As the last light of a sticky autumn afternoon ebbs towards darkness, Carles Conejero counts his syringes. ‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,’ he whispers to himself, tapping a grubby index finger on each as he goes. ‘Good, yes, that’s good.’
We are in a quiet residential street in the west of Barcelona. One side is lined by chic gated properties; the other by rough, unlit shrubland. A few metres away, three tanned, unshaven locals loiter with intent next to a white van. They are all wearing faded T-shirts and denim shorts. One carries a large stick; another an iPad; the third the air of a man who could do with a prop.
Conejero, a wiry 32-year-old veterinarian from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) with a buzzcut, nose ring and owlish glasses, flicks on a head torch and begins filling each syringe with a potent tranquiliser solution before lining them up on the tailgate of his Nissan Navara.
How many will that take down, I ask?
‘I prefer to think of it in terms of weight,’ he replies, ‘and this will kill about 160kg.’
As Conejero fumbles with a bunch of keys the size of a bridal bouquet, Mamba, his adoringly biddable mongrel, leaps from a window to join us. There is a large tusk among the key rings. Is that...?
‘Sí!’ he says, before we join the waiting three amigos. In near-synchronicity, all four men light cigarettes and stare at the iPad. One turns it around to show me. On it, a night-vision camera reveals that a family of four wild boar, the scourge of metropolitan areas all over mainland Europe, are barely 15 metres away.
In the camera’s ghoulish shades of black and green, we watch as the sounder – one large adult female and three piglets – snuffle in the shrubs and into a large rectangular area underneath a net. They do not know this is their last snuffle.
With an unspoken agreement that It Is Time, cigarettes are flicked away. Glances are shared; loins girded. Suddenly a thud, followed by an almighty choir of squeals. And then we run.
In last couple of years, through little fault of their own, boar have become an utter societal menace. Permanent resident on the frequently updated Global Invasive Species Database’s ‘100 Worst’ list, they have been steadily mincing around the forests of Europe for millennia, breeding enthusiastically, bothering their domesticated porcine kin, and being hunted and eaten by humans with zeal. Since the 1980s, though, their numbers have swollen in connection with two other rises: the proportion of people living in cities, and the average temperature.
Boar will dine on anything – including one another, if they absolutely must – and can adapt to almost any reasonable environment. Together with their swift reproductive cycle (three months, three weeks and three days, and one or two litters of four to six piglets a year) and near indestructibility, these traits make them ideal survivors, but as the line between the city and countryside blurs, they’ve not needed any superpowers in order to thrive.
If anything, 2022 has been the year the situation escalated from ‘darkly amusing’ to ‘genuinely concerning’. In August 2020, as we read headlines like, ‘German nudist chases wild boar that stole laptop at Berlin lake’, alongside a sensational accompanying photo set, we thought: ‘Oh, those crazy hogs…’ Thirteen months later, as we read, ‘Pop star Shakira is attacked by two wild boar who “snatched” her handbag and destroyed it in a Barcelona park’, a real story, we thought: ‘Well, rich people have different problems.’
But those news clips turned out to be a warning. ‘Wild boar attack leaves farmer, 92, with arm and leg amputated’ – that was in Italy last month. ‘Terrified woman attacked by fearsome wild boar while sunbathing on Costa Blanca beach’ – that was in June.
Britain doesn’t escape the issue. There are groups of boar in southern England, Wales and Scotland; and the latter is worth keeping an eye on. Boar are now said to be found in every part of Scotland, potentially numbering several thousand. Highland farmers say the situation is becoming uncontrollable, with the boars’ behaviour increasingly aggressive. In July, Steven McKenzie, the head keeper at Aberchalder and Glengarry Estate, south of Fort Augustus, reported seeing boar ‘pulling apart’ his sheep.
‘They’re definitely preying on the sheep on purpose,’ he told the BBC. ‘As we came into the field we saw three pigs. They had encircled a ewe [and] they had her on her back and were quite literally pulling her apart and eating her. I was able to put a shot off and dispatch one of the pigs before the other two disappeared into the forest.’
Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the Middle East and the USA have their own complications, yet it’s mainland Europe that has the biggest problem.
