Saturday, 9 April 2016

Saving the little hog – Goutam Narayan

I am not an animal lover, I am a conservationist. I have no sentimental attachment to any one animal that I want to save at any cost like the animal lovers do. To save a species, if some animals have to be sacrificed for larger good, that is fine with me”, Goutam had said passionately. Goutam Narayan is known for his work in saving the Pygmy Hog (Porcula salvania) from extinction in the north-west of Assam in India.

Conservationist Goutam Narayan and the pygmy hog

We were visiting the Pygmy Hog Breeding Centre (PHBC) in Basistha in the periphery of Guwahati, of which he is the founder-director. Another breeding centre is located at Potasali near Nameri National Park.

When I had first arrived to live in Guwahati in December 2014, I did not know anyone in this city. However, I had the contacts of Goutam and his wife, Nandita, given to me by my sister. So I had gone to visit them at their home. That was the first time I had heard about Goutam’s work with pygmy hogs. “I want to come and see your work with these hogs”, I had told him. Finally, in January 2016 I had managed to visit it.


Goutam thinks that this tiny and shy animal is a very good indicator of the ecological conservation of its local environment, “The big animals like tigers or rhinos, they can thrive in lots of places and even if the environment changes, they can survive. But not the pygmy hogs. They need the specific tall wet grassland plains at the foothills and without it, they will not survive. So when animals like the pygmy hog start disappearing, you know that something is wrong and the environment is getting damaged. It is a sensitive indicator of the change in the environment.

Pigs, hogs, boars and swines are different words used to talk about the animals of the suid family, though usually pig is used for domesticated animals while hogs and boars are used for wild animals.

Conservationist Goutam Narayan and the pygmy hog

The pygmy hog is the smallest suid. The grown adult is about 65 cm long and 25 cm tall, weighing around 8 or 9 kg. It is also a very shy animal so it is very difficult to see in the wild. There was a time when these pygmy hogs were found in several places along the Himalayan foothills at the India-Bhutan border extending westwards to India-Nepal border to eastern parts on Assam-Arunachal Pradesh borders. However, now these animals are almost extinct except for a small area in Manas National Park, which has around 200 pygmy hogs. During the last few years, 94 animals born and raised in Goutam’s breeding centre have been released in Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary and Orang National Park in Assam.


So what has happened to these pygmy hogs? How had they become extinct? Often the extinction of animals is linked to excessive killings by humans, but that is not the case with the pygmy hogs. Since they are shy animals hiding in the wet grasslands, they are not easy to hunt. Also, they are small, so have little meat to justify their hunting. Rather, their extinction is linked to the destruction of the tall wet grasslands.

They are very finicky animals, they require that tall thatch grass and without it they can not survive. They make their homes underneath a bunch of that grass and if they can not find it then they will have no homes, they will not breed and they will die”, Goutam had explained.

Conservationist Goutam Narayan and the pygmy hog

Goutam is a field biologist and had started with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) under Salim Ali, the noted Indian ornithologist. Goutam had earlier worked with Bengal Florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis), another endangered species that shares its habitat with the pygmy hog. After working with Bengal Floricans in Manas grasslands he was offered to work with Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, founded by Gerald Durrell in Jersey, Channel Islands.

The wet grasslands habitat has one of the richest in bio-diversity in India, so it is important to safeguard it. Pygmy hogs are one of the most sensitive indicators of the safeguarding of this habitat. These wet grasslands serve as buffer against floods in rainy season while maintaining high groundwater levels in dry season, indirectly benefiting farming communities living in the fringe areas.

A few years ago, in an interview Goutam had expressed his desires of the changes he would like to see, “I would (like to) banish the indiscriminate dry season burning of grasslands every February and March. I may allow some controlled fire till mid January to clear dried grass debris and to delay the transformation of these successional grasslands into a different habitat but not the highly destructive hot burns. Secondly, I would convert hoards of cattle grazing the grasslands bare and trampling the soil hard into a few high yielding breeds of stall-fed animals. Thirdly, I would transform the mindset of planners who want to construct scores of mega dams on Himalayan rivers. They should instead be planning for ecologically and economically viable smaller alternatives that do not cause flash floods in the grassland plains and downstream areas when water is released from reservoirs, particularly during the monsoons.”


