models tell us that there will likely be greater flooding in the western Amazon, and if that it is to happen, we can predict what will happen in terms of biodiversity. It is but another reason why we have to deal with climate change and establish a green economy.” 

Peccary populations appear to crash every 30 years or so in unlogged, non-fragmented parts of the Amazon, most likely as a result of disease outbreaks. Under natural conditions, recoveries spring from small, disease-resistant populations or through peccary resettlement from disease-free areas. But the advance of the agricultural frontier, and the liberation of free-range cows and pigs into forests has posed an additional threat, possibly igniting epidemics, ranging from brucellosis to hoof-and-mouth disease, that have devastated peccary herds. The year 1988, for example, began with scientists witnessing 100-300 peccaries per day in areas of the Brazilian Amazon near Venezuela and ended with them not seeing any peccaries at all. Only in 1995 did the population rebound.

“We’ve documented similar crashes, not just in Brazil, but throughout the Amazon basin,” says José Fragoso, a professor of zoology at the University of Brasília and a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences, a research institute and natural history museum in the United States. “It’s an illustration of the importance of controlling road building into areas full of peccaries and ensuring farms guard against these diseases among their domestic animals.”

The peccary’s disappearance would have serious ecological impacts for forests. The animal is a principal food source for puma (Puma concolor) and jaguar (Panthera onca). It also controls the population of small lizards and snakes, as well as other small animals it encounters and eats. And in trampling through the forests in large numbers, the peccary serves as a sort of plow, stirring up the soil and preparing it to receive fallen seeds from fruit trees for germination.

Removing peccaries from an ecosystem where they have long been present could, in short, cause negative, cascading impacts on wildlife and plants alike.   

One step that could be taken to prevent further peccary losses, experts say, would be to change the animal’s conservation status from “vulnerable” to “endangered” at the local level in Mesoamerica—just as Mexico has done throughout its territory. Such a move would allow for tighter limits on hunting and bring greater international attention to the need for protection, experts say. 

Another measure would be to strengthen and ensure the continued existence of indigenous and community-run reserves. Such reserves exist throughout Latin America and have proved to be among the best conservation measures in a region of understaffed and under-equipped national parks’ departments. Through the development of management plans for their forests and strict subsistence-hunting guidelines enforced by community-run patrols, the reserves have been better able to protect the animal.  

Expanding reserves
In Peru’s Loreto region, which covers 368,851 square kilometers (142,414 sq. miles), an area larger than Germany, more than 50% of the territory now comprises reserves. These are either directly controlled by indigenous groups or are co-managed by them and national or regional authorities—the result of a movement that began in the 1980s as indigenous people sought to regain control of their ancestral lands.

While most countries in Latin America allow indigenous peoples to engage in subsistence hunting, Loreto and Peru as a whole go one step further. They allow indigenous people to commercially exploit pelts, a byproduct of such hunting, according to quotas established with the help of scientists who monitor population sizes. Working under approved management plans, some communities are even selling peccary meat certified as sustainably harvested to high-end restaurants. This provides community members an additional incentive to conserve peccary populations and keep non-community hunters out.

“This is part of a process that happened because local communities wanted it, because the government backed it and because non-governmental organizations offered support,” says Bodmer, who has helped the communities do that monitoring. “The management and harvesting of peccaries has become one component of sustainable-use economies, including the sustainable production of fruits, fish and agriculture, as well as lots of handicrafts.”   

In the Pantanal and Cerrado regions of Brazil, researchers working together under a group known as the Peccary Project are drawing up municipal conservation plans to ensure the maintenance of forest areas that are large enough to support white-lipped peccaries and promote reforestation.

Monoculture takes toll
This is especially important in the Cerrado, where massive deforestation has accompanied the advance of soy, corn, cotton and sugarcane monocultures. These monocultures have left the animal with insufficient space to roam widely in search of fruits during times of fruit scarcity, a phenomenon that could affect peccary reproduction as well. With climate change likely to change habitats, the peccary’s ability to move in search of its ideal climate setting could be limited.

“Deforestation potentially threatens the white-lipped peccary with widespread extinction in some places,” says Alexine Keuroghlian, coordinator of the Peccary Project. “That’s why we’re working with numerous universities as well as government and non-governmental agencies to recommend areas that can be reforested and where forest fragments can be reconnected, helping in the process to ensure that the animal has enough room to survive.”

In Costa Rica and Panama, nongovernmental groups have launched ambitious efforts to monitor the movements, distribution and behavior of the animal. This can involve installing camera traps to monitor peccaries, or capturing the animals and releasing them after outfitting them with GPS collars.

The information that is then gathered on their movements can be used, as it is in Brazil, to design proposed forest-protection measures, including the reestablishment of important biological corridors.

“Protecting the white-lipped peccary is crucial,” says Ricardo Moreno, president of the Yaguará Panamá Foundation, a Panamanian nonprofit dedicated to conservation of jaguars, peccaries and other animals. “It’s a forest architect crucial to ecological balance whose disappearance would have dramatic implications.”

- Steve Ambrus

Index Photo: Due largely to habitat loss, peccary numbers are plummeting in Mesoamerica. (Photo, Apolinar Basora)

Richard Bodmer
Professor of Conservation Ecology
University of Kent
Canterbury, United Kingdom
Tel: +(44 1227) 459-186
José Fragoso
Professor of Zoology
University of Brasília
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 3307-2022
Alexine Keuroghlian
Peccary Project/Project Queixada
Campo Grande, Brazil
Tel: +(55 67) 99906-2864
Ricardo Moreno
Yaguará Panamá Foundation
Panama City, Panama
Tel: +(507) 306-3171
Jeremy Radachowsky
Regional Director for Mesoamerica and Western Caribbean
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)
New York, NY, United States
Tel: (718) 220-5100
Rafael Reyna-Hurtado
Researcher in Tropical Fauna
El Colegio de la Frontera Sur
Campeche, Mexico
Tel: +(52 981) 127-3720, ext. 1307