Pay serious attention to African Swine Fever, urge wildlife experts

A bearded pig in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Sabah. Such a sighting is not happening anymore since ASF hit Sabah. (Photo by Rudi Delvaux).

KOTA KINABALU: The African Swine Fever (ASF) is not getting enough attention despite the disease having decimated the domestic and wild pigs population in Asia, Europe, and Africa, say wildlife experts.

Prof Erik Meijaard, former chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Wild Pigs Specialist Group, and Prof Benoit Goossens of Cardiff University, said the near-100% fatality rate threatens food security, ecosystems and the lives and traditions of millions of people.

Meijaard warned in a recent letter he authored in the journal Science that this socio-ecological disaster was currently overlooked and receiving insufficient attention.

“ASF has devastated pig populations in Asia since 2018, but the impacts are especially significant on the island of Borneo,” he said in a statement on Friday (Jan 19).

“ASF has led to local population crashes of bearded pigs, once the most numerous large mammal species on the island, of up to 100%.

“This decline may render the species critically endangered, an international conservation status verging on extinction,” he added.

Goossens, who co-authored the letter, said that bearded pigs played an essential role in ecosystem maintenance and socio-cultural practices.

He said the once numerous pigs played an important role in steering ecological processes in Borneo’s tropical forest.

“Local hunting studies indicate that bearded pigs constituted up to 81% of hunted wildlife weight in some villages, while Malaysia’s Sarawak once harvested up to a million bearded pigs each year.

“How can the loss of such an integral species be overlooked?

“Especially when there is no evidence indicating that wild pig populations in Borneo, or other South-East Asian islands can fully recover,” added Goossens, who is also the director of research outfit Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah.

Sabah Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Seri Dr Jeffrey Kitingan had in April last year said the ASF, which was first detected in Sabah in February 2021, was subsiding but that the state was still in the recovery phase.

Kitingan said veterinary officials were monitoring the situation to ensure no new cases were detected in the state’s pig farms.

The state Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Industry Minister also said 20 districts were affected by the ASF disease and all the districts remained in recovery as of Aug 31, 2022.

He said the ban on wild boar hunting would also remain until Sabah was free from ASF.

In May last year, the Bring Back Our Rare Animals (Bora) movement reported that the wild boar population was making a healthy recovery in the Tabin conservation area in the east coast.

But the ASF has been detected in several countries including Singapore, Hong Kong and Philippines last year.

Goossens said while ongoing clinical trials to develop an effective vaccine against ASF were showing positive results, he pointed out this was mostly relevant for domestic pigs.

“Vaccinating wild pigs would require a whole different setup, such as oral vaccination with baits, which is far from being ready.

“Also, baiting wild pigs across Borneo would be logistically, hugely complex and expensive to implement,” he said.

Both Meijaard and Goossens stressed that something needed to be done urgently.

“Failing to acknowledge the socio-economic significance of the virus in low-income demographics, such as the indigenous tribes of Borneo, could result in the irreversible loss of species and the ecosystems, cultures, livelihoods, and communities they support to implement,” they said.

They had called for urgent research and interventions, with the participation of rural communities, focusing on preventing the spread of ASF to other regions where people fundamentally depend on pigs.

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