Warthogs

29Nov
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Everything about warthogs charmed and delighted my mother. She approved of their usually inoffensive behaviour despite their ferocious looks. “They're just like cousin Fred,” she informed us, referring to a distant relative that none of us younger generation had ever met, “full of bluster and making out that they don't stand for any nonsense, when in fact they turn tail and run at the first sign of danger. They've the same long snout surrounded by lumps and bumps, the same snuffling habits, and the same rather dusty grey-brown appearance with unkempt hair and whiskers. Of course Fred didn't have tusks, but he did have, in contrast to his straggly hair and bristly chin, a lovingly waxed, up-turned moustache that took the place of tusks, and which was his pride and joy.” She was fascinated by the warthog's habit of backing into its burrow, and maintained that cousin Fred, a somewhat shady character so it seemed, probably did the same when entering his own front door, checking to make sure that he was not being followed. She was likewise captivated by the warthog's habit of trotting off into the bush with its tail held erect like an aerial.
'”Well, I'm sure that cousin Fred never did that,” remarked my father.
“If he'd had a tail, he would've,” stated my mother emphatically.

Surprisingly, for so striking an animal, very few accounts of warthogs appear in the records kept by early travellers, or after 1820, in the journals of the British settlers. In fact there are still those who, on the strength of this lack of written evidence, claim that there never were warthogs in the Eastern Cape. Yet archaeological sites have produced ample confirmation of their existence between the Sundays and Great Fish Rivers, i.e. from Port Elizabeth to Port Alfred, and it is recorded that in 1765 Governor Ryk Tulbagh sent a warthog to Holland and five years later another was dispatched to the home country. Both of these animals must have come originally from east of the Sundays River. They, together with those whose remains have been found by archaeologists, were Cape warthogs – Phacochoerus a. aethiopicus – believed to have become extinct before the end of the 19th century.

The common warthog - P. africanus – was never known south of the Gariep (Orange) River, but on the strength of the archaeological records showing that warthogs once lived in the Eastern Cape, it was decided in the 1970s to introduce these northern cousins to the area. At first they were welcomed by farmers and conservators, but having taken stock of their new surroundings and settled down, a population explosion took place that has turned them into problem animals. They have burrowed under fences, allowing stock to escape and predators to come in, and have destroyed grazing and caused soil erosion. Driving down from Fort Beaufort one day we narrowly avoided an accident when from over a blind-rise we came unexpectedly upon a sounder of hogs in the middle of the road. The “subway” that they had created beneath the fence was sufficient for quite large animals to have used, and the dangling fence would have been no deterrent to a determined cow.

As a result of these unneighbourly habits farmers have been forced to try and bring their numbers down. Despite the best efforts of young men using high-powered rifles with telescopic sights, the warthogs have held their own, a sure indication that it was not 18th and 19th century hunters armed with assegais, muzzle-loaders and flintlocks that caused the extinction of the Cape warthog. The other two theories are that they were struck down by some disease such as swine-fever, or that there was a change of habitat as a result of climate change, but the actual reason for their disappearance remains a mystery.

My sympathies are with the farmers, but even so, whenever we come across a young family of warthogs we stop to enjoy their entertaining ways, and I give a thought to a distant cousin that I can picture although we never met.

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