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Hoover

Lyall Watson

1st June, 2003

I think that pigs everywhere are dropping semantic pearls before human swine who labour under the delusion that all pigs can do is go ‘oink’

‘Impisi,’ whispered Jabula. ‘Hyena.’ He held out his arm to keep me back, lifting a finger to his lips to tell me to be quiet, and stood there, crouched a little, turning his head from side to side, searching for something. I froze, and we stood that way for a long time, waiting to see, or hear, or smell whatever it was that had made him so alert.

Hyenas will usually avoid humans, but you can never be certain. In the end, he relaxed a little and began to move forward very slowly, looking at every scuff and drag mark in a clearing directly ahead of us. The floor of this arena looked like a battleground, scarred with prints of several sizes and stained with dark patches of dry blood.

And there in the centre lay a warthog tail, a long one with its tuft still intact, so big that it could only have belonged to an adult animal. ‘That’s all they left,’ said Jabula with a shrug. I knew he was right. Hyenas can eat and digest just about anything. Skin and bones and even teeth are all crushed up by their powerful jaws and dissolved in a matter of hours.

‘A sow,’ he added, picking up the tell-tail and brandishing it like a fly whisk. ‘And she was not alone. There were piglets, three of them, I think.’ He moved around the clearing, reading the signs, reconstructing the last minutes of their lives for me in breathtaking detail, stopping only when he was interrupted by a strange sound. It was half grunt and half snuffle, almost a sneeze, and it came from a small hole at the base of a nearby termite mound. We looked at each other in surprise. Jabula shrugged and went over to the hole to peer in. It was about six inches in diameter, just big enough to hold a grapefruit and apparently not very deep, because we could see something about a foot down, something round and flat with a pair of very fierce dark eyes that dared us to do our worst. It was the snout of one of the young warthogs, jammed backwards into this little hideaway, miraculously still alive and prepared to fight us to the death, scowling as though we, and not he, were the ones in trouble. Hungry hyenas will sometimes take the trouble to dig such a pig out, but that is hard work. Our two hyenas had already dined well on the rest of the family and were content to leave the last little pig wishing he had stayed at home. And he clearly had no intention of coming out to see if we too were the sort of animals who were fond of pork. We couldn’t leave him there, so Jabula sent me back to the house to find a sack. When I returned, he was sitting on the termite hill out of sight of the hole, dangling the tail of the adult warthog in front of the entrance, letting the piglet get the scent of his mother. Jabula was making soft, low grunts and the little pig was answering, once in a while, with a high squeak. These exchanges went on for half an hour or more until the young warthog got so hot and thirsty that he just had to make a move. He put the tip of his flat snout out first, sniffing at the tail, then his eyes and finally his ears – and when the whole head was free, Jabula leaned down and pulled the youngster out entirely. He screamed with rage, lashing out with his sharp little hooves, snapping needle-like teeth, but before he could do us or himself any damage, we had him bundled up in the sack and were on our way back home. Alice in Wonderland was right. Little pigs have a lot in common with human babies. They squeal and sob and carry on alarmingly, but this one had us well trained in less than a week. Young warthog start feeding on solids when they are about three weeks old, and this one was clearly happy to do so. Apples, pears, grapes, bread, cake, porridge, dates, chocolates, cheese and eggs all vanished into his ever-open mouth. He even seemed to like meat, gobbling down chicken and minced beef, but we agreed that it wouldn’t be fair to offer him bacon – though I have no doubt he would have downed that just as happily. It was like watching a vacuum cleaner at work, a suction bag with a leg at each corner. That was what we called him: Hoover. And he grew almost before our eyes. In a month, he doubled his size to 10 pounds, and in three months, at almost 60 pounds, he weighed nearly as much as I did and looked like a proper warthog. His mane began to grow out along his neck and spine, and a pale trim of beard sprouted at the edge of his lower jaw. His warts and permanent teeth began to appear and by the time he was approximately a year old, he stood two feet tall, with a waistline larger than Jabula’s, and had graduated to a more normal diet for a warthog. He grazed the lawn and made long sorties out into the veld around us. Hoover was a gentleman. It was true that he had a distinctive smell and tended to gobble his food, but in every other way he didn’t behave ‘like a pig’. He liked to