In May, residents in several districts in Rome imposed an 8.30pm curfew, so grave was the threat of night-time boar attacks. In Berlin, trained boar hunters called stadtjäger are employed to patrol the streets, where the hogs run around with abandon. An exasperated mayor in Belgium has demanded boar be put on the contraceptive pill. And in Barcelona, a city wreathed by forests, a population of around 300 boar is sustainable, without causing too many problems. There are now more than 2,000.
They eat from bins, cavort in plazas, prey on shoppers, have favourite restaurants, creep into gardens, mug diminutive Colombian pop stars… will they ever return from whence they came? They will not. And that’s why Conejero, ‘a specialist in problematic animals’, is very tired.
‘Vale, vale, vale,’ Conejero says, back in the shrubland. We have run into the clearing, where the sounder is now writhing under the nylon net. The three men are ‘technicians’ who work for a company contracted by the city authorities to track and set traps for largely nocturnal boar (the bait is corn), then restrain them while Conejero works as quickly as possible to sedate, then euthanise each one.
As one technician wheelbarrows the bodies away to their van, the trap is reset. Mamba is already alert to the presence of another, larger family of boar in the bushes a few metres away. With only a phone light, I decide I might just head back for the safety of the road.
‘No veterinarian likes to kill animals,’ Conejero says, as he takes a vial of blood from each animal, which, along with the carcass, will be taken to UAB later to check for diseases, ‘but the problem is that people have lost their relationship boundaries with nature. They see boar in the city and they feed them. They feel sorry, they see a boar go, “squeal!” and they think, “aww!”’
Easy as it is to write about boar ‘invading’ the city and attacking people, he would rather this all be framed properly: that through habitat destruction (deforestation, urban sprawl, footpath creation, cycle paths) and wilful ignorance (leaving bins out), humans are effectively inviting boar into the city, then acting surprised when they act, well, boorishly.
‘When you feed a boar, they start to recognise humans as a food source and the city as a place to be. They are f--king up their instincts, and they cannot unlearn it. If we picked them up and dropped them back in the forest, they would just come back. They have lost their nature completely. That’s the reason we have to destroy them.’ He holds a hand up. ‘No one wants to do it.’
The trap drops again. The men bound off into the shrubland.
The next morning, Conejero – and Mamba – are in his office at the UAB campus on the northern outskirts of Barcelona. He was up dealing with boar until 4am, which he has been every few days for four years. These planned nocturnal operations, in addition to emergency call-outs to deal with an injured boar or one in a sticky situation (cavorting in a children’s playground, say, or camping out on a motorway), mean he’s destroyed around 1,200 since 2018.
Boar will generally run away from humans, but like any wild animal – especially one with sharp tusks – they’ll defend their young and charge when frightened. As the tusks are at about the height of an adult human’s femoral artery, or a child’s face, it’s best to steer clear.
They’re also formidably smart and tough, Conejero says. For instance, the apex predator in modern cities is the motor car, so in Rome, boar have learned to use pedestrian crossings, diligently waiting until traffic stops before safely escorting their striped young (called humbugs) to the other side.
Here in Barcelona, they are also lodged in a permanent, farcical war with local councils over access to bins. Every time a new ‘anti-boar system’ to protect commercial waste containers is installed, be it cages or locks, boar figure it out within a fortnight. Adult females have even worked out that weight-triggered traps can be evaded by sending piglets to fetch the bait.
‘I’ve heard they have now learned that when somebody is walking along the street carrying two shopping bags, if the boar run up and bite the person on the bottom, the person jumps up and drops both bags,’ Conejero says, miming the scene.
‘I have seen boars be so, so [injured], and still just walking along like it’s fine. Cars can only kill them if they can break their pelvic bone in a collision. I’ve seen one walking along with its entire liver hanging out. Once, I saw one with half its head missing, the whole top [snout], so it just scooped food up like a spoon…’
In Scotland, where Steven McKenzie has claimed to see groups of 26 boar gathering at once, traditional defences are moot. Largely active at night and preferring to hide in the woods in the day, boar can reach over 150kg, so deer fences can be smashed through or burrowed under with pathetic ease. Even electric fences can be tolerated. Forget about hedges.
