You should never judge the works of Mother Nature by human standards. But Warthogs, I’m afraid, are not very attractive.
There are the warts, for a start; monstrous carbuncles growing from the sides of the face. Four of them. There are the wrinkly little bodies, like those little old men you sometimes see on the beach, who’ve clearly spent the last forty years out in the sun. Then there’s the hair. It’s thick; more like wire than hair. And it’s sparse, like a balding man who refuses to acknowledge defeat and just shave it all off.
And to round it all off, they have mutton chops.
They are, in other words, as ugly as sin. Luckily, they are one of the most thoroughly engaging animals in the African bush. Yes, folks, it’s time for another Lowveld-ecosystem post.
Warthogs are one of the easiest things to see out in the bush. They seem to be attracted to people, and get fairly tame. At most lodges or rest-camps, you should spot one or two of them kneeling down in fervent prayer out on the lawn.
They’re actually kneeling down on their wrists. And they are special wrists. They have callouses on them, which appear even when the warthog is still in the womb. They are there to help the warthog get its head down to the ground. Unlike most pigs, warthogs are mainly grazers. But they also eat lots of roots and tubers. That massive, oddly shaped head is not just there to look beautiful. It’s a tool. A spade. And it’s ridiculously strong.
When I was younger, I visited a friend on a farm in Namibia. They had a pet warthog, and we went and sat outside on a low wall and fed him watermelon skins. He pushed his nose up under the soles of my boots. I pushed back. Unsuccessfully. The harder I pushed, the harder he pushed back. I ended up standing up on his nose, with only my hands still holding the wall for balance. I weigh about 85kg.
When you are that good at pushing with your head, it would seem a shame to waste it on roots and tubers. So that’s how male warthogs fight. Which is a bit of a problem. You may have noticed that warthogs have a couple of sharp things sticking out the sides of their faces. Tusks. And pretty big ones. They can measure over 25cm (10 inches). Which means that a warthog tussle is the equivalent of two men having a wrestling match with two sharpened sticks attached to their chins.
That’s what those warts are there for. They protect the eyes during battles. They aren’t bone. They’re made of connective tissue. The female’s warts are much smaller.
Those tusks look like pretty serious weapon for fighting off predators, too. They aren’t. Here’s a warthog’s skull.
The big tusks have sharpish points, true, but if you’re looking for a real weapon, look at those smaller tusks on the bottom jaw. They sit snugly below the bigger ones, and are kept razor sharp by grinding against them. Warthogs are deceptively big. Males average about 80kg, but can get up to 100. And using those bottom jaw stilettos, they can, on their best days, kill a lion. Which is a pretty good reason to leave the ones you see praying on the lawn outside the lodge the hell alone.
But warthogs don’t survive out in the African wild by fighting lions at every given opportunity. They survive by running away. And they don’t have to run far. They live in holes in the ground; usually abandoned aardvark holes. They go into them backwards, with the sharp bits facing outwards. It would take a pretty hungry predator to go in after them.
If you can find a hole where a family of warthogs is spending the night, it’s worth going back as early as you can the next morning. When it gets light enough, the warthogs will come out. Like champagne corks. Maybe they are afraid there will be something sitting in wait for them, because I’ve seen warthogs start off the day at a flat-out run. And if the family is a big one, it’s like watching a clown car at the circus. Warthog after warthog comes bursting out of what looks like a small hole in the ground.
There’s another reason warthogs are a little challenged in the looks department. Warthogs are built fairly low to the ground. And they live in grasslands. So, just like hippos have their eyes at the top of their heads to keep them above the water, warthogs eyes are at the top of their skulls to keep them above the grass.
But that’s not their only trick for dealing with the grass. To round off their supermodel looks, warthogs have rather silly little tails. They’re long and thin, with a funny little tuft of hair at the end. They look a little odd. Until you see a family of warthogs running. Then they look very odd indeed. We call them squad cars, after those old police cars with the huge radio antennas sticking out the boot.
When a family of warthogs sets off on a run, they hold their tails straight up in the air. The tuft of hair acts like a little flag, and they can keep track of each other.
All of this is, as I said, fairly engaging. But if you really want to fall in love with warthogs (and I know you do), you need to watch one having a mud bath. It is not often that you can identify joy in another species. You can tell when an animal is angry, or frightened, or excited. But joy is not so easy to spot.
Unless you see a warthog in a muddy puddle. A muddy warthog is a happy warthog. They roll around. They splash. They root around with their noses in the mud. They lounge. They scratch themselves behind the ears on nearby rocks. They drag their backsides along the ground like dogs with worms, only with eyes half closed and an expression of absolute joy on their faces.
It’s a wonderful thing to see. And it’s worth sitting around and waiting for. Because once you have seen a 100kg pig with monstrous growths on the side of its face, huge twisted teeth jutting out its jaws, alopecia, and a skin condition dragging its butt along the ground with a beatific look on its mud spattered spade-face, you will understand that beauty isn’t just in the eye of the beholder. It’s everywhere. You just have to know what you’re looking at.