A Long Journey Home

Over 100 years ago, a species that had been in our country for hundreds of thousands of years disappeared, leaving the land free for the arrival of an invasive cousin. This is the story of its epic return.

When Florentine navigator Antonio Pigafetta arrived in Brazil, accompanying Ferdinand Magellan on the first voyage around the world, he reported that he had seen “pigs with navels on their backs.” Over time, historians have learned to doubt the truthfulness of some accounts of the first adventurers in these lands, characterized by great imagination, so much so that even the writer Gabriel García Márquez was convinced that Pigafetta was a precursor of magical realism.

Moreover, the Florentine claimed he had seen other marvels, such as legless birds whose females brood on the backs of the males and other picturesque details that could lead to mistrust. Pigafetta, however, was being as faithful as possible to what he had seen. Those strange pigs weren’t the invention of a wild imagination; for the first time, the Europeans were seeing a peccary, whose mysterious “navel” is a puzzle that will be solved later in this story.

The peccary had also come to America from Europe, on an epic and fascinating journey that requires us to go slightly further back in time. It is believed that their ancestors arrived in North America some thirty-five million years ago and that they waited at least thirty million years to cross into South America, thanks to the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, which led to the Great American Biotic Interchange (migration of species between North and South America). No one ever waited so long for a bridge to be built.

So when the conquering Homo sapiens arrived in the region over five hundred years ago and was surprised to see pigs with navels on their backs (Homo sapiens had only been around for some 200,000 years), the peccary was already well established in South America, including what is now Uruguay. It was diversifying into the three distinct species that exist today: the collared peccary (Pecari tajacu), the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), and the Chacoan peccary (Catagonus wagneri).

Uruguay is teeming with peccaries. English naturalist William Toller, who visited the Banda Oriental in 1715, reported that members of the expedition had seen three or four hundred of these pigs, a number that, although unlikely (at least for the collared peccary, which forms small herds) demonstrated their widespread presence. Of course, he did not forget to mention the detail the Europeans obsessed over: the mysterious navels on their backs.

But the peccary’s long career in the Banda Oriental, which had lasted hundreds of thousands of years (probably millions, although no such ancient fossils have been found) was suddenly cut short. It’s precisely the arrival of the European to the region when this story starts to get complicated and entangled with recent events.

You Didn’t See the Peccary?

Less than two hundred years after Toller boasted of the large herds of American pigs, there wasn’t a single one left in Uruguay. What had happened? It’s a little difficult to know for certain. As early as 1900, historian Orestes Araújo claimed that the collared peccary, then the only one of the three species remaining, “can be considered extinct,” noting that it was being hunted for its hide to make bags and belts. That does not seem to have been the only reason, however, because the peccary still endures in South American countries with much higher hunting pressure, nor can this be explained by competition with the invasive wild boar, since the latter was introduced to Uruguay by Aarón de Anchorena decades after the disappearance of the peccary.

It’s clear that human presence was decisive, but specific factors such as competition with livestock, disease, and even climate could have played a role.

What is confirmed is that by the beginning of the 20th century, the peccary, as well as other mammals such as the giant anteater, the jaguar, the marsh deer, and the giant otter, was no longer in Uruguay.

Another mammal enters the scene: the head of M’Bopicuá Nature Park, Juan Villalba. At the beginning of the 21st century, when Villalba started planning the breeding and wildlife station that is now owned by Montes del Plata, he had a dream: to bring back a species that was extinct in the country. He did a quick casting in his head. Releasing jaguars, as fascinating as the result would be, would be insane. The giant anteater? It would be impossible to get the number of individuals required to ensure a sustainable population. The enormous marsh deer, perhaps? No. it presented too many health challenges. There was only one great candidate: the collared peccary.

With this plan in mind, in 2001, he obtained a few individuals from several zoos in Uruguay, always looking for a population with genetic diversity, and started to breed them.

The presence of collared peccaries at the nature park was an unthinkable success. Even though these animals only have one, two, or three young per litter—much fewer than their cousins the wild boars or domestic pigs—a few years later, there were hundreds.

Villalba thought the idea through, and in 2010, when the first Uruguay Zoology Congress was held at the University of the Republic’s School of Science, he proposed it at a roundtable on the reintroduction of wildlife, where it was well received.

Two years later, he began contacting national and international specialists and coordinating with authorities at the Animal Health Division and the Department of Wildlife.