But the concern is not solely related to the safety of ewes or crops. Boar are excellent carriers of disease, including tuberculosis, hepatitis and, according to Conejero, even Covid. This year the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Scotland worried about boar spreading African swine fever to the domestic pig population. ‘If it comes into this country and gets into the wild boar herd, then it’s at the massive risk of putting outside pigs at risk as well – and actually finishing that industry off,’ said Robin Traqwuair, vice president of NFU Scotland, in July.
In an emergency call-out, the elaborate net system wouldn’t do, so Conejero uses the blowpipe he always keeps in the back of his truck. His methods are perhaps the most humane out there, in the growing industry of ‘boar solutions’. But at €300-€500 per boar, they’re definitely not the cheapest.
Germany’s use of paid groups of armed hunters is a common model, especially in cities. In France, sanglier meat is still a popular food, so boar hunting for sport persists. It is highly unregulated, however: in October, a 67-year-old British woman was accidentally shot and killed while on a boar hunt in Brittany.
In Rome, where the boar population is around 20,000, one novel proposal was to introduce wolves – ostensibly to act as the city of love’s guard dogs. A wolfpack in a nearby town had been killing as many boar as an expensive capture programme, proponents found. Critics pointed out that dealing with gangs of potentially dangerous animals straying into cities by adding gangs of another kind of even more potentially dangerous animal might, just might, make the problem worse.
In Texas, home to 2.6 million ‘feral hogs’, gun-toting locals occasionally use boar as justification for keeping AR-15 assault rifles. (‘Legit question for rural Americans – How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?’ went one viral tweet in 2019.) More common in the US is the use of a helicopter to flush boar into the open, where they can be gunned down.
Animal rights activists occasionally try to intervene in Conejero’s work, ‘but usually, after five minutes of me explaining the situation, they agree with me’. The Shakira incident was ‘a pity, but it made the urban wild boar situation more covered. She made it fancy.’
His phone rings. It is the campus security guard. A worse-for-wear boar has been spotted – can he help? Within five minutes, Conejero is in the foliage behind a library, screwing together his 4ft blowpipe like a sniper rifle.
The guard takes his phone out to film. Conejero, who is as nimble as Nijinsky, prowls around a bush and locates the struggling boar. Crouching down, he aims the pipe and, with a sharp spurt of air, a dart thuds into the boar’s flank. Instantly it gets up and tries to run it off, but can’t get far. Two minutes later, it’s dead.
Later in the day, we drive 20 minutes further north, into the satellite towns embroidering the inner edge of Catalonia’s national parks. I had wondered if it might be difficult to spot boar in urban areas, but in the end it became difficult not to. We see a large male, trotting up a highway. We see a small family toying with a plastic bag in a layby. We see a set of bins that look as if they’ve lost a fight with a T-Rex.
Conejero lights a cigarette. ‘The problem is the people. And it shows how our relationship with the environment has changed,’ he says. ‘There is a lack of connection with the ecosystem.’
Across Europe, he thinks, the boars represent a wider issue about mutual respect between city and countryside: if you carve up the latter – including cutting forestry jobs and constructing homes – you cannot be surprised if wild animals see it as an exchange programme, and head for the former.
When we park up, Conejero introduces me to a local lumberjack, Jordi del Aguila Cantero, 42 – who was raised to understand the forest and treat boars as purely wild animals, he says. They used to keep well out of his way, and never became a problem. In recent years, that has changed.
‘[Local authorities] cut down trees and made a cycle path that goes straight from the forest into the town, so at night, the boars will come to the people. On weekends I walk through and see rubbish left from picnics, which the boars eat…’
‘Then, if a boar finds that, they come to associate humans with food. So they look for humans...’ Conejero adds.
‘But then my neighbours feed them like cats!’ del Aguila Cantero continues. The two men share an exasperated laugh.
Across Europe, the languages may be different, but the conversation is the same. Conejero is growing used to feeling exasperated. He is just the boar man in Barcelona. Soon, it seems, almost every city will need one. The task is Sisyphean, but somebody’s got to do it.
What would be the situation, I wonder, if he just… didn’t?
‘It would be worse. So much worse,’ he says, flatly. ‘Many attacks, many traffic accidents, and people getting hurt.’
And then his phone rings again.