Researchers from UC Berkeley published a study Thursday, taking a closer look at oil palm plantations in the island of Malaysian Borneo and their impact on the hunting practices of local Indigenous peoples.
The study was conducted by faculty and former students of the campus’ department of environmental science, policy and management. According to study co-author and former campus graduate student Matthew Luskin, the development of oil palm plantations in Malaysia began in the 1970s and has only increased with the growing demand for vegetable oil. This urbanization in Borneo, coupled with the region’s rich biodiversity, inspired the study.
“The purpose of the study is to look at how ancient, Indigenous cultural hunting, especially of bearded pigs in Borneo, has changed given how much the landscapes have been converted into oil palm plantations and just urbanized more generally,” Luskin said.
Luskin said bearded pigs have long been central to the Indigenous Kadazandusun-Murut, or KDM, people’s diet and culture. According to lead author and former campus graduate student David Kurz, his team conducted interviews with KDM hunters to understand their community’s evolving relationship with bearded pigs and why they hunt.
Kurz noted that for more than 40,000 years, the KDM peoples hunted in forest habitats. Now, their landscape has changed and more hunters hunt inside oil palm plantations.
Prior to this, KDM hunters would actively search for bearded pigs, according to Kurz. Now, because the pigs enter plantations on their own to eat the fruit, hunters will often employ a more passive method of hunting, allowing the pigs to come to them.
“We found that some elements of KDM bearded pig hunting have really changed in relation to oil palm expansion and urbanization, although other aspects of the relationship have stayed remarkably consistent for generations,” Kurz said in an email. “It’s a fascinating case study of the ways that human-nature relationships get re-shaped, and yet powerfully endure at the same time.”
Luskin noted that the development of oil palm plantations has also impacted the behavior of bearded pigs. The researchers noticed that bearded pigs, which are ordinarily active during the day, or diurnal, have switched to being nocturnal. Luskin said this is because the pigs aim to avoid the humans who harvest during the day.
This switch means that the bearded pigs interact with a different set of species, which could potentially have serious consequences, Luskin added.
Since the research concluded, Kurz noted that an outbreak of African Swine Fever has posed a serious threat to bearded pig populations. Luskin said this decline of bearded pigs and its impact on the KDM peoples will be taken into consideration for future research.
“This piece of work is very timely because it comes at the exact same moment that all the bearded pigs are being lost, and it shows this is not an insignificant effect on humans,” Luskin said. “This will really affect Borneo’s Indigenous people’s health and culture.”