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The Wild Guide: Warts and All


Warthogs are African members of the pig family (Suidae), famous for their long, upcurved tusks and facial ‘warts’. The term wart is something of a misnomer, however, as these protuberances are actually thick pads designed to offer protection – mainly to the eyes – and most especially during sparring between males. Boars have three pairs, but sows have only two pairs, lacking the set situated on the sides of the jaw in males.  

For much of the 20th century, it was widely thought that all extant warthogs belonged to the same variable species (Phacochoerus aethiopicus). However, in recent decades we have been realised that two species are present: the Common Warthog (Phacochoerus africanus), and the Desert Warthog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus). The Common Warthog – as its name suggests is widespread throughout much of Africa, and the Desert Warthog appears now to be restricted to the Horn of Africa. The latter species was also recorded in the Cape in the 1700s, but sadly became extinct in the region in the 1870s.

One of the interesting differences between the two species is the absence of incisors in the Desert Warthog, in both the upper and lower jaws. Incisor teeth are a normal feature of pigs, and Common Warthogs ordinarily have two upper, and six lower, incisors. It seems that the incisor loss, and replacement by a keratinised pad as seen in the Desert Warthog, is advantageous to life in arid environments.

It is noteworthy that the distribution, abundance, ecology, behaviour, and conservation status of the Desert Warthog are so little known such that it may actually be Africa’s least known large mammal. This is somewhat ironical, given the fact that for the most part their more abundant cousins are not given so much as a second glance!

If you pause for just a moment and think about what makes some animals more successful – and thus more commonly seen – than others, it should come as no surprise that a crucial role is played by the animal’s ability to adapt.  The Common Warthog is extremely well adapted to life on the savanna. The large round disk of cartilage at the tip of its snout is connected to muscle that gives it extra flexibility and strength for rooting in the ground. Its eyes are set high on its head, enabling it to keep a vigilant watch even while grazing, and (most incredible of all) the calluses on its knees – which enable it to kneel whilst digging for roots and tubers – are already partially developed in the foetus. If that’s not forward planning, I don’t know what is!

Mud bathing is a favourite occupation of warthogs, and many a waterhole has been started by a warthog wallowing in a small rain-filled hollow. As the hollow expands, larger animals also come to wallow. Before long, there is a hole large enough for buffalo and rhino to bathe in, too. Mud bathing serves two purposes. It allows warthogs to cool off in the heat of the day, but it also helps protect their relatively hairless skin against sun and external parasites. After a good roll in the mud, warthogs can often be seen rubbing themselves against tree stumps or rocks, thereby removing ticks and other parasites trapped in the mud.

Warthog tusks, which grow continuously throughout life, are comprised of a chemical substance similar to elephant ivory.  Of the two pairs that they possess, it is the lower tusks that are the more deadly. Longer than the canines of a lion, these tusks come into contact with the upper tusks each time the mouth is closed, and are thus constantly polished and sharpened. When threatened, a warthog will use these tusks to slash and stab at its aggressor – lethal weapons, indeed.

Confrontations between warthogs and predators in which the warthog has emerged victorious are well documented. These tenacious animals demand respect, as Banzai the hyena found to his detriment in The Lion King. Banzai insulted Pumbaa by asking Timon, “Who’s the pig?” after which Pumbaa tossed both hyenas into a tree, answering, “They call me MISTER Pig!”