Once a week, sometimes twice, a group of men gather in the oil palm plantations of Batu Pahat in Johor to blast the living hell out of wild pigs.
Our guide is fisherman Koh Lai Waad, 54, known to everyone there as Ah Huat. He has a warm, deeply creased smile that is missing some teeth. Like all the men in the hunting party, he has been making life difficult for the pigs there since he was a teen.
He hunts wild boar for sport, he says in Mandarin. Though it all sounds extraordinarily macho and adventurous to me, a Singaporean city boy, it will become apparent later why only middle-aged or older men are in this group.
The first thing we do is to go pick up the dogs. We drive in a vehicle belonging to a Singaporean friend of Ah Huat’s to the home of Ah Huat’s relations.
Seven mongrels, lean working animals, leap into the battered white-panel van.
It is close to noon. Like Singapore, the area is baked and brown; rain has not been seen in weeks. Another relative of Ah Huat’s starts off on a motorcycle towards the oil palm groves around the village of Bagan. He is the group’s tracker.
We arrive. Hunts take place in abandoned oil palm plantations because the fruit on the ground attracts animals such as boars. Our group’s tracker points to tell-tale signs. There is freshly overturned mud at a wallow, a low point in the ground in which the pigs gather to bathe.
We are joined by more men. No one here is dressed in camouflage or gearstudded vests. They are all in thick brown or beige cotton work clothes, like what you would find at a construction site. On their feet are cheap slip-on shoes or rubber boots.
At least three of them are carrying shotguns, guns which send out a spray of pellets instead of a single bullet. The men hold a 10-minute discussion about tactics.
A few men, including Ah Huat, will form one apex of a box at one end of the plantation. They will use the dogs and their shouts to drive the pigs into the killing zone, watched over by the men with guns at the other corners of the box.
The photographer and I are assigned to stick close to Mr Yen Long Swee, 64, a chain-smoking fisherman with a tight black perm and a relaxed, sleepy manner.
His shotgun is slung over one shoulder. There are a few safety rules, he tells us. We are to stay 100m back and he needs to be able to see us at all times. Since he is not allowed by law to fire in the direction of dwellings, we stand between him and some houses, several hundred metres away at the edge of the plantation.
He tells us that he has been involved in hunts since he was a boy. Back then, he was a beater like Ah Huat. Now, he is a shooter.
From him and from other hunters, we learn about the guns. Only landowners can get licences for weapons, to clear property of pests. They buy shells at the police station, at RM60 (S$23) for a box of 25.
The worst gun accident, says Mr Yen, happened when a greenhorn shooter hit another hunter in the leg, giving him a minor wound. A wounded boar once gutted a dog with its tusks, he says. You do not want to be close to a wounded pig, he adds.
He walks ahead of us on the path. We wait by a tree. Mosquitoes swarm. Cicadas shriek. Then we hear the shouts of the party beating the pigs in our direction. There are pops – they also use firecrackers.
I see a few dark shapes dart across the path, followed by a few dogs. There is a bang. We walk over to where Mr Yen is standing and near him, there is a black shape in the grass.
The wild boar looks asleep; there is no indication that it has been shot other than two neat round holes in its grey skin and a few splotches of bright red on the grass. The other men arrive. Around 70kg, they say. Too big and gamey to eat. It will be sold to the meat traders for RM1.60 a kg. And once the pig is slaughtered, its final sale weight will be half its current weight.
But it is a male, with a good set of curved tusks, about 8cm long. Four men and a motorcycle arrive. They heave it onto the bike and tie it down, placing a palm frond on its body to shield it from the sun.
If Mr Yen is pleased, he is not showing it. He smokes and looks philosophical. He has shot more than 100 pigs in more than 30 years.
There was more than just the one pig that ran across his path just now but because they dart so quickly, hunters have time to make only one shot. If there were more men with guns in the party, they might have shot the ones that slipped past the kill zone.
Some days, three shooters show up, sometimes more. Some days, they get zero kills. They had their best day ever some years ago when they bagged 20 pigs.
By 5pm, the Singaporeans in our party are covered with mosquito bites and we see why it is only older men who hunt. There is a lot of waiting around in the bush for a few seconds of excitement.
It is not a sport for the time-starved. There is also the matter of the blood and the handling of heavy carcasses.
You can shoot all you like but what happens to the dead pigs? For that, you need a friend, or rather, seven friends, armed with cleavers and a backyard abattoir, like the one we visited at the end of the day. We have five dead pigs at the back of a Toyota Hilux pickup and within an hour, the three smallest ones are turned into market-ready pieces, to be shared among the people in the party.
Each carcass is first dipped into very hot water. Miraculously, the grey skin, covered in bristles that feel like steel wool, slips off like a sock, revealing a pink underlayer.
Another group of men slice, gut and bleed it. The floor is awash in blood. Another man breaks everything down into smaller pieces. The flesh is lean and is missing the thick layer of lard found in pork from domestic pigs.
Inside, you can see huge blood clots where the pellets have struck. The damaged flesh, along with the neck meat, innards and the heads, are tossed into a white pail. “For the dogs. They have to eat too. Or else, why would they want to work?” says one man, grinning.
We go inside the house where the owner’s wife serves us the loin of a pig shot that day. It is the freshest pork I have eaten in my life – four hours from killing to plate.
The meat is shredded and stir-fried in soya sauce, ginger and green onion. It is delicious. The loin is the tenderest and tastiest portion, says Ah Huat and he is right.
The two largest pigs, weighing more than 60kg each, are to be sold to the trader. Their heads, entrails and trotters are first removed.
A man arrives in a lorry and takes the dressed carcasses away. He will sell them to Thai pork floss factories. Yes, the snacks that Singaporeans buy when they visit the country. So it is likely you have eaten wild boar; you just have not noticed.
This story first appeared in The Sunday Times & straitstimes.com
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