But reintroducing animals is not a matter of releasing them in nature and letting them happily thrive, coping however they can. History is full of failed reintroductions that end with poor results for the animals they wanted to help. To achieve this, Villalba and his employees began a tedious but necessary process that, among other things, had them working as peccary nutritionists.

On the one hand, the peccaries had to be perfectly healthy and not carriers of disease. The individuals that were going to be released had to be captured one by one and have their blood drawn to test for foot-and-mouth disease, brucellosis, and tuberculosis, for example. Since these animals can spread diseases to livestock and native wildlife, extreme care had to be taken not to introduce any epidemics into nature.

On the other hand, they had to be prepared to find food. In the nature park, peccaries are commonly given a special ration for pigs, but since nature has yet to provide a plant with the ability to dispense rations to pigs, the animals had to be acclimated to eating the food they could find in nature. In the two years before their release, they were given grasses, shrubs, and especially fruit from the jelly palm, since it was decided to release them in an area where there are palm groves.

There’s Something Still Living

It was a long and difficult process, but in June 2017, the procedures were ready, and the peccaries were prepared to take the big leap (literally, too, as can be seen in the photos). For the first time in the country’s history, a species returned from the great hall of local extinction, a journey that is rarely made.

On June 30, the first hundred adventurous peccaries were loaded into a truck and released on company land, under the watchful eye of Juan, as well as staff from the nature park and the National Directorate of Environment. There’s hardly a better feeling for a naturalist. “It was something greater. I was brimming with emotion and joy,” recalls Juan. “It was one of the highlights of this project. Certainly part of that is restoring a biological structure altered by the activities of man, which have led to the extinction of some species. We contributed a single brick toward rebuilding the biological pyramid that was once in Uruguay. It was everything we could have hoped for and an extremely emotional moment,” he adds. Even better, it occurred during the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity (2011–2020).

But the reintroduction was far from complete, because once the peccaries had been released, their survival had to be ensured. Other characters now enter the story: hunters, especially ones with cell phones and social media accounts. Since there is commercial and gastronomic interest in the species, Villalba knew it was essential to prevent their depredation.

More than one hunter was surprised to find these animals in the fields and killed them. It is estimated that between ten and fifteen individuals were slaughtered, says the naturalist, but the public reacted so furiously that police action was swiftly taken and those responsible were arrested. The authorities were no doubt helped by some hunters who, happy to have come across a new animal, posted photos of their prey on social media as if they were poaching influencers.

The hunters caused some damage, but the peccary lives and fights. The monitoring work carried out by the nature park and researchers from the School of Science indicates that there is a healthy population in our country. Another two releases were later made, strengthening that first advance of the new generation of peccaries in Uruguay. “Today, they appear with young and in multiple herds,” says biologist Alexandra Cravino, who carries out monitoring work.

The peccary has adapted well and has not had any major issues with its aggressive European cousin, the wild boar, since they have different schedules and complementary diets. “Its main threat is hunters,” reminds Cravino.

The Unfortunate Soul Who Rubs Against the Pig’s Back

The collared peccary, as an essentially vegetarian native species, causes much less damage than the wild boar. It is a small pig that weighs no more than 40 kg (88 lb.), unlike its 100+ kg (220+ lb.) relative (from which it separated some forty million years ago). It has a whitish collar that is distinct enough to form part of the species’ common name, tusks that point downward rather than upward (but with which it can defend itself quite well), and thick grayish fur. It serves a valuable purpose in dispersing seeds and has a habit of stirring the soil in search of food, which has helped it earn its name (“peccary” means “forest trails” in Guaraní).

“And the navel on their backs?” the reader will ask. Spoiler alert: It’s actually a gland that produces an oily substance and releases a pungent odor, which helps members of a herd recognize each other.

This strong, unpleasant odor becomes more intense if the peccary is stressed or excited, so much so that Villalba tries to never touch that area when he’s handling one because the scent can linger for several hours. In those cases, the stench is not so much from the peccary itself but from the unfortunate soul who has rubbed against its back.

It was a hard pill for the peccary to swallow, being displaced from these lands and seeing, from neighboring countries, an invasive relative brought in the 20th century comfortably thrive. Its return to the country is an act of justice as well as a sign of responsibility for the branches of the tree of life that we must take care of. May the Pigafettas and William Tollers of the future continue to find the pig with the navel on its back when they venture into our lands.


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