Feral pigs may be poached as African swine fever & trade war cut off pig imports
HONG KONG––A three-way collision among African swine fever, feral pigs, and the global pork industry, U.S. interests included, may be only days away in Hong Kong.
Whatever the outcome, pigs––both factory-farmed and living free––are already the big net losers, even if they are not yet hunted to help satiate the suddenly unfilled Hong Kong daily demand for pork.
African swine fever in 2019, the Chinese Year of the Pig, has become the scourge of Chinese pig farmers, large and small. African swine fever is incurable, easily transmitted, there is no vaccine for it, and while it is not known to afflict humans, humans who have contact with pigs, pork products, or pig waste are major immune carriers.
“Beijing hasn’t divulged the exact number of hogs lost to swine fever,” reported Jeff Daniels of CNBC on May 7, 2019, “but Rabobank,” the Dutch global leader in agricultural finance, “estimates up to 200 million animals could be affected and Chinese production could decline by 30%,” or about 120 million.”
“That compares with about 75 million hogs and pigs in the total U.S. inventory,” Daniels noted.
Beijing government already planned to cut pork consumption
The decrease in Chinese pig production does not appear to disturb the Beijing central government. A national plan to halve meat consumption per capita by 2030, for health and environmental reasons, was unveiled in June 2016.
Chinese pork consumption per capita has now declined for three years in a row, and China through mid-May 2019 has cancelled purchases of 4,513 metric tons of pork from the U.S. since the January 22, 2018 start of a trade war initiated by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Hong Kong, however, has been in turmoil since the May 2, 2019 discovery of African swine fever in one pig at the government-owned Sheung Shui pig slaughterhouse triggered an indefinite suspension of pig deliveries from mainland Chinese farms.
How the Hong Kong shortage began
Hong Kong normally receives about 3,500 to 4,000 live pigs per day from the Chinese mainland: about 1.5 million pigs per year, compared with about 73,000 pigs per year raised by 43 licensed pig farms within Hong Kong and the New Territories, the semi-rural region linking Hong Kong to mainland China.
The Sheung Shui pig slaughterhouse, which by itself kills about 80% of the pigs who are eaten in Hong Kong, received the infected pig from a farm in the southern mainland Chinese province of Guangdong.
Following the discovery, 6,515 pigs were electrocuted at the Sheung Shui slaughterhouse––the usual killing method there––but instead of being butchered for human consumption, their remains were dumped into the Ta Kwu Ling landfill in the New Territories.
Pork trader objects to “blindly killing innocent pigs”
The culling brought protest from Hui Wai-kin, secretary general of the Pork Traders General Association of Hong Kong, against “blindly killing innocent pigs” instead of testing them each for signs of infection, and then slaughtering to be eaten those who were found healthy.
“The pigs were wrapped in plastic before being taken to landfills,” reported South China Morning Post health and environment writer Ng Kang-chung. “But pictures taken by the press showed many of the carcasses were being dumped unwrapped. The Food & Health Department dismissed concerns that this might pose health risks. A spokesman said disinfectant powders would be used to cover the carcasses before the pits were filled in with soil. The vehicles transporting the dead pigs would also be sterilized before they left the landfills.”
“Thorough cleansing and disinfection” of the Sheung Shui pig slaughterhouse followed, said Hong Kong Food & Health Department secretary Sophia Chan.
Farmers threaten to release pigs
The privately owned Tsuen Wan pig slaughterhouse, also serving Hong Kong, closed at the same time as the Sheung Shui slaughterhouse. This was apparently because the owners believed it would not be profitable to operate, just to kill the 400 pigs per day it normally receives from local pig farmers.
That caused some local pig farmers to threaten to release unsaleable pigs in front of the Tsuen Wan pig slaughterhouse, rather than continue to feed them past their original slaughter date. No such releases, however, are known to have occurred.
U.S. uses Chinese-made pig feed
Meanwhile, reported Jeff Daniels of CNBC, “American pork producers are using feed from China for their pigs, raising concerns about bringing African swine fever to the U.S.
“At least 129 cases of the African swine fever in China have been reported since August 2018, and the incurable viral disease has spread to other parts of Asia, including Viet Nam and Mongolia,” Daniels summarized.
Should African swine fever reach the U.S., Daniels said, “it could devastate the more than $20 billion-per-year pork industry.”
“Feedstuffs can carry it, and one of our concerns is that we bring in vitamins and trace minerals for our pork industry from manufacturers in China,” Kerns & Associates agricultural risk management expert Steve Meyer told Daniels.
“Organic” producers may be at greatest risk
Meyer, director of economics for the National Pork Producers Council and National Pork Board from 1993 to 2002, explained to Daniels that one possible vehicle for transmission of African swine fever to the U.S. might be organic soybean meal, commonly imported from China to feed organically raised pigs.
