The Last Catagonus

July 21, 2008

When I was first told that the museum was going to have a blog site, I thought – ‘Oh great!  Now everyone who wants to know what I ate for lunch every day will have access to that sort of information.’  Then, Erin told me it won’t be the sort of blog site where everyone can find out what I ate for lunch on a given day, but a way of letting people know more than the credentials listed on my museum webpage

So when trying to decide what to write about, I figured – why not put some of those old camp diaries that are just collecting dust at home to good use? 

So here is my first attempt.  For some background, I spent 1989-1990 studying a semi-captive baited herd of Chacoan peccaries (Catagonus wagneri), an endangered, medium-sized mammal endemic to the Chaco biome of central South America; Taguá is the Guaraní Indian word for this distant relative of the pig sub-Order.  They are extremely rare, and very few people ever see a live one in the wild. 

Writing this piece takes me back to a time when I accomplished a lot by knowing very little.  Only in my early twenties, I did a lot of growing up during my stint in the Chaco – hot water, electricity, air-conditioning, phones, TVs, stereos, etc. were non-existent in my life, but the fauna was diverse and abundant, and the studies I was able to accomplish during my time there paved way for a lifetime of disciplined work.  I hope everyone out there in cyberspace enjoys reading this.

                                                                                          – DB, 7/21/08

The Last Catagonus

Estancia Toledo, Dpto. Boquerón, Paraguay

At 08:34 hrs, this dude saw WILD TAGUÁ!!!!  I cannot describe the sensation of witnessing them in all their glory.  Even the folks studying population dynamics of this species have never stumbled upon them in the wild – tracks yes, and the individuals that the indian’s dogs ‘cornered’ in order to radio-collar maybe five times.  Even my counterpart Jak, who was born and raised in the Chaco, and has spent much of his whole life in the wilderness has barely seen wild Taguá!  The thing that kills me is they are right in ‘my own backyard’!  I saw them on Gabor’s land between his Estancia and house lot, on the south side of the dirt road.  There were two individuals at least in their second year with a ~2 month old baby [very cool that these rare species were breeding, sustaining, etc.]!!!

As the sun lit the dust which yielded off the road, I saw two huge, gray wild boar – wait, those can’t be wild boar, they don’t occur here!  Oh…part of my study herd left their 5 hectare habitat!  No wait, those don’t look like any Taguá I know…  Their dorsal hair was halfway pilo-erected.  They just lowered their heads and stared at me, displaying their ever so meek, yet ever so costly alert stance [it is this very behavior – the alert stance – that is mostly responsible for the Taguá’s decline, as they are easier for hunters to shoot].  Then they fled past me along the simbra fence line.  It was here that I saw the little brown baby, bringing up the rear.  I was in the middle of the edge of the road, no more than 20 meters away.  I was so shocked.  Then they stopped ~40 meters down their path and stared again, only to see that I was slowly walking in their direction.  Then they fled some more and went through the simbra and into the bush.  It was the same area where I saw the female antshrike a month ago, and found the road-killed rainbow boa a few weeks ago.  I snapped a picture of the dust flying and the gray rump kicking up into the air – just like my study herd does.  I was so shocked that I had to check the tracks to make sure I wasn’t crazy.  There they were, also saw some huge canid tracks – maned wolf?  probably not – too dry in the area… 

I will never forget this day – the last day in time of the 1980’s.  In a way it is almost bittersweet symbolism, as many predict mass extinction of all mega-vertebrates by the end of this decade…

Authored By Dan Brooks

As curator of vertebrate zoology, Dr. Brooks has more backbone(s) than anyone at the Museum! He is recognized internationally for his work on Gamebirds. With an active research program studying birds and mammals of Texas and the tropics, Brooks advises several grad students internationally. At HMNS, Brooks served as project manager of the world-renowned Frensley-Graham Hall of African Wildlife, overseeing building by an incredibly diverse array of talent by some 50 individuals. Other halls he oversees includes Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, and Vintage Texas Wildlife Dioramas. He has also created and/or served as curator for various traveling exhibits, including "Cracids: on Wings of Peril".

10 responses to “The Last Catagonus”

  1. Emily says:

    I totally enjoyed your entry, and really identify with how much we can know when we allow ourselves to know nothing, or when we don’t even know that we require that kind of allowance at all. A friend was recently in berlin and told me that wild boars come into the city as their habitat is in decline. I wonder if the new millennium will see more and more species making themselves visible simply because we go where they are?

    Thanks for blogging this! (Even though you did open your post at my expense.)

  2. Lisa says:

    Great entry. It is symbolic of the passing of an era that this occurred when it did. I enjoyed your writing. Keep bloggin’

  3. Brent says:

    Meanwhile back in the states, I imagine I stumbled across some indigineous natives setting fire to explosives, possibly upside down in the gas tank of their lawnmower. Because that’s what people do on New Year’s. Boy, you really missed out that year!

  4. Jon says:

    Great story. I had forgotten some of the details. We drilled a well in the Chaco back in the 80’s, a dry hole. The geologist that sold the propect told me later that he didn’t think it was a good risk at the time! I said “why didn’t you say that when we were deciding what to do?” He replied that I overpowered him and he thought I wanted to do it eventhough it was a sorry prospect. Moral: if you hold sway over people make sure you give them room to speak freely and make them feel comfortable to tell you truthfully what they believe. I guess I was just an overbearing A__ H__e. You in contrast are a dedicated scientist and a nice guy.

  5. claire brooks says:

    Good blog,memorable experience for you!

  6. Steve says:

    Nice story. Even better than finding black bears in Arizona (if you recall that trip)!

  7. Grant says:

    Great Story… Keep the blogs coming!

  8. Steve Archer says:

    Mean while back at the ranch and fast forward to 2002(?).
    Remember the trip to the deep and dark upper reaches of Buffalo Bayou. The lake of trees, pipeline ROW rivers, Yellow-crowned night heron rookery and navigation by gunfire.

  9. Keep up the a posts. I bet you have a treasure trove of journals.

  10. The catagonus looks like our javelina. I never understood people shooting javelina – horrible table fare.

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