wallow in a muddy pool on hot days, but he was far more interested in bathing in the spray from a garden hose, or standing under a tap of running water. He was extremely clean and painstakingly polite, never failing to greet every one of us each time we met by nuzzling a knee or, when he could do so, by nose-to-nose or mouth-to-mouth contact. If Hoover found me sitting or lying down, he would stop a seemly distance away and lean forward until his snout disc was just an inch from my face. Then he would snuffle softly, inviting a response, and if I acknowledged him in any way, he would push his nose right into the side of mine or into the corner of my mouth, and breathe deeply, inhaling my scent and checking it with his memory of what I should smell like. And if all was well, he would make a happy little sound of greeting and satisfaction. Pig-ignorant people with fixed ideas labour under the delusion that pigs go around saying ‘oink‘ all the time. Some may, but they also have access to a rich repertoire of other vocalizations, and warthog share a language all their own. In addition to his greeting sound, Hoover had a contact call, a series of brief, anxious grumbles that let me know where he was when I was out of sight. He also had a louder, more enthusiastic grunt that he used only for the sight or smell of favourite foods. Then there was a soft low call, a querulous sound I only heard when he paused at the entrance to a hole or burrow; a very polite sort of sound that meant: ‘Anyone at home?’ For more intensive moments, there was an alarm grunt, almost a snort, something sharp and loud that usually preceded flight; and a harsh growling grunt, louder and longer and heard only in threat. This he reserved for all dogs and any strange human visitors. When first captured, Hoover had produced a sustained long, loud squeal which I have heard many times since from young pigs of several species who are being admonished by their elders, a sound that subsides to a submissive squeal on the point of turning away to flee. Very young warthog produce a throaty ‘churr‘ sound when calling to their mothers, one that changes to a high-pitched ‘eeek’ when they become separated from the litter altogether. And once or twice I have been lucky enough to hear the warthog chant de coeur or love call – a loud, rhythmic ‘putter‘ that sounds like a two-stroke lawnmower as a courting male approaches his potential mate. I could recognize at least fifteen different sounds from Hoover. Some were very subtle, scarcely separable to the human ear, but judging by their effect, they carried distinct meaning for other hogs. And I believe I could recognize Hoover’s voice and pick him out from other warthogs by sound alone. My grasp of warthog small-talk, however, was woefully limited by my inability to detect and decode the olfactory components in his system of communication. Hoover loved to be groomed. He would stand still for ages as long as I kept scratching his ears or ran my fingers through his mane, grooming all the places he couldn’t reach himself. Sometimes he would reciprocate by nuzzling my arm or leg in return, but this involved ‘grazing’ nibbles that were far too intense, pulling some of my hair out by the roots. I suspect that my skin was not very satisfying to him anyway, lacking the added interest of all the glandular secretions that warthogs have to spare. By his second year, Hoover was almost adult, with a fine set of tusks that he polished on tree trunks at the same time as he marked them with his lip and eye glands, leaving a visible stain that lasted for days. He inspected these markers regularly, sniffing at them, refreshing them, adding to their advertisements in the course of a ritual round of inspection which he took at a strut with his tail held stiffly to attention. But the most revealing moments of our time together came from the bush walks that Jabula and I took in Hoover’s company. Jabula enjoyed Hoover’s name. He made it sound just like the appliance, breathing out on the first syllable and sucking in on the second, getting a curious look from the pig every time he did so. But as Hoover grew big enough to have a little warty gravitas, Jabula began to treat him with more respect and gave him the title of Indhlovudwana, which is the Zulu for ‘little elephant’. Jabula used to lead all our bush walks, but as time went by Hoover drifted into point position and Jabula and I just went along, following his winding way, seeing things from his point of view. Food was always first on his mind – short green grass for preference, with flowers or seed heads if possible, or failing that, shoots and roots and fruits of a wide variety of plants. I lost count after listing more than thirty different kinds, all plucked and then masticated with his cheek teeth as we walked along. When he had to get right down to it, Hoover would ‘kneel’ to crop more efficiently, resting on his wrists where the bone was already cushioned. Warthogs are born with these calluses, and the fact that they exist