Animal Spotlight: Babirusa

babirusa-coke-smith-2
Photo: Coke Smith

Taxonomy:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Cetartiodactyla
  • Family: Suidae
  • Genus: Babyrousa
  • Species: Buru babirusa, Bola Batu babirusa, North Sulawesi babirusa, Togian babirusa
  • Average Weight: 132 to 220 lbs (60 to 100 kg)
  • Length of Head and Body: 1 to 3.6 ft (85 to 110 cm)
  • To the Shoulder: 2 ½ ft (0.75 m)
  • Tail Length: 8 to 12.5 in (20 to 32 cm)
  • Average Lifespan (in the wild): 10 years

One of the dozen species of wild pigs, the babirusa is found only in the Indonesian Archipelago on the Sulawesi and Buru islands, the Togian Archipelago, and two of the Sula Islands (Mangole and Taliabu). They prefer moist, swampy forests, canebrakes, and tropical rainforests near rivers and lakes but avoid dense shrub vegetation. Once, the babirusa favored low-lying areas; however, it moves higher and less accessible grounds to avoid the human activities that threaten it.

Historically, babirusas were present throughout Sulawesi, but by the 19th century, they had disappeared from the south western peninsula. Due to logging, habitat destruction, and illegal hunting, babirusas have also become extinct on other islands. Outside of human activities, the babirusa has no natural predators.

Very little is known about the natural history of the babirusa due to the difficulty of observing it in the thick jungle habitat. The babirusa’s coloration, torpedo-shaped body, and deer-like movements allow it to hide quickly and silently into the surrounding cover at the slightest disturbance.

Out of the four species, the most well-known babirusa species is the North Sulawesi babirusa. It has such sparse hair all over its body that it appears naked. While all four species have tusks that have curled tusks, the North Sulawesi babirusa has the iconic looping tusks that make the babirusa unique.

Physical characteristics:

babirusa-kiss
Mammal watcher Jon Hall shows his love of all things babirusa. Photo: Jon Hall

Like many pig species, the male babirusa has canine teeth that continually grow and eventually point upwards into tusks. Their lower teeth grow up and out over the edge of the lip. At six months old, the teeth rotate 180 degrees and begin to grow up and into the top of the nasal rostrum. These curved teeth can grow up to a length of 17 inches. The female typically has smaller tusks or for some species, none at all, because it does not fight like the male. The north Sulawesi babirusa is the most famous for its amazing tusks.

One hypothesis for the tusks’ purpose is that the males use their tusks to fight over females. And while their large upper tusks may appear threatening, the babirusa does not use them as weapons. Instead, they serve as a shield for the animal’s eyes during the fights. The pigs fight by “boxing” each other with their front hooves while standing on their hind legs. They might, on occasion, jab their heads upwards in order to gore the other with their lower tusks.

However, it was quickly debunked. Babirusa tusks are not built to withstand pressure as they are brittle and easily broken. It is possible that the tusks are meant to be a display for the females to signal genetic fitness, but this idea has not been tested yet. For now, the purpose of the tusks remain a mystery.

Diet:

Babirusas will eat almost everything. As omnivores, they will eat nuts, mushrooms, bark, insects, fish, and small mammals that they can catch. But, they primarily eat foliage, fallen fruit and berries, and fungi.

Unlike other pigs, the babirusa does not use its snout to root for food. Instead, it uses their hooves to dig for roots and insect larvae and are able to stand on their two back feet to stand up and feed on leaves.

The Sulawesi babirusa, in particular, is noted to have remarkably strong jaws and teeth. It was also reported to be able to crack hard nuts with ease.

Behavior:

Though shy to humans, the babirusa is a social animal, thought to live in groups of five to fifteen animals. However, this only applies to adult females who tend to be in a small family group with other young adults. It is also diurnal, active primarily in the morning but spends around half of its day lying down or sleeping.

babirusa-herd
Photo: Coke Smith

Surprisingly, babirusas are good swimmers and are known to travel across wide rivers and seas to reach small islands. For this reason, many researchers believe that babirusas naturally colonized and extended their range to nearby islands.

Babirusas, like other suids, are extremely vocal. However, they have a limited vocabulary of low moans or grunts. When excited, they clatter their teeth.