“So far, the U.S. and Canada haven’t banned imports of plant-based food from China,” Daniels observed, “but some experts have recommended a quarantine on imported feed of at least 20 days before using it.”
Chinese-produced soybean meal accounted for about 12% of all the soybean meal used in the U.S. in 2018, according to the WISERTrade research group.
Islam & Judaism formerly kept African swine fever out of Asia
African swine fever can also be spread by the meat and body fluids of infected pigs, and even by ticks, believed to be the main way that it spreads among free-roaming swine in Africa.
The largely Muslim expanses of North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, together with Israel, where few pigs are raised because both Islam and Judaism forbid eating pork, long formed a barrier to the spread of African swine fever to Asia.
In the era of high-volume overseas trade in livestock and animal-based commodities, however, many diseases have spread globally, jumping from nation to nation via ships and aircraft, that were formerly confined to single regions or even single small nations.
What if African swine fever came here?
“With wild hogs in America being a problem, it would be much more so if African swine fever got into this huge population,” commented Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) moderator and Texas A&M University faculty member Tam Garland.
“Someone might say, well it will get rid of the wild hogs,” Garland continued. “Not so fast, as an infected hog carrying a tick could spread the disease far and wide, regardless of how many wild animals died. The cycle would still go on, and ticks could infect our domestic swine. The feed could also infect our domestic swine.”
Feral pigs, and “wild boars,” who have extensively interbred with feral pigs to the point that there is no biologically significant difference among them, occur almost everywhere in the inhabited world, and are accordingly a vector for transmitting African swine fever wherever the disease is found.
Why killing feral pigs has not stopped the disease
Feral pigs have been of particular concern recently in northern and central Europe, where mostly futile efforts have been made to stop African swine fever by killing any pigs found at large. (See Walls, boar purges, & no-man’s-land fail to stop African swine fever.)
The European pig purges have failed for essentially the same reasons that U.S. campaigns against feral pigs have failed to stop the spread of pigs to almost every state.
In gist, pigs, though diurnal by preference, have evolved the ability to evade almost any predator by becoming nocturnal, hiding in burrows by day, if necessary, feeding only at night. Pigs have also evolved to out-breed almost any amount of predation: sows, both wild and domestic, raise fast-maturing litters of eight to ten piglets as often as twice a year.
This fecundity is why pigs came to be profitably domesticated, beginning as long as 13,000 years ago. Escaped pigs of breeds produced for enhanced fecundity, for example producing 12-14 piglets per litter, have now extensively interbred with pigs of older lines, increasing the reproductive capacity of the feral populations.
Killing feral pigs tends to make more food available to the pigs remaining at large, so that they can raise even more piglets to maturity.
Also a factor in stimulating feral pig population growth is that the chief predators of pigs tend to be older, unrelated male pigs, who often practice litter cannibalism.
When pig hunters kill mature males, they are killing the pigs who are mostly likely to help suppress population growth.
Street dogs & urbanized macaques
Historically, wild or feral pig population growth has been limited chiefly by food competition from other scavenging and foraging species: in Asia, mostly street dogs and urbanized macaques.
Since dogs and macaques are much smaller, and therefore need to find much less food per animal to thrive and reproduce, dogs and macaques have usually occupied urban and suburban habitat in much greater abundance than pigs, including in Hong Kong and the New Territories.
In recent decades, however, the introduction of neuter/return programs to sterilize street dogs and urbanized macaques have drastically reduced dog and macaque numbers, to the advantage of feral pigs, whose populations are continually augmented by escapees from farms, trucks, and slaughterhouses.
More pigs at large in Hong Kong than ever before
Even if only one pig in 10,000 raised or imported into Hong Kong gets away to join the feral population, that would be about 165 pigs per year, potentially capable of breeding many times that number within a matter of months.
Street dogs had all but disappeared from Hong Kong even 20 years ago, partly due to increased traffic, partly through the success of spay/neuter programs. Hong Kong has also had the world’s most ambitious and successful macaque sterilization program, introduced in 2007, holding the urban population to circa 1,600 macaques scattered among four parks,
Thus Hong Kong now has visibly more pigs at large than ever before––who may now be more tempting than ever before to potential market hunters and poachers.
“Concrete jungle amid actual jungle”
Observed Los Angeles Times correspondent Alice Su in March 2019, “Hong Kong’s 7.4 million residents occupy less than a quarter of the 426-square-mile region, making its urban core one of the most densely populated places in the world. The rest of Hong Kong belongs to monkeys, snakes, porcupines, boars and other wildlife.
“The city is a concrete jungle in the middle of an actual jungle. Now, as urban areas sprawl into the surrounding hills, Hong Kong is struggling to contain a wild boar problem.”