before the need for them occurs, presents us with yet another of those nice conundrums that life throws up to challenge evolutionary theory. The next warthog priority is shelter. Since they are the only pigs to live in open habitats, bolt-holes figure prominently in their lives. Fortunately, warthog expansion to the African » savanna coincided with the presence there of a large, nocturnal, termite-eating mammal called the aardvark or ‘earthpig’. No relation to the pigs, this bizarre-looking proto-ungulate with asses’ ears and a muscular tail uses huge claws to dig down to its prey, many grasslands looking like battlegrounds, pocked with holes large enough to accommodate a small man or a full-grown warthog. Aardvark burrows are vital resources in the bushveld too. They go down three or four feet, usually round a bend or two, and end in a sleeping chamber. Some are quite complex, with several entrances and a maze of passages and caves that provide shelter for porcupines, mongooses and farrowing warthog sows. Hoover’s interest in them began to make sense when at about six months old he chose to spend his nights away from home, sleeping in a variety of burrows instead of the box with a blanket that we had provided. Hoover never knowingly passed any burrow entrance without stopping to examine it. He would sniff at it, give the ‘Anyone at home?’ call, then pop down to see what the accommodation was like. Usually it was a quick in-and-out, and sometimes he would pop up triumphantly from a second entrance yards away. On overcast or cool wet days he slept in, coming out only when driven to do so by hunger. Then Jabula and I used to track him down and wait for him to rise, which he always did in great style, bursting out of the entrance as though shot from a cannon, invisible in his own roiling dust cloud until he was 20 yards away, just in case there was a leopard lying in wait. Sometimes there was, so he was very careful, coming or going. When choosing a burrow for the night, he always approached it from downwind, coming in cautiously, slightly stiff-legged if he sensed anything untoward, calling ahead before he made his usual acrobatic, backward descent. This was always followed by a quick return, popping back up to the surface for a last look around before he turned in, but on one occasion he went down and just disappeared. We waited patiently for his reappearance, but when nothing happened we began to feel concerned. Several minutes passed. Then there were some very alarming subterranean sounds and a cloud of dust which billowed up from the burrow as though the roof had fallen in. This was followed by some more scurrying and the welcome sight of Hoover’s hindquarters as he backed slowly out of the hole – dragging a four-foot puff-adder. He had the struggling viper by the back of its head and held on tightly as the thick muscular body thrashed away for a while, despite the fact that its back was already broken. Gradually the struggle subsided and we were allowed closer to admire his kill. Then our favourite pig, our alleged grazer, ate every last inch of the reptile. Jabula was very impressed, and I was as proud as though I had made the catch myself, but it wasn’t until years later and many retellings of the tale, that I realized how extraordinary it was. Wild pigs do kill and eat lizards, snakes, young birds and small mammals, indeed almost anything they can catch. They learn to do so by example, by being part of a sounder in which such techniques are passed on by adults with the necessary experience. But in the case of snakes with lethal bites, trial-and-error learning is a fatal strategy. Hoover was hand-reared and so lacked such knowledge. Yet, when faced for the first time by a live puff-adder, he was able to use his hoofs to disable, and his jaws to dispatch, an adult adder in style and without injury. There has to be a very powerful and extensive genetic reservoir of innate answers to a large variety of environmental questions, a blood bank of carnivorous strategies that linger on, even in the species memory of an omnivore that has been adapted to dealing with nothing more challenging than grass. Such progammes must include the possibility that there are sometimes snakes in the grass. Pig society is smell-bound. Almost everything pigs do is determined in some way by odour. Scent-marking and scent-reading help to define these limits and to cement social communication. In our attempts to make sense of systems that are beyond our sensory grasp, I suspect that we disparage some scent-laying practices by passing them off as ‘territorial markings’. The fact is that pigs are not really territorial at all, but operate movable home ranges, shifting these as they adapt to the seasons. They are generous with their secretions for a different reason, one that has more to do with identity than property. They are protecting themselves, rather than their surroundings, finding security in society instead of territory, laying down olfactory perimeters that are flexible. Hoover