For some reason my favourite animal when I was a kid was pigs. I had pig everything. Every birthday my gran got me a new pig ornament to put in my room. I was pig obsessed. Roll on 15 years and I became obsessed with pigs again but actual physical real life pigs this time. I spent pretty much 2 years following wild boar back in the UK (an accidental reintroduction these guys are thriving in the Forest of Dean.) Whenever I get asked about projects or about becoming a wildlife photographer I say research is key, learning about your subject, especially through watching them, makes everything a lot easier and more enjoyable. I’ve spent hours with sounders of boar learning their favourite routes, where they like to feed and when. They’ve rapidly risen to the top of my favourite British animal list.
When I came to Zambia I knew I’d be encountering warthogs but I didn't know about bush pigs, the local equivalent to wild boar. They’re like wild boar but even more ferocious, with stories of hunters being killed by them. They’re the punks of the wild boar world. They sport a bright white mohican down their backs, in contrast to their red hair. Their ears are massive. Like many mammals in hot climates their ears act as outlets for excess heat. Unfortunately they’re also nocturnal, supposedly, but then so are wild boar.
I set myself a quest to track down some bush pigs during my stay but I was told it was almost impossible. No one really saw them. My mate James Duncan-Anderson, a guide at Mfuwe Lodge, hadn’t seen a bush pig in his 5 years guiding in the South Luangwa NP. That was until he met me, the bush pig magnet.
My first missed opportunity came quite early, I’d just come back from a drive when Willy invited me to go out with him on a short night drive with some newly arrived guests but I turned him down, stupidly. I was kicking myself when he told me about the bush pigs he found in the middle of the road not far from the lodge.
After this I heard of a few more sightings. There was clearly a sounder around but they were hiding from me. Then I hit the bush pig jackpot.
I was with Willy this time and we had had an incredibly quiet morning’s drive and were heading towards the lodge when out of the scrub a bush pig emerged shooting across the road at light speed, 5 more followed just as fast. Finally! Their speed and suddenness meant no photos. So much for being a wildlife photographer and meant to be prepared all the time. To add to the torture when we moved up the road we could just about see bush pig legs moving through the bush but they never reappeared.
After having a sighting like that it just made me want to see them more, and get a photo!
It was about 3 weeks till I got another chance with the pigs. There’s one drive near the lodge that’s my favourite spot. It’s a tiny horseshoe shaped loop just off one of the main tracks bordering a lagoon. The first time I went there I saw a dreamy mango tree and said how I’d love a leopard cub in that tree. A few weeks later that exact thing happened and it turned out to be the place Alice favoured for leaving the cubs.
Alongside the cubs calling it home I saw honey badger in daylight there, giant eagle owl hunting, pied kingfishers fishing in ethereal light and much much more.
Because I’d been seeing the cubs there so much I was visiting it on a daily basis spending most my drives just parked up waiting. Whilst waiting on this particular afternoon another lodge’s vehicle pulled up to us and started speaking Nyanja to my guide. My knowledge of Nyanja is non-existent. I had begun picking up animal names but that was about it, not hearing my favourite word Kaingo (leopard) I kind of zoned out. Then I saw a pig run through the scrub, at first I thought it could be a warthog. It was a blink and you miss it view. Luckily I hadn't blinked and I was about to tell the others when 4 bush pigs appeared out of the bushes into the boggy lagoon.
It turns out they had been talking about bush pigs and the other guide had been saying how they had been there in the morning and here they were right now. Unfortunately the pigs then headed back off into the bush and despite us waiting never reappeared but at least this time I had photos, however mediocre the photos may be.
All of these bush pig sightings were really annoying James DA who was actually also my housemate, in 5 years he’d seen none, in 2 months I’d seen them twice.
The dreamiest of bush pig encounters was yet to come though. My time in the park was running out and I was needing as much footage and photos of all the main species I was after knowing it might be a while till I was back, if ever. This included bush pigs.