In the pygmy hog breeding centre in Guwahati, the hogs are kept in separate enclosures according to the genetic lines. Since their numbers are so small, it is important to ensure the genetic lines to maximise their genetic diversity. Pygmy hog is the only member of the genus Porcula.

The Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) has a significant research component. An important part of the research is genetic and endocrinal studies of the hogs. While we were visiting it we met a researcher Shyamalima Buragohain who is working on PHCP’s collaborative project with CCMB-LaCONES (Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad) on the endocrine status of pygmy hogs by studying their excreta.

The breeding programme had started with nine pygmy hogs captured in the Manas National Park in 1996 and in 2013. Over the years, their numbers have slowly increased. When we visited, PHCP had 85 hogs. Every year around 12 hogs are released in protected and restored grasslands under a planned reintroduction project. A pre-release centre has been built in Nameri Tiger Reserve where the animals get used to living in the grasslands in a gradual manner under minimal human contact for 5 months, before being released. At the same time, together with forest authorities, programme for rebuilding the grassland habitats of the hogs are started by controlling the burning of the grass and livestock grazing.


The story of conservation of pygmy hogs is linked to the British colonial history of Assam. A British born tea garden owner and naturalist Edward Pritchard Gee, who had decided to stay in India after 1947, is known for the identification of Golden Langurs and conservation of one horned rhinos in Assam. In 1964 he had written the book “The Wildlife of India” in which he had written that probably the pygmy hog species was already extinct.

The 1971 rediscovery of pygmy hog is credited to another British tea planter from the Jersey island, John Tessier-Yandell. Under his guidance a tea garden manager had found pygmy hogs being sold in a tea garden market near the Barnadi Reserve Forest (now a Wildlife Sanctuary where the pygmy hogs will be released by PHCP in May 2016) in Darrang (now Udalguri) district of north-western Assam and John had written a report that was published in the journal “Animals”. The tea company had set up a small project for the conservation of the pygmy hog, but unfortunately it had failed to maintain these animals in captivity.

Following its rediscovery, during 1970s-80s different surveys had shown the existence of pygmy hogs in different parts of Assam, however these had gradually disappeared with the destruction of the wet grasslands habitats.

The international Wild Pig Specialist Group was setup under the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), under William Oliver in 1980. As an acolyte of Gerald Durrell, in whose zoo in Jersey he started working in 1974, William Oliver promoted the role of zoos and captive breeding. For saving the pygmy hogs Oliver had drawn up his first action plan in 1977, but was unable to get the state of Assam and the government of India to agree to protect them properly until 1995, when he had asked Goutam Narayan to join this project.


In September 2015, Goutam Narayan has received the International Harry Messel award “in recognition of his pivotal role on leading the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme in north-eastern India since 1995, thus saving a whole genus from extinction, and his long service to the SSC Wild Pig Specialist Group”.

Conservationist Goutam Narayan and the pygmy hog

Regarding the future of the Pygmy Hog species and its habitat, Goutam is optimistic and says, “Hopefully one day the importance of wild habitats such as the wet grasslands will be recognised for their role in providing significant ecosystem services to the local communities and they will be protected and managed using sensitive indicator species, thereby helping both the highly endangered wildlife and local people. Till that day comes the conservationist should help preserve at least some small pockets of these habitats lest everything is lost!


Sunday, 3 April 2016

Ancient Indians, Neanderthals and Denisovans

Recently I was reading the wonderful book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari (originally written in Hebrew in 2011, English translation is published by Signal books, UK, 2014). Reading this book reminded me about some of my old thoughts on ancient Indian myths and the prehistoric humans such as the Neanderthals.