accepted our society for what it was, rich in resources but nevertheless imperfect, unpigly. And he discovered that a solitary pig is a sad thing, almost as useless as a bee without a hive. But he made the best of it and came through in the end, I believe, because he had an olfactory safety net. Hoover’s home range was anchored to our farmhouse. This was home-base, his resting site. When he outgrew his box and blanket and moved out to a burrow of his own, that loosened the perimeter a little and gave him more territory to patrol, more places to make a mark on – which he did, repossessing focal points each time the busy human traffic overwhelmed and destroyed his signatures. I watched him do it, seeing and sort of under-standing what he was doing, and why he couldn’t rest until it was done. But I also observed something else. He trotted around on his high heels, tail up and nose down, dashing off after my footprints from the previous day, finding out where Jabula was today, inspecting new odours, trampling on and trumping them, spreading the word. But every now and then, he would come across his own tracks, and these always slowed him down. They gave him pause for thought. These were different, they were hoggy. They were his! And every time I saw him do this, the same thing happened. They calmed him down. He took time to savour them and they changed his demeanour, giving him a dreamy sort of look, like someone finding solace in the familiar smell of his own armpit. I believe that is exactly how it worked. He was finding himself, encountering the sounder, the hive-smell, the essence of warthog, and learning who he really was. Hoover stayed with us until he was three, imposing his personality on everyone on the farm, becoming fully adult, occasionally wayward, more hairy, more warty and more extravagantly tusked, but never less than courteous and considerate. And he seemed to expect the same behaviour of us. Despite their reputation, most pigs are scrupulously clean. They defecate only in certain places, setting up their ‘latrines’ in agreed spots, even when their surroundings are severely restricted. Warthogs produce small dry droppings that are less odorous than others, but they are none the less punctilious about them and exercise a fine restraint. When we walked out together, in company, and Hoover needed to relieve himself, he turned away and went a short distance from us to do so. This may be nothing more than a ritual that ensures that the nest or food is never unnecessarily fouled. But I noticed that, on such occasions, Hoover seemed uncomfortable, dare I say even a little ‘embarrassed’, if we watched. And that was only one of many ways in which this grizzled and warty, potentially grotesque, wild hog came to seem so delicate and endearing. We lost him, in the end, to a comely young sow in a sounder that passed through our territory on their way north to greener pastures along the Limpopo River. n Extracted from The Whole Hog by Lyall Watson published on 23 September 2004 by Profile books at £16.99 hardback Lyall Watson is a naturalist, born in Africa, Educated in Europe, and native to the wilder parts of the world. He has spent half a century in fieldwork on biology and palaeontology, anthropology and archaeology, and he has a rare talent for making unusual connections between all these life sciences, crafting his discoveries and experiences into a series of captivating books. These include Supernature, Lifetide, Lightning Bird and Elephantoms. be certain. In the end, he relaxed a little and began to move forward very slowly, looking at every scuff and drag mark in a clearing directly ahead of us. The floor of this arena looked like a battleground, scarred with prints of several sizes and stained with dark patches of dry blood. And there in the centre lay a warthog tail, a long one with its tuft still intact, so big that it could only have belonged to an adult animal. ‘That’s all they left,’ said Jabula with a shrug. I knew he was right. Hyenas can eat and digest just about anything. Skin and bones and even teeth are all crushed up by their powerful jaws and dissolved in a matter of hours. ‘A sow,’ he added, picking up the tell-tail and brandishing it like a fly whisk. ‘And she was not alone. There were piglets, three of them, I think.’ He moved around the clearing, reading the signs, reconstructing the last minutes of their lives for me in breathtaking detail, stopping only when he was interrupted by a strange sound. It was half grunt and half snuffle, almost a sneeze, and it came from a small hole at the base of a nearby termite mound. We looked at each other in surprise. Jabula shrugged and went over to the hole to peer in. It was about six inches in diameter, just big enough to hold a grapefruit and apparently not very deep, because we could see something about a foot down, something round and flat with a pair of very fierce dark eyes that dared us to do our worst. It was the snout of one of the young warthogs, jammed backwards into this little hideaway, miraculously still alive and prepared to fight us to the death, scowling as though we, and not he, were the ones in trouble. Hungry hyenas will sometimes take the trouble to dig such a pig out, but that is hard work. Our two hyenas had already dined well on the rest of the family and were content to leave the last little pig wishing he had stayed at home. And he clearly had no intention of coming out to see if we too were the sort of animals who were fond of pork. We couldn’t leave him there, so Jabula sent me back to the house to find a sack. When I returned, he was sitting on the termite hill out of sight of the hole, dangling the tail of the adult warthog in front of the entrance, letting the piglet get the scent of his mother. Jabula was making soft, low grunts and the little pig was answering, once in a while, with a high squeak. These exchanges went on for half an hour or more until the young warthog got so hot and thirsty that he just had to make a move. He put the tip of his flat snout out first, sniffing at the tail, then his eyes and finally his ears – and when the whole head was free, Jabula leaned down and pulled the youngster out entirely. He screamed with rage, lashing out with his sharp little hooves, snapping needle-like teeth, but before he could do us or himself any damage, we had him bundled up in the sack and were on our way back home. Alice in Wonderland was right. Little pigs have a lot in common with human babies. They squeal and sob and carry on alarmingly, but this one had us well trained in less than a week. Young warthog start feeding on solids when they are about three weeks old, and this one was clearly happy to do so. Apples, pears, grapes, bread, cake, porridge, dates, chocolates, cheese and eggs all vanished into his ever-open mouth. He even seemed to like meat, gobbling down chicken and minced beef, but we agreed that it wouldn’t be fair to offer him bacon – though I have no doubt he would have downed that just as happily. It was like watching a vacuum cleaner at work, a suction bag with a leg at each corner. That was what we called him: Hoover. And he grew almost before our eyes. In a month, he » doubled his size to 10 pounds, and in three months, at almost 60 pounds, he weighed nearly as much as I did and looked like a proper warthog. His mane began to grow out along his neck and spine, and a pale trim of beard sprouted at the edge of his lower jaw. His warts and permanent teeth began to appear and by the time he was approximately a year old, he stood two feet tall, with a waistline larger than Jabula’s, and had graduated to a more normal diet for a warthog. He grazed the lawn and made long sorties out into the veld around us. Hoover was a gentleman. It was true that he had a distinctive smell and tended to gobble his food, but in every other way he didn’t behave ‘like a pig’. He liked to wallow in a muddy pool on hot days, but he was far more interested in bathing in the spray from a garden hose, or standing under a tap of running water. He was extremely clean and painstakingly polite, never failing to greet every one of us each time we met by nuzzling a knee or, when he could do so, by nose-to-nose or mouth-to-mouth contact. If Hoover found me sitting or lying down, he would stop a seemly distance away and lean forward until his snout disc was just an inch from my face. Then he would snuffle softly, inviting a response, and if I acknowledged him in any way, he would push his nose right into the side of mine or into the corner of my mouth, and breathe deeply, inhaling my scent and checking it with his memory of what I should smell like. And if all was well, he would make a happy little sound of greeting and satisfaction. Pig-ignorant people with fixed ideas labour under the delusion that pigs go around saying ‘oink‘ all the time. Some may, but they also have access to a rich repertoire of other vocalizations, and warthog share a language all their own. In addition to his greeting sound, Hoover had a contact call, a series of brief, anxious grumbles that let me know where he was when I was out of sight. He also had a louder, more enthusiastic grunt that he used only for the sight or smell of favourite foods. Then there was a soft low call, a querulous sound I only heard when he paused at the entrance to a hole or burrow; a very polite sort of sound that meant: ‘Anyone at home?’ For more intensive moments, there was an alarm grunt, almost a snort, something sharp and loud that usually preceded flight; and a harsh growling grunt, louder and longer and heard only in threat. This he reserved for all dogs and any strange human visitors. When first captured, Hoover had produced a sustained long, loud squeal which I have heard many times since from young pigs of several species who are being admonished by their elders, a sound that subsides to a submissive squeal on the point of turning away to flee. Very young warthog produce a throaty ‘churr‘ sound when calling to their mothers, one that changes to a high-pitched ‘eeek’ when they become separated from the litter altogether. And once or twice I have been lucky enough to hear the warthog chant de coeur or love call – a loud, rhythmic ‘putter‘ that sounds like a two-stroke lawnmower as a courting male approaches his potential mate. I could recognize at least fifteen different sounds from Hoover. Some were very subtle, scarcely separable to the human ear, but judging by their effect, they carried distinct meaning for other hogs. And I believe I could recognize Hoover’s voice and pick him out from other warthogs by sound alone. My grasp of warthog small-talk, however, was woefully limited by my inability to detect and decode the olfactory components in his system of communication. Hoover loved to be groomed. He would stand still for ages as long as I kept scratching his ears or ran my fingers through his mane, grooming all the places he couldn’t reach himself. Sometimes he would reciprocate by nuzzling my arm or leg in return, but this involved ‘grazing’ nibbles that were far too intense, pulling some of my hair out by the roots. I suspect that my skin was not very satisfying to him anyway, lacking the added interest of all the glandular secretions that warthogs have to spare. By his second year, Hoover was almost adult, with a fine set of tusks that he polished on tree trunks at the same time as he marked them with his lip and eye glands, leaving a visible stain that lasted for days. He inspected these markers regularly, sniffing at them, refreshing them, adding to their advertisements in the course of a ritual round of inspection which he took at a strut with his tail held stiffly to attention. But the most revealing moments of our time together came from the bush walks that Jabula and I took in Hoover’s company. Jabula enjoyed Hoover’s name. He made it sound just like the appliance, breathing out on the first syllable and sucking in on the second, getting a curious look from the pig every time he did so. But as Hoover grew big enough to have a little warty gravitas, Jabula began to treat him with more respect and gave him the title of Indhlovudwana, which is the Zulu for ‘little elephant’. Jabula used to lead all our bush walks, but as time went by Hoover drifted into point position and Jabula and I just went along, following his winding way, seeing things from his point of view. Food was always first on his mind – short green grass for preference, with flowers or seed heads if possible, or failing that, shoots and roots and fruits of a wide variety of plants. I lost count after listing more than thirty different kinds, all plucked and then masticated with his cheek teeth as we walked along. When he had to get right down to it, Hoover would ‘kneel’ to crop more efficiently, resting on his wrists where the bone was already cushioned. Warthogs are born with these calluses, and the fact that they exist before the need for them occurs, presents us with yet another of those nice conundrums that life throws up to challenge evolutionary theory. The next warthog priority is shelter. Since they are the only pigs to live in open habitats, bolt-holes figure prominently in their lives. Fortunately, warthog expansion to the African » savanna coincided with the presence there of a large, nocturnal, termite-eating mammal called the aardvark or ‘earthpig’. No relation to the pigs, this bizarre-looking proto-ungulate with asses’ ears and a muscular tail uses huge claws to dig down to its prey, many grasslands looking like battlegrounds, pocked with holes large enough to accommodate a small man or a full-grown warthog. Aardvark burrows are vital resources in the bushveld too. They go down three or four feet, usually round a bend or two, and end in a sleeping chamber. Some are quite complex, with several entrances and a maze of passages and caves that provide shelter for porcupines, mongooses and farrowing warthog sows. Hoover’s interest in them began to make sense when at about six months old he chose to spend his nights away from home, sleeping in a variety of burrows instead of the box with a blanket that we had provided. Hoover never knowingly passed any burrow entrance without stopping to examine it. He would sniff at it, give the ‘Anyone at home?’ call, then pop down to see what the accommodation was like. Usually it was a quick in-and-out, and sometimes he would pop up triumphantly from a second entrance yards away. On overcast or cool wet days he slept in, coming out only when driven to do so by hunger. Then Jabula and I used to track him down and wait for him to rise, which he always did in great style, bursting out of the entrance as though shot from a cannon, invisible in his own roiling dust cloud until he was 20 yards away, just in case there was a leopard lying in wait. Sometimes there was, so he was very careful, coming or going. When choosing a burrow for the night, he always approached it from downwind, coming in cautiously, slightly stiff-legged if he sensed anything untoward, calling ahead before he made his usual acrobatic, backward