Babirusas: The Wild Pigs With A Dental Problem

Found in the swamps and thick jungles on a few Indonesian islands, babirusas are sometimes called ‘deer pig’ (which is what babirusa translates to from Malay to English), or even ‘wild pigs with a dental problem’, which refers to the males’ interesting tusks. As wild members of the pig (Suidae) family, these animals are thought to have branched off from the rest of the pig family early in its evolution and they even have their own sub-family classification, Babyrusinae. There is some paleontological evidence that indicates they’re more closely related to hippos and cave art found in Indonesia suggests the species have been around for at least 35,400 years ago. Babirusas are actually one of about a dozen wild pigs found in Africa, Europe, and Asia.

In The Wild

Native to the Indonesian islands of Sulawesi, Togian, Sula, and Buru, studying and seeing this species in the wild has proven difficult, as babirusas are shy and able to move silently into cover of its thick jungle habitat. Their remote forest island habitats also meant that these wild pigs evolved in isolation. Current scientific thinking suggests that there are four species of babirusas and females will often live in five to fifteen animals in the swamps and forests along rivers and lakes. Male babirusas, on the other hand, will often be solitary or in small bachelor herds.

Babirusas are omnivorous and known to eat almost everything, including leaves, berries, nuts, insects, small mammals, fish, and mushrooms. They’re able to both dig for roots and larvae in the ground and stand on their back two feet to reach higher leaves. Most will stand two feet tall and three feet long and have a weight over 200 pounds.

Their Snouts and Tusks

The phrase ‘wild pig with a dental problem’ is an apt name for a north Sulawesi male babirusa because they are armed with two sets of tusks. The lower tusks are actually lower canine teeth that keep growing throughout their life. The upper tusks are the upper canines that eventually rotate and break out of the top of their snouts to curl back toward their eyes.

The actual purpose of the tusks is a bit of a mystery; one legend said that the males would use their tusks to hang from trees to sleep at night but we now know that’s not the case. One suggested hypothesis is that the upper tusks are used when males fight to protect their eyes. However, some existing photos of fighting babirusas show that males rear up on their hind legs and use their front hooves to ‘box’ each other. Plus, babirusa tusks are fragile and unable to withstand much pressure, making them unsuited for combat.

Conservation

Babirusas in the wild don’t have many natural predators (if any at all) but do face threats from humans, like hunting, commercial logging, and habitat degradation. Because of those threats, these animals are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and there are an estimated 10,000 left in the wild. These wild pigs are fully protected by Indonesian law and there are six different wildlife preserves and parks on Sulawesi that babirusas call home. And over the last few years, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums has worked to create a Global Species Management Plan for babirusas. If you’d like to learn more about this work, Action Indonesia is a collection of more than 50 organizations around the world that are working on the GSMP for these wild pigs.


While you may have never heard of these wild pigs and their two sets of tusks can be off putting, babirusas are incredible animals that are facing numerous threats in their natural habitats. Their home country of Indonesia has worked to protect the babirusas still found in the wild and a group of organizations all around the world work to help these animals both in the wild and in captivity.

Have you ever seen a babirusa before?

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