Crossing the borders of Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina lie the hot, semi-arid lowlands of the Gran Chaco. The huge area, of over 250,000 sq miles of low dry-forest and savannah, is home to 3,400 species of plant, 500 birds, 150 mammals and 220 reptiles and amphibians. The characteristics of life here vary as greatly as the regions they cover, boasting ecosystems from wetlands to cactus stands. Somewhat thankfully, the Chaco remains one of South America’s final agricultural frontiers. Despite its 9 million inhabitants, it is sparsely populated and lacks the infrastructure required for large-scale projects, although there are, of course, exceptions to this.
The Gran Chaco takes its name from Quechua, an indigenous language from the Andes and highlands of South America, and famously the language of the Inca Empire. The Quechua word chaqu, meaning ‘hunting land’, is fitting for The Chaco and presumably where the name derives from. The rich variety of animal life has no doubt sustained hunters for millennia. and one creature no stranger to this danger, is the Chacoan Peccary (Catagonus wagneri).
Whilst the name, Chacoan Peccary, may not be familiar to all of us, it has managed to get its name on to a few exclusive lists. For one, it’s proudly and defiantly placed its name on the list of Lazarus Species. An all-star cast of some 350 animals who have been lucky enough to find themselves brought back from the dead. Long thought to have been extinct and known only from Pleistocene era fossil material, the pig-like mammal was rediscovered by western scientists in 1971.
In all fairness to the Chacoan Peccary, locally known as Taguá, it was only western scientists who had come to the conclusion of its extinction. The species was always well known to the local natives, and they had not been informed of its complete decline. However, that’s not to say its current population levels are in abundance, herd numbers are critically low due to habitat loss, disease, and overhunting.
Stranger in a strange land
The somewhat porky ungulate is an animal with seemingly few friends and even fewer relatives. It’s the only living species of its genus, Catagonus, and has only three close relatives in the family Tayassuidae, of which they themselves are each the sole members of their own genera. 8 million years of isolated evolution will probably have that effect though.
Unlike its generalist cousin, the pig, the Chacoan Peccary is undoubtedly well adapted to its environment, using the succulent plants and thorny bushes that dominate the steppe to obtain most of its water. Active during the day but particularly in the morning, it spends much of its time browsing around cacti and bromeliads. Probably because it’s very thirsty and this is an extremely inefficient way to hydrate. It’s the best of a bad situation though, with all due respect. It likes to eat roots, seeds, fruit, and forbs but occasionally eats carrion and has been known to prey on small mammals as well. Essential minerals are obtained from eating the presumably delicious mineral-rich soil at naturally occurring salt-licks, and leaf-cutter mounds.
As a member of two unfortunate groups, both an EDGE and Lazarus species, it’s an animal with unique characteristics. Visually, they’re distinct in their features, they stand at around 100 cm and weigh between 30 and 40 kg. With a body similar to a warthog and a coat like a porcupine (purely aesthetically, of course), it stands out amongst other peccaries due to its longer ears, snout and tail. It also has a little white beard for extra individuality and a third hind toe, although the latter is not so fashionable.
An uncertain future
Our artiodactyl (meaning even-toed) friends face many challenges for survival, the vast majority of it from human interference. Deforestation to make way for farmland has been a major issue, and while the Gran Chaco remains remote and difficult to access with heavy machinery it still continues. Between 2001 and 2007, the Argentinian areas alone amounted to 100,000 hectares per year of deforestation to make way for soy plantations. Such plantations not only eliminate the forest but the agricultural traditions of the indigenous communities. Despite a law enacted in 2007 to regulate and control the cutting of timber in the Gran Chaco, illegal logging, unfortunately, continues on a wide scale.
If that’s not putting enough pressure on these incredible creatures, disease has also affected the species, but it has been difficult to diagnose and confirm, and hunting too is a major factor in the decline in numbers. Additionally, while not used internationally, their meat is traded commercially in the region and their coats are used for clothes and accessories both locally and nationally.
The Chacoan Peccary is listed as endangered on the Red List. With a previous assessment in 2011, its numbers are registered as ‘declining’. In the wild, only around 3,000 were last estimated to exist. However, this figure was presented in 2002, before the massive deforestation for soybean and cattle ranching began in 2003. It’s clear that herd numbers are decreasing beyond this figure as a direct result of deforestation and hunting.
Some efforts are in place to stabilise and increase the Cachoan Peccary’s numbers: the species is included on Appendix I of CITES; hunting of all wildlife in Paraguay is officially prohibited; and it’s an officially protected species in Argentina. Regardless, hunting continues, and regulations are either ignored and/or unenforced, resulting in the species being heavily hunted for its meat wherever it can be found.
The species initially proved difficult to establish in captivity, with efforts beginning in 1986 at the Zoological Society of San Diego and the Lincoln Park Zoo getting off to a poor start. Of the 44 captured for ‘Proyecto Taguá’, only 13 survived. By 1992 though, numbers had increased back to 44 and are thankfully now increasing beyond that, with several different institutions now also involved in breeding programmes.
Hopefully, this increase continues across the general population out in the Gran Chaco, however, much work and continued efforts are needed to ensure not just the ongoing survival and prosperity of the Chacoan Peccary, but of the Gran Chaco itself.
Fighting extinction (and a species’ second one at that) isn’t easy. WAWA work with conservation organisations all round the world to help protect endangered and unique species like the Chacoan Peccary. We can’t do it alone though and your support is invaluable. Even just following us on social media will help spread the message, but if you really want to help make a difference please consider buying some merchandise or donating. As a non-profit charity, 100% of money raised goes towards helping save weird and wonderful animals from extinction.
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Article written by Christopher Woffinden