February 2024

Hakuna Matata

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Hakuna Matata

The theme song most heard recited on a safari when a common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) comes into view. This stocky little creature may be a beloved character in one of our favourite childhood movies, but don’t be fooled by the cute appearance - a threatened warthog can pack a punch. Despite their relatively small size, with little legs keeping them close to the ground level, their strength comes from powerful neck muscles enabling these diurnal pigs to dig up roots and rhizomes using their snout as a shovel, but that same power can be used in an “upper-cut” from the tusks to defend itself against a predator.

Interestingly, there are actually two species of warthog, surely, we are mostly familiar with the common warthog, which is found across a wide distribution in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Then there is the less well-known desert warthog (Phacochoerus aeithiopicus), which is found in limited range in the region of the ‘Horn of Africa’, from Ethiopia to central Kenya, after having gone extinct in South Africa in the late 1800’s. This could possibly have been around the time when the lack of control over hunting in the country caused concern enough to warrant the government of the time to start the process for creation of the Kruger National Park.

Here in the Kruger National Park of South Africa, the last few months of the rainy season has seen a new generation of little warthogs appearing. A single sow (name given to a female of the pig or Suidae family) can produce up to eight tiny piglets in a single litter after a gestation of about six months, in the safety of a burrow where the piglets will remain in sheltered safety for about six weeks. The use of burrows is not limited to raising their young, warthogs make use of burrows for sleeping every night, keeping themselves warm and bundled up with the other members of their sounder (name given to a family of warthogs) since a sparse covering of hair leaves them sensitive to the cold. The burrows are usually originally dug out by other animals, such as aardvark or porcupine, which are subsequently left abandoned when the animal moves on, leaving it available for occupation by the warthogs. Warthogs are not the only animal to take over aardvark holes, about 40 different creatures have been known to take over these well-excavated burrows when aardvarks leave them unoccupied.

When entering a burrow, warthogs will reverse into the entrance, so if anything tries to follow them, or comes snooping around while they are inside, the first thing any potential predator encounters will be the sharp tusks. Mothers also retain this behaviour, except they will send the piglets into the burrow first, so she can reverse in after them, putting herself between the piglets and the entrance. This is a very effective strategy, because most predators think twice before going headfirst into a burrow, however many have learnt to lie in wait right above the hole, for unsuspecting pigs to venture out in the morning.

After about three weeks of being kept safe underground and relying completely on their mother’s milk for nutrients, it’s time for the little piglets to venture out into the world, where they can start grazing and supplementing their milk diet with grasses, roots and other vegetation as well as carrion, eggs and even insects. Unfortunately, even when they are ready to emerge, they are still relatively small and therefore vulnerable to an array of predators, and a litter of eight may not remain a litter of eight for very long, with a mortality rate of over 50% within the first year.

But despite the odds against them, warthog populations still manage to grow, with a couple of piglets surviving each season, and staying with their mothers for between one to two years, until she has her next litter. Females often stay with their mothers, while young males will move on, often associating with other males in bachelor groups, where they have safety in numbers and peers to wrestle and fight with, developing the skills which will be needed to defend their breeding rights when they are adults. Warthog are sexually mature at two years old, but many males will take longer to have the opportunity to breed as they need to fight for the privilege to pass on their genes, to a new generation of piglets to face the world.

Amy Roberts
By Amy Roberts
Field Guide