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February 5th marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year and the Chinese Year of the Pig (translated in Mandarin to 豬-zhū). Though the Lunar New Year is celebrated in many Asian countries,  Chinese New Year (CNY) is specific to the Chinese culture and marks the 15-day time period between the second new moon and the full moon occurring before the spring equinox moon phase.  During the celebration, homes and buildings are decorated in red— an auspicious color— and lanterns are hung in the streets alongside depictions of the year’s animal character and messages of prosperity. On Chinese New Year eve, families gather together to welcome in the coming year and spend time with one another.

Chinese culture is rich in beliefs, customs, and superstitions that vary from those in the West. According to Chinese tradition, each lunar year correlates with one of 12 animal signs that are associated with Sheng Xia, the Chinese zodiac. In the video below, ShaoLan Hsueh explains that when combined with the principles of yin and yang and the five major elements— metal, wood, water, fire, and earth— the zodiac can assert influence over people’s decisions like naming, marriage, or even when they choose to give birth.

How did the Chinese decide which animals would be represented in the zodiac?

There are many renditions of the zodiac’s animal origin stories told throughout the different regions of China and among various Chinese cultures. One such legend tells the story of Buddha, who before leaving Earth, hosted a race among all of the animals in the kingdom. The animals worked to outwit and outrun one another and accordingly, crossed the finish line in the following order: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Some believe that the pig finished the race in last place because (s)he got hungry, stopped for a snack, and accidentally fell asleep! Similar to western astrological symbols which correlate to a person’s specific birthdate, the animal sign of one’s birth year can tell you a lot about their personality, career, love prospects, and future fortune.

Those born in the Year of the Earth Pig (translated in mandarin to 豬— ) are said to be hard-working, peace-loving, truthful, generous, indulgent, patient, reliable, trusting, sincere, giving, sociable, and understanding.  Below, you can watch a cute video of a famous CNY song that has been animated to celebrate the Year of the Pig.

Sensational Swines

Pigs are social animals that possess a surprising intelligence and impressive adaptability that we are only beginning to understand. Pigs, hogs, and boars have lived in almost every region of the world; from the frozen tundra to the hot, wet, and humid rainforests of Central and South America.  Though many cultures breed pigs as a food source, pigs have been making their way off the farm and into people’s homes for quite some time.

Notable Pigs Around the World

The Bornean bearded pig, more commonly referred to as the bearded pig, is native to the mangrove forests and rainforests of Southeast Asia and has an impressive penchant for growing a beard. Though these wild boars are active both day and night, they are generally only encountered when seen crossing the road or emerging into a meadow during feeding time because most of their life is spent deep within the forests.  The forest floor provides a buffet of nutritious organisms on which pigs love to dine (recall the infamous Hakuna Matata scene from Disney’s Lion King in which Pumba, the warthog, lifts logs and snouts through mud to find bugs to eat). Bornean bearded pigs are omnivores that feed on roots, fruit, herbs, earthworms and small invertebrates. Females can give birth to 11 babies at a time but because of hunting and habitat loss, the bearded pig population is in decline.

Ben Lunsford. Bearded Pig. May 2008.Source: Wikicommons

With a thick coat of fur, the Mangalica (aka Mangalista) pig looks more sheep than swine. First bred as food for the Austro-Hungarian emperors, the Mangalica quickly became a common food source for most Hungarians who lived during the Industrial Revolution. The high-fat content of the Mangalica’s meat helped provided sustenance to citizens struggling during times of financial hardship. In the 1960s,  people began consuming leaner meats and the shift in demand led the Mangalica to near extinction in under 30 years. In 1989, Hungarian animal geneticist, Peter Toth, began breeding efforts to save Hungary’s national pig and managed to reintroduce the furry pigs to the global marketplace. Recently, Mangalistas (as they are called in the US) have amassed a loyal following in the culinary world because of the marbling of their meat and their reputation for being the “Kobe beef of pork” (Modern Farmer). Though their diet of walnuts, horse nuts, chestnuts, and acorns is similar to many wild foraging pigs, Mangalistas are fatter than most other pig breeds, hence the marbling. In the US, most of Mangalistas are bred for food, but their fluffy coats and dog-like temperament has also made them a favorite among those with domesticated pigs as pets.

Mangalica in Hortobagy, Hungary. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Truffles are both a culinary delicacy and a subterranean fungus that can garner hefty fee in the foodie marketplace.  In 2010, someone spent $330,000 on two pieces of white truffle that weighed 2.87 pounds! Today, most truffle hunters are dogs, but historically truffle hunting was a job for the pigs— female pigs, to be more precise. It is said that a truffle’s musky aroma is very similar to that of a male pig’s pheromones, so strong and recognizable to the snout, that females can locate them through layers of dirt. Once found, pigs use their rooting skills to dig the truffles up from below the soil’s surface. Unlike dogs, pigs are notoriously difficult to control and would often eat the prized truffle after it was found, costing their human companions a pretty penny! Nowadays, you’re hardpressed to find a truffle-hunting pig that has not been replaced by a dog. 

Recherche de truffes à Gignac, dans le Lot, en France. Vayssie Robert. Source: Wikicommons.

HWF is happy to celebrate the start of the Year of the Pig by highlighting the important role that pigs play in managing ecosystems and maintaining biodiversity through the same rooting behavior that helps pigs find truffles.  Their intelligence, friendly demeanor, and physical abilities sound like admirable qualities to us!

Whether you’re a long-time follower of the Havasi Wilderness Foundation or you’ve just joined us, we thank you for supporting the work we do. With your help, we can continue to increase environmental awareness across the globe and encourage compassion for animals and the natural world. HWF hopes to keep doing this important work, but the reality is that we cannot do it alone. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation today to fund the future of wilderness education. If you cannot afford a donation, that’s okay— take a walk outside, investigate the world around you, and share with others the importance of caring for our planet.

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