Mystery disease sweeps through Borneo wild boar population

May 1, 2023
Bearded pig digs the earth

The bearded pig — the native wild boar that has dominated the jungles of the huge island of Borneo for thousands of years — may be close to extinction.

First the Penan – the people known to the outside world as the Borneo jungle nomads – started to come across dead wild boar in the forest. Then rotting carcasses. And now in the jungle, where they have hunted for the pigs for generations, there is no trace, no tracks, no wallows, no smell.

Wild boar are of great ecological, social and conservation importance in Borneo. The native pig – Sus barbatus– is a staple food for the Penan, by far their favourite meat. Barking deer, mouse deer, birds and fish may be other sources of protein, but wild boar is the most important one.

In the time of Covid, isolated by the lockdowns, Penan hunters first encountered what they thought of as “Wild Boar Covid,” something killing the pigs. Now across vast tracts of Borneo – the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, the Indonesian state of Kalimantan and the Sultanate of Brunei — wild boar have vanished.

This is a catastrophe coming on top of the others that have befallen the Penan in recent decades.

Town dwelling Penan elder, Nick Kelesau, who still has frequent contact with inland Penan, says it was during the Covid Pandemic that they first noticed a disease affecting the wild pigs. Referring to his jungle-living friends he says: “We [had] no idea. In happening Covid, when they walk in the forest, they look, they found the wild boar is just lying around dead. That’s quite difficult for them, because they have to go hunting for the wild boar. For now even if they want to find their footprints in the forest they can’t find. They only can find deer and other animals.”

Asked if this was the situation in all Penan regions Nick and his Penan friend, Lim Huan Khuan, (Hon) both respond in unison: “Everywhere. Everywhere. In Upper Baram, [River]in Middle Baram. All Around.”

Penan doctoral student, Bernard Upieh, who is studying one of the last nomadic bands says that since the fever there are no wild boar. “The Nomadic Penan, which is my research group, [do] not catch any more wild boar. They disappeared just like that.”

But it’s not just the Penan who are affected by the disease. Other rural natives who love pork just as much as the Penan, such as the Kelabit, Kenyah, Kayan and Iban have reported the mass deaths of pigs, including pigs farmed in the longhouse communities.

Cardiologist and Paediatrician, Dato Dr Philip Raja, President of the Kelabit community organisation says the loss of the animal is having an impact on all the inland people.

“Wild boar is the main source of food for the jungle. Of course you have rivers there for fish. You have plants for vegetables. You have other animals in the trees, deer, monkeys, birds everything. But wild boar is the most delicious as far as the taste is concerned for the locals.

“So Without this animals in the jungle, it is a big [his emphasis] impact.”

Dr Raja says before Covid struck, many pigs reared in the towns were affected by a disease. The authorities culled a lot of pigs from Bintulu on the coast, to Sibu up the Rejang River to Miri, close to the Sarawak border with the Brunei Sultanate.

Initially, as the disease raged through the domestic pig population, the people in the mountainous inland Kelabit area of Bario still hunted wild boar.

Dr Raja says, “We thought the wild boar were not affected. We thought that this is a disease of the pigs in the town. Then the locals realised there was a dwindling numbers of these pigs in the jungle.”

If the impact is bad for the Kelabit, who live in rich cultivated valleys, it is a disaster for the Penan.

With loggers destroying their forests most Penan have been forced to settle. Only a few small bands, and a few old people, continue to practice the traditional nomadic way of life.

For the settled Penan, wild boar was both food and a source of income, as any surplus kill could be sold in the towns.

So what is it killing the pigs? Not Covid, but African Swine Fever (ASF).

The contagion has now swept through the rural regions of Sarawak from around the headwaters of the huge Rejang and Baram rivers, to Bario in the mountains, to the world heritage listed Mulu National Park.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, since August 2018 African Swine Fever has been sweeping through Asia and the Pacific. It has been identified in 18 countries including China, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and India.