descent. This was always followed by a quick return, popping back up to the surface for a last look around before he turned in, but on one occasion he went down and just disappeared. We waited patiently for his reappearance, but when nothing happened we began to feel concerned. Several minutes passed. Then there were some very alarming subterranean sounds and a cloud of dust which billowed up from the burrow as though the roof had fallen in. This was followed by some more scurrying and the welcome sight of Hoover’s hindquarters as he backed slowly out of the hole – dragging a four-foot puff-adder. He had the struggling viper by the back of its head and held on tightly as the thick muscular body thrashed away for a while, despite the fact that its back was already broken. Gradually the struggle subsided and we were allowed closer to admire his kill. Then our favourite pig, our alleged grazer, ate every last inch of the reptile. Jabula was very impressed, and I was as proud as though I had made the catch myself, but it wasn’t until years later and many retellings of the tale, that I realized how extraordinary it was. Wild pigs do kill and eat lizards, snakes, young birds and small mammals, indeed almost anything they can catch. They learn to do so by example, by being part of a sounder in which such techniques are passed on by adults with the necessary experience. But in the case of snakes with lethal bites, trial-and-error learning is a fatal strategy. Hoover was hand-reared and so lacked such knowledge. Yet, when faced for the first time by a live puff-adder, he was able to use his hoofs to disable, and his jaws to dispatch, an adult adder in style and without injury. There has to be a very powerful and extensive genetic reservoir of innate answers to a large variety of environmental questions, a blood bank of carnivorous strategies that linger on, even in the species memory of an omnivore that has been adapted to dealing with nothing more challenging than grass. Such progammes must include the possibility that there are sometimes snakes in the grass. Pig society is smell-bound. Almost everything pigs do is determined in some way by odour. Scent-marking and scent-reading help to define these limits and to cement social communication. In our attempts to make sense of systems that are beyond our sensory grasp, I suspect that we disparage some scent-laying practices by passing them off as ‘territorial markings’. The fact is that pigs are not really territorial at all, but operate movable home ranges, shifting these as they adapt to the seasons. They are generous with their secretions for a different reason, one that has more to do with identity than property. They are protecting themselves, rather than their surroundings, finding security in society instead of territory, laying down olfactory perimeters that are flexible. Hoover accepted our society for what it was, rich in resources but nevertheless imperfect, unpigly. And he discovered that a solitary pig is a sad thing, almost as useless as a bee without a hive. But he made the best of it and came through in the end, I believe, because he had an olfactory safety net. Hoover’s home range was anchored to our farmhouse. This was home-base, his resting site. When he outgrew his box and blanket and moved out to a burrow of his own, that loosened the perimeter a little and gave him more territory to patrol, more places to make a mark on – which he did, repossessing focal points each time the busy human traffic overwhelmed and destroyed his signatures. I watched him do it, seeing and sort of under-standing what he was doing, and why he couldn’t rest until it was done. But I also observed something else. He trotted around on his high heels, tail up and nose down, dashing off after my footprints from the previous day, finding out where Jabula was today, inspecting new odours, trampling on and trumping them, spreading the word. But every now and then, he would come across his own tracks, and these always slowed him down. They gave him pause for thought. These were different, they were hoggy. They were his! And every time I saw him do this, the same thing happened. They calmed him down. He took time to savour them and they changed his demeanour, giving him a dreamy sort of look, like someone finding solace in the familiar smell of his own armpit. I believe that is exactly how it worked. He was finding himself, encountering the sounder, the hive-smell, the essence of warthog, and learning who he really was. Hoover stayed with us until he was three, imposing his personality on everyone on the farm, becoming fully adult, occasionally wayward, more hairy, more warty and more extravagantly tusked, but never less than courteous and considerate. And he seemed to expect the same behaviour of us. Despite their reputation, most pigs are scrupulously clean. They defecate only in certain places, setting up their ‘latrines’ in agreed spots, even when their surroundings are severely restricted. Warthogs produce small dry droppings that