Many decades ago, while reading the old Indian sacred stories, I used to wonder if some of the people described in them such as asur, danav, rakshas, and vanar, could have been references to other human species.

This post explores some of those ideas about the non-human persons in the sacred books of Hinduism including Veda, Puranic stories and epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat. I am not claiming any scientific rationale behind these ideas, they are just speculations. The images used in this post are from the north-east of India and show depictions of those persons in the temples, folk-art and folk-plays.

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

Different human species: Regarding the encounters between the different human species, in his book Yuval Noah Harari has written that:
There were humans long before there was history. Animals much like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for countless generations they did not stand out from myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats. …
Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a family. This banal fact used to be one of history’s most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and most importantly without parents. But that’s just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orang utans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.
Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilised cousins, once upon a time we had quite a few brothers and sisters as well. We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. …
Humans in Europe and western Asia evolved into Homo neanderthalensis, popularly referred to simply as ‘Neanderthals’. .. The more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, ‘Upright man’, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever. .. On the island of Java in Indonesia, lived Homo soloensis. On another Indonesian island – the small island of Flores – archaic humans underwent a process of dwarfing … This unique species, known by scientists as Homo floresiensis, reached a maximum height of only metre and weighed no more than twenty-five kilograms. .. In 2010 another lost sibling was rescued from oblivion, when scientist excavating the Denisova cave in Siberia discovered a fossilised finger bone. Genetic analysis proved that the finger belonged to a previously unknown human species, which was named Homo denisova. … from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. …(pp 11-20)
European theories of encounters between different people in India: European academics and indologists from 19th century had popularized the theories of Aryan invasion and proposed that people of south India (Dravidians) were pushed southwards by those Aryans coming into India from the west. They had also proposed that fair-skinned Aryans had exploited and subjugated dark skinned indigenous populations of ancient India and forced them into specific caste groups (shudra) or outside the caste system (untouchables). They had argued that groups like Asur and Rakshas described in the ancient Indian tales were actually Dravidians and other indigenous people of India.

These ideas have been widely accepted both in India and internationally. For example, many people believe that the more than three thousand years old Harappa and Mohanjodaro civilizations in the Indus valley had disappeared due to Aryan invasion.

Only during the last couple of decades there have been doubts about the invasion theories since they have not found matching archaeological or documentary evidence or the evidence is non conclusive, to support this theory. However, objective discussions on this theme are sometimes difficult because certain Hindu groups see the Aryan invasion theory as diminishing of their claim to be original inhabitants of India. At the same time, objective discussions are difficult because many leftist scholars see them as efforts to pander to conservative Hindu groups.

Alternative hypothesis of encounters between different human species in Indian myths: However, I used to think that the Puranic stories and myths of ancient Indians could have been orally transmitted stories of the prehistoric humans, who could have travelled from one continent to another over thousands of years, enriching those stories with events from their own lives and passing them on to their younger generations.

So my thought was: what if the asur, danav, pichash, rakshas and vanar of those stories were other species of humans who might have lived on earth at the same time as the Homo sapiens? What if stories like those of the vanar kingdom from which Hanuman comes, which is described in Ramayan, are based upon much older stories from the millennium-long oral traditions and refer to our humanoid ape ancestors from which the different human species took birth and who were our species-cousins?

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

The Puranic stories talk about the birth of deva (humans) and asur from the same father Brahma and their subsequent fights. Similarly the stories linked to rakshas like that of Ravan, mention the highly developed cultures of these people and their rich cities full of gold (Lanka). I do not think that we can take these stories as literal truths or histories. Indian traditions have looked at, analysed and understood these myths in diverse spiritual and metaphorical ways.

