Nature Notes | “Multi-Species Politics” of Javelinas and Humans

Photograph courtesy Adam Johson.
Photograph courtesy Adam Johson.

Anthropologist Traces the “Multi-Species Politics” of Javelinas and Humans

By Andrew Stuart

The air fills with a musky smell, and then you see them – a dozen furry creatures, scattering off the trail or erupting from the brush in a grunting getaway. If you’re a West Texas hiker, you’ve likely interacted with javelinas, or collared peccaries.

Anthropologist Adam Johnson is studying these interactions and relations. He’s discovering a complex “multi-species politics” among people and peccaries.

Participant observation is a venerable technique, in which an anthropologist is immersed in the daily activities of those being studied. In Johnson’s work, it has a distinctive flavor.

It means “walking around on all fours on trails,” Johnson said, “smelling the dirt, really looking at their bedding sites, and eating the sometimes really disgusting food that they eat. I’m sure it tastes great to them, but raw mesquite beans and Texas ebony tree beans are not the tastiest foods on the planet.”

The purpose of anthropology, it’s said, is “to make the world safe for human differences.” Johnson expands that mission to include the “more-than-human.” How do javelinas and humans negotiate competing interests? How do we live in community together?

Johnson has found one answer with a wildlife photographer named Roger. On his Hill Country property, Roger and a javelina herd have created a convivial equilibrium.

Javelina eyesight is poor – they rely on scent. But sociability is their real strength. They rub their potent musk on one another to bond. They snuggle at night. They even grieve their dead, lingering with fallen companions for days before moving on. It’s by sticking together that they survive.

Through close attention, Roger has learned to interpret javelina signs. Raised back hairs – javelina mohawks – indicate anxiety. Peccaries “yawn,” exposing their impressive tusks, to show toughness, and to say, “back off.” In turn, Roger can get his messages across. He can call the peccaries in, or let them know they’re too close.

A visitor can disrupt the balance, but the javelinas know the ground rules with Roger. They’re so comfortable they bring newborns near, to drink at his pond and eat birdseed.

“There are expectations,” Johnson said, “and they totally trust that those expectations are going to be met. There’s tons of food outside the yard, but yet they choose to bring the babies into the yard.”

The dynamic is different in Big Bend National Park, where Johnson has been a participant observer with both tourists, and javelinas. Peccaries know park visitors aren’t hunters. They’re at ease, but also uninterested – these humans, after all, are just passing through.

“Imagine going to South Padre Island,” Rogers said, “and all the people who work in the restaurants and stuff – every tourist is just as good as the next. The javelinas and tourists at Big Bend is the same way. But with Roger, it really matters that it’s Roger.”

Johnson has also spent time with javelina hunters. He’s found most hunters have a deep respect for the species they pursue, and the places that sustain them.

“It connects them to Texas,” Johnson said. “It connects them to landscapes they really love, and it connects them to nature, which they also say they love immensely and want to protect.”

Javelinas aren’t pigs, and that’s important. They’re sometimes mistaken for feral hogs, which cause immense damage, and shot. But javelinas arrived here only a few centuries ago from tropical South America. They’ve embraced this harsh terrain, and become Texas icons.

Amidst ongoing ecological loss, Johnson’s work aim to broaden our sense of community beyond the merely human. Javelinas, he said, are a good place to start.

“What happens when you take a minute?” Johnson said. “The great anthropologist Anna Singh said we might practice ‘arts of noticing,’ of really paying attention. Could we live in a world that’s not quite so precarious, where we can benefit and other animals can benefit?”

Nature Notes is produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.


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