It is believed that the babirusa is not particularly territorial, but they might mark their home ranges in various ways. For example, adult males in captivity have been observed to engage in plowing. When put into empty, sand-filled enclosures, they kneel down, push their snouts into the sand, and slide forward on their chests, creating a deep furrow. As they plow, they will snort and growl to produce a foamy saliva, suggesting that this unique behavior functions to scent mark but exact purpose is unknown.

Another behavior is salt liking. On the island of Sulawesi, deposits of salt can be found near hot springs and volcanic vents. Here, the babirusa congregates around the water and wallows. The Sulawesi babirusa will visit these salt deposits and spend its time chewing on rocks, licking salt, and drinking water from the hot spring. This behavior is likely a way for the babirusa to obtain sufficient amounts of sodium and acts as a venue for many social activities, such as courtship and combat.

Conservation/Threats:

babirusa-at-mineral-lick
Babirusas are drawn to the mineral licks at Nantu National Nature Preserve in Sulawesi. Photo: Jon Hal

The first colonizers arrived on Sulawesi and most likely hunted and ate the babirusas. Prehistoric remains show that babirusas formed a main part of the human diet. People may have also introduced the pigs to other islands in the area, explaining the patchy distribution of the animal on various nearby Indonesian islands.

However, in the late 1900s, thousands were killed for its meat, despite official protection. Deforestation from large-scale commercial logging operations not only eliminated habitat but also provided easier access to babirusas via roads and trails for poachers.

Now, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed the babirusa population as vulnerable, decimated by by habitat destruction and overhunting. The Pigs and Peccaries Specialist Group from IUCN, in 1989, rated the babirusa as the Asian pig species in greatest need of immediate conservation measures. In 1978, a population survey estimated that fewer than 4,000 babirusas remained on Sulawesi and nearby Togian Islands, Sula and Buru.

Despite its status, current threats to the remaining Buru rainforests are low and the conservation outlook is relatively stable, according to IUCN. Commercial logging and shifting cultivation are the primary threats but the babirusa continues to be hunted for meat in some places by local non-Muslim village communities.

Interesting facts:

  • In Malay language, babirusa means “pig-deer”. It is thought that the Sulawesi people gave the babirusa this moniker because their large canines remind them of antlers. However, the name could also reflect how the babirusa has slender, deer-like legs and a multi-chambered stomach like a deer with its other, more pig-like traits.
  • Though it was believed that the tusks don’t grow long enough to pierce the animal’s skull if not worn down or broken in combat, there has been one case that has proved this phenomenon to be true.
  • Babirusas were first mentioned in European literature as early as 1658. Some historians claim that the Romans knew of babirusas in the 1st century AD.
  • Many wild species don’t do well in captivity but babirusas do. In the wild, they have an average lifespan of ten years but in zoos, several made it past 20 years, with the oldest at 24. According to, Darren Naish, British vertebrate paleontologist and science writer, the captive babirusas will “exhibit excitement and enthusiasm on greeting familiar people, engaging in tail wagging, head shaking and jumping and running about.”
  • Babirusas are the first wild swine species to be admitted into the United States in over 40 years due to a long-standing ban by the USDA on the importation of the exotic swine. The now-lifted ban was originally instated due to the potential threat of African swine fever, which can harm domestic livestock.
  • Another possible theory may be that the Buru babirusas colonized the islands naturally. Babirusas are very strong swimmers and are able to make short sea journeys. On Sulawesi, babirusas have been observed swimming across the 10 km wide Lake Poso.
  • According to native legend, the babirusa hooks its tusks over a low branch at night to support its head while it sleeps
  • Babirusas also inspired some Indonesian people to make demonic masks based on them and even offer the animals themselves as gifts to visitors.

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References + For More Reading:

IUCN: Babyrousa babyrussa

Babyrousa babyrussa

LA Zoo: Babirusa

Sulawesi babirusa (Babyrousa celebensis)

Babirusa: Conserving the Bizarre Pig of the Sulawesi Forest

Welcome to the World of Babirusa

Saint Louis Zoo: Babirusa

10 Fun Facts About Babirusa

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