Stunning images of bison and bears living among vacant concrete apartment buildings in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone a few years ago illustrated a wildlife response to the departure of humans.

About a day’s flight south, in Borneo, a Trinity College researcher studied the behavior of another prized animal in its habitat to illustrate the impact of humans and nature on wildlife.

David J. Kurz, Thomas McKenna Meredith '48 Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Science at Trinity College.
David J. Kurz, Thomas McKenna Meredith ’48 Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Science at Trinity College.

“It was exciting to be able to show quantitatively what we know intuitively to be true—that humans and nature are fundamentally linked,” said David J. Kurz, lead author of a study published today in the journal npj Biodiversity. Kurz is the Thomas McKenna Meredith ’48 Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Science at Trinity.

In Borneo, where bearded pigs are wild, Indigenous populations hunt them for a meat source and an important cultural touchstone, according to the researchers.

About two dozen researchers used data from a network of remotely triggered cameras, Google Earth, a hunting accessibility metric, and the Malaysian census, along with quantitative models, to assess the importance of social and environmental data on the locations of bearded pigs.

Between the years 2010 and 2014, they studied factors such as the bearded pigs’ proximity to water and the forest edge, their elevation, and the tree cover. And researchers factored in the percentage of the local human population that identified as the Indigenous pig-hunting group, and the degree of hunting accessibility.

The results provide robust, quantitative evidence that socio-cultural and ecological factors underpin the spatial distribution of a large-bodied game species, say the authors.

By demonstrating the importance of socio-ecological drivers in wildlife for this species, the study went beyond an existing body of research that considers ecological factors in isolation or that use broad indices of human footprint, said Kurz.

In particular, the findings indicate that Indigenous pig hunting is potentially compatible with high bearded pig occupancy of an area, data that indicates the importance of context-specific Indigenous and local management.

The researchers estimated baseline pig populations across the 18 East Malaysian study sites—information that became critically important when the population was hit by a virus. During the study, the African Swine Fever (ASF) reduced the bearded pig population of Borneo, rapidly depleting an important food source for some local communities.

“The low supply of pig meat affected both seller and consumer, where the price per kilogram has increased three times higher than the normal price prior to African Swine Fever. People rather gave up buying pig meat,” said Esther Lonnie Baking, a co-author on the study and doctoral student at Universiti Malaysia Sabah.

Human influences on nature can take the form of a variety of factors, such as noise and artificial light, hiking and recreation. But, the deep ties between people and pigs in Borneo serve as an important example of broader links between humans and nature, such as the role of religion and cultural practices in wildlife distribution studies, researchers say.

In addition to Trinity and Universiti Malaysia Sabah, researchers hailed from the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak and the University of California, Berkeley.