San Francisco — Recent reports of a ``kosher pig'' rooting around in the remote Togian jungles of Indonesia are hogwash, say the few scientists who know about the rare, curly-tufted babirusa. The babirusa, or deer pig, has been at the center of a minor scientific and public-policy controversy.
A US Agency for International Development (AID) report recently identified the babirusa as a potential cheap, high-protein food source for Indonesia.
It may have protein ``potential,'' but the ancient pig is near extinction. With less than 1,000 babirusas living today, the AID report could backfire, resulting in the extinction of the animal, protests Victoria Selmeir, a northern California sociologist and one of the few researchers who have studied the pig.
In addition, a scientist unconnected with the AID report suggested offhandedly that that the animal could be ``kosher'' because its unique digestive system is superficially similar to that of cattle and sheep, which are not prohibited from Jewish and Muslim diet. The kosher label, it turns out, does not apply to the babirusa. The comment made news reports in several parts of the country, alarming Ms. Selmeir, who counts herself as perhaps ``the babirusa's only friend.''
``It was a well-meaning goof. AID appears to have wanted to help a third-world country, but this could be a very dangerous idea,'' says Selmeir, author of the book, ``The Behavior of the Babirusa in the Togian Islands.''
The animal's habitat is largely populated by Muslims, who don't eat pork and who probably wouldn't eat the animal, which for generations has been a forbidden food -- so the animal would not seem to be in immediate danger of being hunted to extinction, Selmeir admits. She adds that she is unaware of any hunting of the animal as the result of the AID report, but called a press conference here anyway to protest it.
Selmeir's concerns highlight the public policy and scientific dilemma faced by those who would like to save endangered species, explains Jim Daly, a National Academy of the Sciences program officer with AID.
``The whole reason for the report,'' he says of the AID report, ``is that with the rapid environmental segregation of developing countries, we're losing species at an incredible rate. . . . The urgency is to identify the value of the species and protect them.''
Dr. Daly explains that the ``economics'' of the situation must be faced. With limited funds worldwide available to preserve endangered species, he says, the animals with the ``most potential value'' to man must be given the priority for protection.
The AID report, ``Little Known Asian Animals with a Promising Economic Future,'' identified several animals with a potential use for hungry developing nations.
The babrirusa eats forest vegetation -- like leaves -- and not just grain, as many pigs require.
``We're interested in it for Indonesia, where they don't have enough agriculture to feed animals corn. . . . This animal's ability to scrounge might be a real advantage,'' Daly says.
Further, he adds, it would take a human generation to bring this animal to economic productivity and out of its endangered status. The report does not suggest hunting the animals now, but does suggest a planned program to breed many of them in a traditional domestic farm setting.
Daly notes that the AID report was one of two funded by the National Acacdemy of Sciences in the past decade.
The first study dealt with plans and produced research, which, for example, led to the development of amaranth. This was a little known grain that grows where corn and wheat and other grain staples can't survive.
A whole new industry has grown around this plant, which is being used in third-world countries as a result of the first report, Daly explains.