Peccaries in Peril

A Chacoan peccary contemplates its plight in the St. Louis Zoo. Photo by TimVickers — Own work, Public Domain,

The world’s most enigmatic peccary, the Chacoan peccary, faces threats from habitat loss, over-hunting and climate change. Earlier this year, scientists, officials and other stakeholders gathered in Asuncion, Paraguay, to develop a new conservation strategy for the elusive mammal.

The results of that work are described in three new papers in Suiform Soundings— the newsletter of the IUCN/SSC Wild Pig, Peccary, and Hippo Specialist Groups — that outline the peccary’s precarious plight, and propose potential pathways to postpone the specie’s extinction.

As its name suggests, the Chacoan peccary (Catagonus wagneri) resides in the Gran Chaco, South America’s largest ecoregion outside the Amazon. Often called the Green Hell, the Chaco is an inhospitable landscape of palm savannah, grasslands, and low forests that spans parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay.

The Chacoan peccary is at home in the region’s prickly thorn forests, but the species faces increasing threats from human encroachment. In 1993, when the Chacoan peccary’s first and — until now — only conservation plan was developed, the population was estimated to be fewer than 5,000 individuals, and it has declined steadily since.

“Despite the importance and critical situation of this species, little is being done for its protection,” wrote the authors of the new conservation strategy. These endangered, endemic animals are coming under increasing pressure as the Chaco endures some of the highest rates of deforestation on the planet.

Keys to conservation

The conservation strategy outlined threats, goals and actions along four axes to insure the survival of the species: limiting hunting, slowing habitat loss, compensating for limited information and implementing breeding programs for conservation.

Although hunting Chacoan peccaries in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay is illegal (except for subsistence hunting by Paraguay’s indigenous peoples) peccary meat and hides are sold in Paraguay and Bolivia. The working group emphasized education campaigns to insure awareness of the laws and promote the peccary as an emblematic species in the region.

But as huge swaths of forest are transformed to ranches and farms, habitat loss has become the single greatest threat to the species. The working group identified causes of habitat loss at various levels: 
“At a global scale, the following causes were identified: climate change, together with bio­technology advancements, and a recent increase in the demand of agricultural mining and forestry resources. At national and regional levels the following causes were identified: legal deficiencies, lack of coordination among environmental regulations, lack of control, unclear land property rights, lack of coordination among main stakeholders, unrecognized value of forests and their ecological services, development policies that do not consider the environment, and overestimation of productive potential of the Chaco.”

To compensate for the sparse information on the Chacoan peccary, the working group proposed implementing a species-monitoring program, embarking on field research and studying animals in captivity to better understand their biology and ecology.

Finally, in light of the many threats to wild Chacoan peccaries, the working group proposed developing a captive breeding program to facilitate research and maintain the genetic diversity of the species.

Modeling populations and habitats

As part of workshop, participants used a population modeling software called “Vortex” to predict the impact of a wide range of factors on the population of Chacoan peccaries. However, because little is know about the life history of the peccary, its population density and its ability to withstand hunting pressures, the model was relatively weak, leading the authors to conclude that “Learning more about these parameters through field research should be considered one of the biggest research priorities for the Chacoan peccary.”

Researchers also sought to model the animal’s distribution and determine suitable habitats for the species. Drawing on environmental variables and records of the peccary’s location, workshop participants determined that nearly 50 percent of the Chaco could be suitable habitat for the species. However, much of that habitat is undergoing “intensive deforestation and development,” and the areas best-suited for the specie are not protected. “Urgent measures are needed to stop deforestation across the Gran Chaco, one of the most threatened ecological regions in South America today,” the authors wrote.

A future in doubt

The outlook for the Chacoan peccary is grim, and the authors of the conservation plan admit that there is little they can do: “We recognized that many underlying causes of these major challenges are unsurmountable and beyond our capacities to address,” they wrote. But the new conservation strategy provides broad goals for preserving the species, and should serve as a roadmap for future research, outreach, and legislation.

It’s cold comfort, but the Chacoan peccary is certainly not alone in facing extinction: A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund suggests that up to two-thirds of the planet’s animals may be lost by 2020.