Invasive species.

Photographer: Pascal Lachenaud/AFP/Getty Images

The Boars From Brazil

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Clever, hairy and ornery, wild pigs are a global pest. Conservation scientists have labeled them one of the 100 worst invasive species. But unlike lionfish or Argentine ants, sus scrofa, as scientists know them, can live about anywhere, and once in the wild they're almost impossible to exterminate.

All of which helps explain why Brazilians are in a lather.

Okay, so maybe the land that gave Latin America its worst political corruption scandal in memory has more ruinous species to cull. But Brazilians underestimate wild boars at their peril -- and that, sadly, has been the story up to now.

 From Texas to Tuscany, wild boars and their hybrid offspring roam the countryside in bands, or "sounders,"  flattening rows of corn, ravaging vineyards, fouling ground water and causing traffic accidents. One charged into Hong Kong's financial district in February, and packs of radioactive boars have infested the abandoned farmland around the shuttered nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan.

In Brazil, where the scourge is more recent, no one knows how many boars there are or how much overall damage they wreak. And that blind spot, along with an inept bureaucracy, makes a disastrous combination, menacing not only human and animal health, but also farmers, who are among of the few heroes in Brazil's deadbeat economy. Planters in the frontier grain belt state of Mato Gross reported recently that nighttime raids by boars routinely claim half their yearly crop.

The boar problem in Brazil is a case of human enterprise gone awry. Though semi-wild pigs have long wandered the region, the invasion began in earnest in the mid 1990s, when enterprising farmers decided that pureblood farm-bred boar was the next big thing in haute cuisine. Magazine articles touted the meat as savory and leaner than pork, and trendy restaurants served French racks of "javali" -- Portuguese for boar. Breeders took the bait and began importing boar from Canada and Europe.  

The enthusiasm was short-lived: Boar litters were smaller (four per sow, versus six to eight for barnyard pigs) and produced less meat than their domestic cousins. As a quick fix, many breeders crossed their boars with domestic pigs and got a more rustic, hirsute hog. When that still didn't pay off, farmers cut their losses by setting them free.

That suited the boars just fine. Like other bio-invaders, exotic feral pigs flourished on new soil where forage was thick and native predators scarce; in Brazil, the jaguar has been hunted nearly to extinction.

At first confined to a couple of farming states in southern Brazil, boars spread north and west in what ecologist Felipe Pedrosa called a "continental invasion." The military metaphors are appropriate. Boars are "opportunistic omnivores," meaning they help themselves to almost anything with fur, feathers or seeds.

They also pick up hitchhiking pathogens (foot-and-mouth disease and leptospirosis) that can spread to other animals. And their relentless rooting for food destroys crops while laying the way for invasive plants like fennel and the comely-but-devastating strawberry guava, whose impenetrable thickets choke out native forests

Ecologists say eradicating boars in the wild is all but impossible, except on small islands. Texas has tried containing them by licensing hunters, but even in that firearm-friendly state, the boars are winning. Now some U.S. hunters are shooting them from helicopters ("pork choppers") or even with the aid of drones.

Brazilians should be so lucky. Brazil virtually outlawed hunting (with rare exceptions) in 1967. That leaves varmint control to bureaucrats, where red tape rules. In 2013, when Brasilia finally figured out it had an emergency, the environment ministry relaxed the hunting ban to allow shooting boars.

But a thicket of rules and overlapping authorities remain. Hunters may shoot boar but can't sell their meat,  leaving animal carcasses to rot or to black market butchers. While Brazil's busy urban bandits have little trouble getting handguns, hunters must register their weapons with the armed forces, renew their licenses every three months, and submit quarterly reports on their kill. Such an antagonistic environment has encouraged hunting on the sly, as hog-harried farmers turned to hired guns.

Because the results of these hunts were often ugly, pitting feral pigs against fierce hounds, animal rights advocates have called for banning boar hunting altogether in favor of more "humane" methods of dispatch. They ought to check out Santa Cruz Island, in California, where it took a veritable paramilitary assault by hunters on the ground and in helicopters to rid the island of wild pigs.

Environmental authorities in Brasilia are currently at work on a national plan for wild pig control, which promises to draw on experts from a handful of federal ministries and local governments.

Of course, that’s just the sort of bureaucratic ecosystem that bio-invaders love, according to Rafael Salerno, an agronomist and sometime boar hunter who has tracked the invasion for two decades. "While Brasilia makes plans, boars make little boars," he said.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net