Sometimes the pigs become dangerous, particularly when humans try to chase them away. Three senior citizens were injured by pigs in 2018, two on the Kowloon peninsula and one on Diamond Hill. Two more people were injured near the Hong Kong University train station.
“No one has conducted a census to determine the actual number of wild boars in Hong Kong.,” Su acknowledged.
But complaints about feral pigs reported to the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department have steadily increased, from 157 in 2006 to 202 in 2007, 347 in 2008, and 383 in 2009. The department dispatched hunters to cull pigs 159 times in 2008, who managed to kill 74, and sent hunters out 119 times in 2009, when 56 pigs were killed.
For a time the pig population was officially believed to have been reduced, but the hunters might have just made the pigs warier of humans. Only 294 complaints about pigs were received in 2013, but by 2017 the complaint volume was up to 738, followed by 679 complaints in the first ten months of 2018.
The Hong Kong government “suspended boar hunting in 2017 in response to an outcry by animal rights activists,” wrote Su. “Roni Wong, the 35-year-old founder of the Hong Kong Wild Boar Concern Group,” founded in 2013, “has spearheaded public confrontations with hunters, shouting at them to desist from harming the pigs. He says that humans and boars can peacefully coexist as long as people follow a few basic rules.
“Don’t feed the pigs”
“We always educate the public, don’t feed the wild boars or make them angry. Just leave them and they won’t attack,” Wong told Su.
“They actually have absolutely no idea how dangerous these animals are,” countered Wesley Ho of Feral Pig Hong Kong, identified by Su as “a group formed last year to demand stronger action against the pigs.”
The conflict tends to be exacerbated by the belief of the Hong Kong Wild Boar Concern Group that the feral pigs are native “wild boars” who are a natural part of the local ecology, jeopardized by human incursions into their habitat.
Insisted a spokesperson for the Hong Kong Wild Boar Concern Group to ANIMALS 24-7, “Firstly, there is no proof of a growth in the population, as there has never been a reliable consensus or statistics done on the wild boar population. More sightings does not necessarily support the claim of a bigger population, but just that they show up more frequently in city centers.
“Secondly,” the spokesperson claimed, “the fact that boars are seen more often in the human activity areas is mainly due to continuous urbanization, crowding out wild boars from their natural habitat and taking resources away from them for more high-rise buildings and infrastructure.”
Agreed Su, “With more people moving to Hong Kong from other parts of China, developers built 21,000 new homes last year, the most in 14 years. Many were in the New Territories. New train routes are also under construction, carving deeper into areas once inhabited only by wildlife.”
But this set of explanations overlooks that the urban expansion is occurring in the same places where pigs are farmed, transported, and slaughtered, and that historically, worldwide, human habitation has created more food sources and hiding places for feral pigs, not fewer.
Pigs thrive in cities
Since the dawn of civilization, the largest free-roaming pig populations in Asia have always been in and around the biggest cities, not in remote regions––and still are, in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, wherever pigs are tolerated.
“Wild boars are a valued part of a healthy ecosystem,” the Hong Kong Wild Boar Concern Group spokesperson continued. “And we are not planning to eliminate any species. We oppose the culling of wild boar or any animal species because we respect that they as humans have the right to live on this planet.”
The Hong Kong Wild Boar Concern Group hopes that the simple message “Don’t feed the pigs” will prevent pig/human conflict.
But African swine fever will likely tip the balance in the ongoing debate over how Hong Kong should respond to feral pigs. If the pigs are not culled by official edict, poachers may be expected to do the job.
The best hope in sight for a gentle resolution is an immunocontraceptive vaccination program begun by Karthi and Paolo Martelli, a husband-and-wife veterinary team already distinguished for their contributions to the Hong Kong street dog and urbanized macaque sterilization programs.
Karthi Martelli has also introduced macaque sterilization to Indonesia, as a veterinary consultant for the British-based organization International Animal Rescue. Paolo Martelli is best known as veterinarian for the Ocean Park marine mammal exhibition facility.
Their “two-year pilot sterilization program starts with tracking down boars and shooting them with tranquilizer darts,” Su summarized. “Then the females are injected with a three-year contraceptive and, along with the males, released back into Hong Kong’s country parks. Some 129 boars were captured in 2018, up from 106 in 2017.”
But contraception does not stop poaching or African swine fever
The Martelli program shows promise of slowing feral pig population growth, but even if as many pigs can be sterilized as escape from pig producers and transporters each year, the pace of sterilization would have to increase many times over to catch up with the feral pig birth rate.
Meanwhile, sterilization does not prevent poaching, or prevent feral pigs from contracting African swine fever and transmitting it to the Hong Kong farmed herds.
This concern is likely to politically trump all others.