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"The disappearance of pigs due to swine fever poses a threat to the food supply of millions, as the disease affects wild herds."
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“The disappearance of pigs due to swine fever poses a threat to the food supply of millions, as the disease affects wild herds.”

Researchers are cautioning that the populations of feral pigs are rapidly declining as a result of the spread of African swine fever (ASF), posing a threat to the sustenance of millions who rely on them for sustenance.

The African Swine Fever (ASF) has caused a nearly 100% fatality rate and spread throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa in the past two decades, resulting in severe damage to both domestic and wild pig populations. The consequences have been particularly devastating in Borneo, Southeast Asia, with a decline of 90% to 100% in bearded pig numbers since its arrival on the island in 2021, according to researchers.

The pigs were once the dominant large mammal species on the island and played a crucial role as ecosystem engineers by spreading seeds across vast distances, as stated in a publication in the journal Science. According to Professor Erik Meijaard, the lead author of the letter and former chair of the IUCN Wild Pigs Specialist Group, these pigs have now vanished.

Meijaard reported that during his visits to various camera trapping sites in Borneo, he noticed a consistent trend of pigs disappearing. He also observed a decline in pig populations in seven camera trapping programs across Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, which were not located on Borneo. According to him, the introduction of African Swine Fever has caused a rapid decline in pig populations.

According to Meijaard, the bearded pig may require a change in its status from vulnerable to critically endangered due to the impact of ASF. The scientists state that there is no indication that wild pig populations will be able to fully recover in Borneo or other islands in Southeast Asia, including Java, Sumatra, Timor-Leste, and the Philippines.

Four pigs walk in line alone the shore on Teluk Assam Beach in Malaysian Borneo

The decline of bearded pigs in Borneo is causing significant effects on cultures and communities that rely on them as a food source. Studies indicate that bearded pigs used to make up 81% of hunted wildlife by weight in certain villages, but now their presence is almost non-existent. According to Meijaard, this poses a threat to food security and exacerbates poverty as locals heavily rely on wild and feral pigs for protein.

The absence of pigs as a crucial source of protein creates a strain on other species. Scientists cautioned that without pigs, a large number of people may resort to hunting endangered animals like pig-tailed macaques.

The decline of wild pigs can have a significant impact on the ecosystem. Bearded pigs play a crucial role in dispersing tree seeds through their consumption of fruits and long-distance migration, spreading them throughout the forest via defecation. Additionally, their snouts help to aerate the soil, promoting the growth of trees by clearing undergrowth and providing access to essential nutrients. Unfortunately, due to extensive logging and the growth of farmland, specifically palm oil plantations, only 50% of Borneo’s once diverse forests remain intact.

The researchers urged for immediate investigation and actions, while recognizing the effects on societies. The main priority should be to swiftly stop the transmission of ASF to other areas, according to the letter’s suggestion.

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The impact of African swine fever has received significant focus in countries with prominent pork industries, but its consequences in Borneo have largely been ignored. According to researchers, this disease disrupts food security, ecosystems, and poses a threat to endangered wildlife.

Efforts to develop a successful vaccine have yielded encouraging outcomes, although its effectiveness may be greater for domesticated pigs. According to Professor Benoit Goossens of Cardiff University, who co-authored the letter, administering the vaccine to wild pigs would be extremely complicated and costly.

According to James Wood, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge who was not part of the letter, the letter brings up significant concerns about the common belief that wild pigs are carriers of diseases and pose a danger to the domestic pig industry. Wood further explains that the authors present evidence showing how wild pig species, which are integral to the culture and diet of various communities in Borneo and other Southeast Asian islands, are suffering from the ASF virus due to the transportation of pigs and pig products by humans.

Every possible measure should be taken to stop the continued transmission of ASF among southeast Asian islands, specifically through the trading of pigs and pork products, as the consequences there can be much more severe than just within the pig industry.

Dr. Harriet Bartlett, a researcher from the University of Oxford, stated that the impact of the disease has primarily affected the pig industry. She also emphasized the need to consider the larger environmental and social implications in order to effectively manage African swine fever.

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Source: theguardian.com