The first ASF outbreaks in Malaysia were confirmed in February 2021 in the Borneo state of Sabah.

According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), the fever is a highly contagious viral disease of domestic and wild pigs, whose mortality rate can reach one hundred per cent. There is no effective vaccine.

The WOAH says the virus is highly resilient, meaning it can survive on clothes, boots, wheels, and other materials and can be spread through pork products.

The disease is believed to have entered Sarawak from Kalimantan.

With no respect for borders, it has spread through the forests across all states.

And the disappearance of the pig is not just a matter of food supply for people.

Sus barbatus is a key part of the natural environment of Borneo. Before Swine Fever struck, its numbers were declining in many parts of its range, due to deforestation, habitat fragmentation and over-hunting.

Individuals commonly weigh 57 to 83 kilograms, but can grow to 120 kilograms, or more.

In the forests the pigs fed on fallen fruit, seeds, roots, herbs and small animals. Periodically they formed large herds, swimming across rivers and climbing into the mountains.

There is some hope that a few are still out there. On 2 April I was told by a man working in the Jelalong palm oil plantation region, about sixty kilometres inland from the famous Niah caves, that he had been hunting on the previous day and had found tracks of a large wild boar. But he added that the last time he and his friends had killed one was in 2021.

In the past the pigs have been recorded on Borneo’s offshore islands and it is possible that the fever has not reached these islands.

Asked if the government is doing anything about the disappearance of the animals, Nick Kelesau and Hon both said no.

A Malaysian newspaper, The Star, reported on 15 February that the Department of Veterinary Services was monitoring pig farms and pigs held in the remote longhouse communities.

The paper reported that the Modernisation of Agriculture and Regional Development Minister, Dr Stephen Rundi, had said the Department of Veterinary Services had so far managed to contain the disease’s spread in urban regions.

But local media is not reporting on what is happening, or has happened, to wild pigs.

I approached the Miri Resident and District Office, which administers the region that is the home to the Eastern Penan, seeking to find the government’s position on what is being done about the swine fever and the disappearance of the wild pigs.

I was immediately referred to the Divisional Veterinary Services in Miri.

There an official told me that the ASF epidemic was a “secret” matter.

I told him I was not seeking any secrets, just the government’s official response as to what it was doing about it.

He said I should write a letter seeking a response. Expecting this, I immediately handed him a letter with my questions and contact details. I have had no response to this letter.

Most Penan who live in the regions still hunt and gather where they can in secondary forests and in what is left of the primary jungle. Some earn a cash income from casual work as tourist guides in the national parks, or in the palm oil plantations that have taken their jungle.

Many continue to build blockades seeking to stop the loggers’ encroachment on to their land, but these are easily knocked down by the bulldozers.

Under Malaysian law, to claim land rights, people must prove that they, or their ancestors occupied land prior to 1958. Claimants can do this by showing markers such as established longhouses, grave sites, or the cultivation of land, or planted trees.

Even though everyone knows that the Penan are the earliest inhabitants of the Sarawak jungles, as yet they have no land rights because their past way of life leaves no trace in the jungle. They built simple shelters which are soon swallowed up by the jungle once they move on. They leave no stone markers to indicate a grave site.

The nomadic band Bernard Upieh studies currently roams in the Long Seridan region of Sarawak, on the fringe of the world heritage listed, Mulu National Park.

On the other side of the park, where a resort and back-packers accommodation has been built, Penan ousted from the site live on the fringe, selling trinkets to the tourists who come to see the wildlife and the huge caves.

The now settled Penan know the boundaries of their nomadic territory around their settlements and many have obtained help from non-government agencies to map their regions.

But until now, none have been officially recognised with the granting of land title.


This article was first published in Malaysiakini April 24, 2024

Paul Malone is the author of The Peaceful People, The Penan and their fight for the Forest and Kill the Major, The true story of the most successful Allied guerrilla was in Borneo published by Gerakbudaya.

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