are less odorous than others, but they are none the less punctilious about them and exercise a fine restraint. When we walked out together, in company, and Hoover needed to relieve himself, he turned away and went a short distance from us to do so. This may be nothing more than a ritual that ensures that the nest or food is never unnecessarily fouled. But I noticed that, on such occasions, Hoover seemed uncomfortable, dare I say even a little ‘embarrassed’, if we watched. And that was only one of many ways in which this grizzled and warty, potentially grotesque, wild hog came to seem so delicate and endearing. We lost him, in the end, to a comely young sow in a sounder that passed through our territory on their way north to greener pastures along the Limpopo River. Extracted from The Whole Hog by Lyall Watson published on 23 September 2004 by Profile books at £16.99 hardback Lyall Watson is a naturalist, born in Africa, Educated in Europe, and native to the wilder parts of the world. He has spent half a century in fieldwork on biology and palaeontology, anthropology and archaeology, and he has a rare talent for making unusual connections between all these life sciences, crafting his discoveries and experiences into a series of captivating books. These include Supernature, Lifetide, Lightning Bird and Elephantoms. Hoover had only a very brief experience of warthog society, but it was enough to have taught him, or to have released in him, a working knowledge of warthog communication. As he grew, he used most of the acoustic signals I later came to recognize in the wild. He greeted and threatened and submitted with all the appropriate sounds, behaving when he walked out with Jabula and me as though he was part of a bachelor herd. And we encouraged this, replying in kind with our best approximations of warthog small-talk. This sometimes worked and sometimes left him looking at us rather quizzically, wondering what on earth we were trying to say, but on the whole it helped. We grunted and growled in most of the right places, and he granted us the benefit of the doubt and the very real gift of his own superior senses. He always heard sounds before we did, smelled odours before we could, and somehow picked up news on his early warning system well before Jabula, which was very useful and, on one occasion, even life-saving. It began with a sharp, snort-grunt of full alarm as Hoover vanished in a flash down the nearest aardvark burrow. Every hog for himself. Jabula responded almost as quickly, rushing me to a convenient mopane tree and hoisting both of us up to a high branch where we sat, looking hard in every direction, until a lion came padding down the path we had been about to follow. He was a rare sight in our area, a scraggy old male with a thin mane, hungry enough to sniff at Hoover’s hideaway, but not young enough to excavate it on his own. He gave us an equally bleak look up in our tree and passed by, just a veteran eking out his last days alone, but more than a match for a young boy with a hiking stick. On another occasion, Hoover set off a similar alarm and went to ground in the same way when a martial eagle flew by and let its raptorial shadow fall on our path. But I noticed that he responded differently to dogs, snakes and human strangers. All these potential threats were announced with the same ‘alarm grunt’, but were preceded by a caveat, a qualifying clause in the form of a warning soft snort or ‘woomph’, which modified the alarm in a way that allowed Hoover to stand his ground. It seemed to say: ‘We have a problem, but there is no need to panic yet.’ So we didn’t. But it wasn’t until twenty years later, when I was completing my doctorate in ethology, that I realized what Hoover had done. Linguists decree that true language involves a set of rules known as syntax, in which word order is linked to, and changes, meaning; something only humans can do. But it seemed to me, in retrospect, that Hoover had done exactly that. He had shown that the ‘alarm grunt’ was a matter of life and death, an announcement to be taken seriously, and meant ‘Run away!’ Then, by linking it to an extra sound in the sequence ‘woomph warning + alarm grunt’, he had softened the call so that it meant: ‘Get ready to run away!’ – which is very different. Ever since then I have looked at warthog hard and listened to their chit-chat, but it is difficult in the wild to recreate the intimate connection we had with Hoover. Our close proximity had made it possible to pick up shades of meaning that are rather subtle and easily missed. I haven’t heard that precise ‘woomph + grunt’ again. It might have been an aberration of our particular interspecific communication. Hoover could have been making allowances for the snort-challenged humans around him, but I suspect there was something more going on. I think that pigs everywhere are dropping semantic pearls before human swine who labour under the delusion that all pigs can do is go ‘oink’.

 

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