The Boar Wars Who you gonna call when feral pigs trample paradise?
by Daniel Duane
ONLY A FEW HOURS BEFORE I GOT stampeded by wild hogs, I was trudging exhausted through a damp, buggy forest, pouring with sweat in my head-to-toe camo, and carrying two borrowed weapons, a rifle and a knife, with which I had almost no experience. We hadn't caught the slightest glimpse of our prey, I already felt sure we never would, and I was beginning to wonder if I was cut out for confronting invasive, non-native, habitat-destroying mammals in the Hawaiian bush.
Not that I wanted to protect the poor dears. My guide and hunting partner, Lance Holter, his bird-dog puppy, Kiko, and I were slipping and stumbling on soil so ravaged by feral pigs it looked like the aftermath of a cage fight between rototillers. Rooting up all the topsoil in huge clearcut swaths--they can take out an acre in a single night--hogs had completely eliminated the forest understory, leaving nothing but churned-up mud, pig tracks, pig turds, and pig wallows full of foul water and mosquitoes. Throw in the feral goats and non-native deer stripping bark and leaves off every tree in sight and spreading the seeds of non-native weeds, then multiply that by thousands of these animals on Maui alone, and we're talking about widespread environmental destruction.
Native plant species are vanishing and invasives are taking over; mosquitoes are carrying avian malaria that kills native birds; heavy rains are washing away tons of degraded topsoil, polluting streams with pig feces full of potentially lethal leptospirosis bacteria, and smothering offshore coral reefs with excess silt. In short, this is an environmental catastrophe so acute that it has only one reasonable solution, the same one advocated by the Sierra Club: confining some feral ungulates to fenced-off game areas to preserve sport hunting on the islands, and then eliminating the rest from every inch of the remaining island chain.
In principle, despite my dehydration and mounting frustration, I was still happy to do my part. I'd never hunted before, but I had met a couple of professional hunters over the years and liked and respected them. They knew things about the natural world that I did not, and one of them introduced me to a wildlife biologist who told me something I've been thinking about ever since: that regulated hunting is not only not a problem in terms of wildlife conservation, but it's also often the best thing that can happen to a wildlife species. Once hunters get interested in a species, the reasoning goes, they'll do everything in their power to make sure that it and its habitat don't disappear.
Inspired by that idea, I'd tagged along on a wild sheep hunt in Mexico that was arranged by a conservation nonprofit called the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. The organization introduced me to two astonishing truths. First, hunters bring force, focus, and money to wildlife conservation (the foundation alone has raised $50 million for wild sheep conservation in the past 20 years); second, bighorn grilled over mesquite coals possesses an unforgettable flavor. Another step in my education came with reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and his depiction of cattle being fed a near-lethal diet of corn, growth hormones, and animal byproducts to fatten them quickly, while crowded onto feedlots where they live in their own feces and get pumped full of antibiotics so they won't die before they reach market weight.
Following Pollan's suggestion, I filled a chest freezer with grass-finished, beyond-organic beef from a local rancher and salivated at the thought of making like Pollan himself and adding a little wild pork. That's when I got the invitation from Holter, a Maui real-estate agent, chair of the Sierra Club's Maui Group, current political director of the Club's Hawaii Chapter, and a lifelong hunter.
Out on southeastern Maui, Holter told me, in a remote and rural area with only a one-lane dirt road, feral pigs and goats were running wild on critical native habitat. We could reach them by staying on the private property of another Club member, a man who'd be delighted to see us remove a few pests. All in all, it sounded like the perfect first hunt for me: environmentally positive, done in a gorgeous setting, and resulting in what I assumed would be fantastic meat to bring home.
So I took a hunter-education course offered by the state of California, immersing myself in bolt-action and semiautomatic rifles, the importance of wasting no meat, and the even greater importance of not strapping a dead deer to the hood of your car and driving through town. I read also about the critical role hunters can--and do--play in healthy wildlife management.
Poking around on the Web, I found an outfit called Maui Hunting Safari and read that "because Kaupo Ranch and Nu'u Mauka Ranch are home to thousands of free-ranging goats, hunters will see hundreds of goats in a day.... We take numerous record-book trophies each year!" I wasn't going to hire these guys, but I knew that Holter was taking me to the same part of Maui, where I could apparently make a serious contribution to preserving the local ecosystem. And I loved the sound of this: "All animals are free-ranging. Our hunting areas consist of many tropical fruit trees including guava, mango, and lilikoi [passion fruit], which the wild pigs love to feed on."
My hunter friends did offer words of warning: One said he'd eaten wild hog twice in his life, and only the first was pleasant. Another confessed that he couldn't touch wild pig, having watched them forage on rotting cow carcasses. But I blocked that out and searched for recipes for cooking everything from headcheese to baby back ribs and from home-cured prosciutto to cotechino sausage, and I asked around for a Maui butcher shop that could portion out my wild pork, vacuum-seal it, flash-freeze it, and then ship it directly to my home. By the time I arrived at Maui's Kahului Airport, in other words, and climbed into Holter's old Ford Explorer, I had that free-range, beyond-organic, mango-fed sow pretty much eaten.
"THIS ISN'T REALLY WORKING, IS IT?"
I asked Holter. We both stopped walking, stunned by the devastating heat. He's a lanky and towering guy, with long skinny limbs, a loose springy posture, a wry manner, a deep tan, and crow's-footed blue eyes that sparkle under a well-barbered head of bright white hair. He knew the names of almost every tree in the forest. Mango and guava trees, he said, were the primary canopy plants--tree-fallen strawberry guavas lay yellow and rotting all over the trail--but both were apparently non-natives, encouraged by the pigs and crowding out the lovely native koa trees.
I picked an intact fruit for a taste and broke it open, but a bug crawled out of the red pulp, so I dropped it. My rifle hung heavy in my hand like a hunk of lead, and the extra cartridges weighed down my daypack and the cargo pockets of my borrowed camo pants. Notwithstanding all that, or all the trashed terrain we'd mucked around in, we still hadn't seen any terrestrial quadrupeds other than Kiko. Holter's eyelids were looking heavy, and his face was setting into a grim this-is-not-what-I-pictured kind of cast. Then he sat down--just like that, on the trail. I stood behind him, watching his long, broad back slouch and heave. My eyes glazed over, then I said, "Hey, you want to have lunch or what?"
Holter nodded without looking at me and ran a hand through his hair. While I started to pull out a loaf of white bread and some cheese and salami, and shooed away Kiko, I thought, OK, clearly, this is not how the real guys do it. "What now?" I asked Holter.