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Hunters Saying Aloha to Wild Boar

August 29, 2003|PETE THOMAS

WAIMEA, Hawaii — The big black boar appeared suddenly on the hillside and froze -- as if aware that it had made a terrible mistake by coming out of hiding.

On the opposite hillside, higher up and a few hundred yards away, stood the hunter with his spear, and the guide, peering at the pig through binoculars. They too were motionless, not wanting to be noticed.

It was truly a moment frozen in time.

An adventure that had begun hours earlier in the predawn darkness, on a vast expanse of rolling grassland high above the coastal tourist havens, had reached the point of first contact -- when hunter and prey become aware of each other and sort out their next moves.

But it was only a moment.

Over the next several minutes the wildest kind of chaos would reign on the eastern slope of Parker Ranch, a historic spread long known for its cattle but more recently as a paradise for sportsmen in pursuit of game.

It's unique to Hawaii as a hunting destination. Spanning 175,000 acres on the Big Island, it is practically an island unto itself. Its terrain is mostly open grassland, with steep and craggy upper recesses. It is splendidly stocked with wildfowl, 14 species in all, and such big-game animals as Corsican sheep, Spanish goats and Vancouver bulls.

And it has feral pigs, as many as 2,000, roaming free just as they do throughout all but one of the main islands, on which they plow carelessly through the soil, destroying native plants, spreading nonnative plants, creating health hazards for birds and damaging watersheds.

Indeed, not everyone appreciates the unsightly, ungainly -- but wonderfully delicious -- ungulates. But hunters, those responsible for keeping their numbers in check, love them to death. And nowhere is that more apparent than on the wide-open spaces of Parker Ranch, where the success rate is nearly 100%.

"Parker Ranch is the only ranch I know of in the state where you can go out and consistently spot and stalk and see a lot of pigs," says Patrick Fisher, 35, the game manager and head guide. "Not only do we have a high population of pigs, but we have all rolling hills, and the pigs sleep during the day in the deep gullies. They come out early and then get hungry again just before evening, so those are our windows."

During a recent morning outing with Fisher and Chuck Ferreira, 28, a resident of the nearby Kohala coast, three small sows had been hunted down and set free before the tusked boar made his presence known.

Ferreira's three dogs set upon the quarry instinctively and with purpose, charging down the hill, through the gully and up the other hill, closing fast on the dark, hairy beast that, surprisingly, held its ground.

Soon the sounds of the confrontation -- the incessant barking and growling; the grunting and snorting; the unearthly squealing -- wafted through the canyon. The stout boar, sporting 2-inch tusks, lunged at the dogs with powerful bursts. They, in turn, darted in and out of harm's way, trying to keep the pig in place until human help arrived.

As the hunters hustled toward the fray, small birds scattered from the brush, and a pair of wild turkeys, having taken flight, watched from the lone tree standing sentinel over the golden slopes.

*

Wild or feral pigs have been thriving in Hawaiian forests and grasslands since the arrival of the Polynesians more than 1,500 years ago. They brought domesticated pigs as a source of food. Today, boars and sows -- now a mixture of Polynesian and European strains -- roam free on all but tiny Lanai, having been eradicated there years ago.

Population estimates statewide range from as few as 450,000 to as many as 2 million, Department of Land and Natural Resources biologist John Polhemus said.

Whatever the number, it's significant. Ed Johnson, the state's hunting coordinator, refers to pigs as "the most damaging single animal in the state" because of the destructive manner in which they behave: constantly uprooting worms, insects, small animals and plants.

They spread seeds of invasive plants in their feces. The troughs they create fill with rainwater and attract mosquitoes, which promote avian malaria.

Wildlife managers have started to reduce the number of animals in some areas and eliminate them in others. Private landowners have begun to fence more of their property to keep the pigs out, and some are using snares to trap and kill those still on their property.

All of that has drawn the ire of animal-rights activists, who say the use of unattended snares is inhumane. It has also upset hunters, who say the available land on which they've long been able to hunt is shrinking.

"The big change is more no-trespassing signs -- more and more," says Pascual Dabas, 73, president of the Oahu Pig Hunters' Assn. and a hunter since he was 11. "We go out into the forest to hunt with dogs for subsistence as well as for sport. It's a future-generation type of thing."

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