I’d headed out for the cubs again in the usual loop when we spotted not the cubs (yet) but the bush pigs again. James was going to kill me. Unfortunately they were in a tricky spot for photos and despite our best efforts to re-manoeuvre I only managed to get a couple of shots before they scampered away. From working with wild boars in the UK I know how bad a pig’s eyesight is, relying on smell and hearing instead. I’d never tried to track them from a vehicle as it'd be useless but here I didn't have much of a choice. I hate scaring animals needlessly so we needed some luck. We got it that same day and after the pigs had vanished in the morning the cubs appeared minutes later.
I’d rubbed in to James the fact I now had a bush pig hatrick, much to his annoyance, and joked I’d probably find them again in the afternoon. Little did I know.
I headed out with Onecious for the afternoon to go track down the cubs after leaving them in the morning but they were hunkered deep in the scrub and now with word out about them the traffic flow was more than I could stand so we took off elsewhere managing to find Alice’s son, J.I, sprawled out across the perfect branch but typically he moved on before the light got to the perfect tone.
Once he’d moved on and people were heading towards the river for sundowners we decided to hit up the horseshoe again for the cubs who were still hunkered in the scrub. Knowing when I’d last seen the pigs in the afternoon they'd be seen in the same spot that morning I thought it was worth a punt to check if they'd reappeared from my morning sighting. ‘Onecious, lets just check round the corner for the bush pigs’, so we did and lucky we did. There they were, rooting about in the rapidly drying lagoon, wind blowing towards us and cutting the engine early we rolled down without disturbing them; perfect.
Every wildlife photographer knows getting low or on the same level of your subject is the place to be, unfortunately on safari you can’t do this due to rules etc., technically. Luckily in my position as long as there were no other vehicles around and if it was safe to do so no one really had a problem with me getting out. Leopards, wild dogs and lions had been my main out of the car experiences so far and if I was sensible this worked fine, with the animals not caring, in fact wild dogs were very inquisitive! Now I was to try it with the pigs. I lowered myself out and lay down, nothing, they hadn't seen me. We were far enough off to not be a threat to them and after a while they started coming towards us. It was getting late in the day and they were becoming more active and soon moved up into the bush but still towards us. After repositioning we were in a prime spot. Using my wild boar tracking skills to all their ability I sat on the ground and waited. After a ginormous zebra-print self-drive had passed by scattering the pigs temporarily into the bush they re-emerged. Much like wild boar I always think they look massively dopey, squinting at me, not really sure what I am but trundling past, relaxed and on their way. The bonus of them being on the horseshoe was that we could meet them again, once they'd headed into the centre we cut round to see them again. I’d forgotten the cubs were still around. There were still a couple of cars waiting for the cubs to do something but one pulled off as we arrived and the other was concentrating too much on one of the cubs that they didn't see the bush pigs emerge, scaring the other cub up a young sausage tree. Leopard cub and bush pigs in the same view. The dream.
As you can imagine James DA wasn’t best pleased I’d seen the pigs yet again. I was thinking of changing my middle name to Bushpig as I was seeing them that often and no one else seemed to be.
Then it was James’ turn to guide me, we’d been on several drives together but we never seemed to see anything of note. We had great fun on the drives but they weren’t the most productive. The best photos we seemed to take on them were our endless selfies with impala and puku. The one time we’d seen something cool was at night with no spotlight, Alice and another female leopard having a territorial stand off.
Our morning drive didn’t deliver bush pigs but we did have the most successful drive yet for sightings. I may not have taken many photos on it but we saw the big 5 plus wild dogs, not a bad start. Due to a mix up with bookings James was stuck with me again in the afternoon but lucky he was. I’d seen bush pigs 4 times in my time in the valley and James was still lacking them: a bush pig virgin. ‘Hey, James, maybe this is it, let’s go check for the bush pigs.’ So we did, we hit the horseshoe first and checked one end of the lagoon, no bush pigs. So then we checked the other end. Jackpot. As soon as we saw them I knew what they were, James couldn't believe it. ‘Are they?’ he asked. ‘Bushhhhpigsssss’ I exclaimed. He’d popped his pig cherry, 5 bush pigs out in the open, high fives all around. Just call me the bush pig magnet.