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

For example, Indian mythologist Devdutt Pattnaik in his book “My Gita” writes of deva and asura as the two children of Brahma, “Though half-brothers, these sons of Brahma do not like each other: the deva fear the asura and the asura hate the deva. … In the Veda, the deva and asura are celestian beings. But in Purana, they are clearly rivals. The Europeans identified asura first as Titans, in line with Greek mythology, and later as demons, in line with Abrahamic mythology. This causes great confusion, as the asura are neither “old gods” nor “forces of evil”. Both old gods and forces of evil are unwanted and need to be excluded, while in the Purana, both are needed …” (p. 79)

To explain the disappearance from earth of all other human species except for the Homo sapiens, wars and genocides have been proposed. However, we can also interpret the old Indian myths as stories of interactions between different human species. Yuval Noah has written about these interactions, "About 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into Arabian peninsula and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass. When Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. What happened to them? … According to the Interbreeding theory, when Sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two populations merged. If this is the case, then today’s Eurasians are not pure Sapiens." (p. 20)

Can we confirm these ideas?: When the human genome mapping project had come up, I had thought that genome mapping could give the answers about inter-mixing between the different human species. For example, genome studies have shown that 1 to 4 percent of Europeans and Asians have some Neanderthal genes.

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

Another recent report about a genome study by Sriram Sankararaman of California university and David Reich of Harvard University has shown that a higher than expected percentage of south Asians have genes of the Denisovan species of humans. People of Oceania and Pacific have even higher number of persons with these genes.

Thus, these studies suggest that at least some degree of inter-mixing between human species did take place. However this does not prove that the other people mentioned in Indian myths and ancient books were other human species like Neanderthals and Denisovans.

The continuity of the living oral traditions in India: Another questions I have asked myself is - if it is true that the Indian myths carry memories of the prehistoric encounters between the different human species, are there similar myths and old stories among other cultures and people?

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

We share many myths with other cultures. For example, the floods of the Genesis Narrative are a common myth in different parts of the world, from Noah in the Bible to Sumerian and Babylonian myths, and the primordial floods described in the Indian myths of Manu.

So why we have not found other myths and stories of encounters between Sapiens and other species of humans? One answer can be that the myths and ancient stories of people could have included stories of encounters between different human species, but those stories are not accessible today. Or that these stories are there but they have not been thought/understood in this way. Another answer can be that the relatively new religions like Christianity and Islam have suppressed many of  the old myths of the oral traditions of the ancient people.

On the other hand, India has had a very strong tradition of keeping alive the oral narratives and customs. For example, a group of persons in Kerala still continues and conserves the tradition of chanting of ancient vedic sounds, whose meanings have been lost with time. Thus, these are living traditions in India and not just things that are found in museums and old manuscripts. Another factor influencing the continuing presence of old stories in India is because Hinduism is composed of hundreds of different belief streams, none of which can claim to be dominant or more legitimate than others, which makes it possible for the acceptance and continuing adaptations and relevance of old myths and sacred stories.

In India the myth-recreation and re-elaboration process is active and ongoing even today. For example, in popular Indian culture public figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar, as well as some film actors and politicians, are regularly turned into gods with building of their temples and making of new myths and stories about their exploits.

Perhaps that is how, ancient myths of encounters between different human species could have found resonance in relatively more recent stories of exploitation between different castes, and thus these continue to be woven and used in different ways in contemporary India!

Conclusions: Do ancient Indian myths tell stories about encounters between different human species from prehistorical times? May be one day the technology will be able to provide better answers to such speculative questions. More likely, these will remain speculations.

However, I like the idea that our old Indian myths and stories can remember events from the dawn of the humanity before we had our languages and identities. I like the idea that the archetype chimpanzee grandmother of Yuval Noah Harari is still remembered as the mother of Hanuman in our stories. That our Neanderthal cousins are still there with us as Ravan, Kumbhkaran and Meghnath in the Ramlila plays. That our Denisovan cousins are not lost for ever, they live in the Puranic stories of India.

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

I think that "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind", is a wonderful book. If Human history interests you, it will give you a lot to think about!

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