By Dr Mary-Louise Penrith, a veterinary consultant
The Republic of Mauritius consists of two islands, one small (Mauritius) and one very small (Rodrigues). The human population is diverse, mainly of Indian origin, with most of the pigs farmed by people of African descent (Creole), as well as a few people whose ancestors came from France or China. The pig industry is small and so are the farms – 200 pigs is a big herd. The main demand for pork in Mauritius comes from the hotels and restaurants serving the tourist industry that forms the backbone of the economy. Unfortunately for Mauritian pig farmers most of the pork is imported – much of it from South Africa.
In a new strategic plan for agriculture in 2007 the government recognised the potential importance of the local pig industry and made plans to develop it. Within a month or two of the plan being approved, the pig industry was very nearly wiped out by an outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF). More than 13 000 of the main island’s 18 000 pigs died either of disease or as a result of “stamping out” to control the outbreak.
It was a tragedy, but also a wake-up call and it resulted in a lot of international aid and government support for the farmers that they had not enjoyed before, including the importation and distribution of a large number of very high quality pigs from South Africa.
Dr Jim Robinson and I spent time in Mauritius in 2010 to help with the training of veterinarians, extension officers and pig farmers as part of the assistance rendered to the country by the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). In the process we heard a lot about the challenges facing pig farmers in Mauritius. Apart from having to compete with imported pork, the Mauritian farmers complain about high feed costs and low prices for their pigs.
One of the biggest problems of pig farming on a small island is waste disposal. To try to manage the problem most of the Mauritian pig farmers are required to farm in clusters in designated areas. Farming cooperatively can have advantages, but there are big problems when some members do not cooperate, for example by feeding untreated swill to their pigs and possibly putting everyone at risk of diseases. The pig houses are close together and it is not very easy to avoid the spread of infections. Some of the farmers outside the clusters have found innovative ways to cope with the pig waste. One farmer has installed a digester system that produces enough piped gas from the pig waste for two families to cook for two hours every day free of charge. Others turn the waste into compost and use it to fertilise their fields and gardens.
Rodrigues Island escaped the African Swine Fever outbreak. There are about 7 000 pigs on the island among a population of 40 000 people. The farms are very small, so a high proportion of the families keep at least one pig. There is a very well managed government pig breeding station that supplies stock to the islanders. The sows are well looked after with lots of succulent green feed in addition to their concentrate when they are lactating, and the piglets do very well with deep bedding to keep them dry and comfortable and give them something to play with.
However, inbreeding is a real concern, because for at least two years after the ASF outbreak live pigs were not allowed onto the island, although good pigs are available from the island of Réunion (an overseas province of France), where ASF has never occurred. The establishment of artificial insemination facilities and training by a Chinese assistance programme on Mauritius offers some hope of bringing new genetics to Rodrigues. (The flight between the two islands takes a little over an hour).
Mauritian sows appear to be very good mothers, although they usually don’t have quite as many piglets as the sows that were imported from South Africa. Unfortunately we saw a few of the imported sows in poor condition, producing small litters and killing the piglets by lying on them, because these modern pigs need a much higher level of feeding and management than they are getting in Mauritius. Most of those sows were in any case destined for the abattoir to keep everything going until the local population had increased enough for production to continue.
However, those fine large finishers looked not just “good enough to eat” to the Mauritians, but too good to eat, and a very large number of them were bought as breeders, although they were probably derived from terminal sires. Because commercial rations are expensive, a lot of waste products are fed to pigs. Some, such as broken noodles, poor quality lentils, date-expired milk powder and stale bread are perfectly acceptable as pig food, but not for top-of-the-line modern pigs.
The pig marketing system in Mauritius also needs to be modernised. The prices for pigs when we were there depended on butchers who buy the live pigs and then sell them to the abattoir, and it is unlikely that this has changed radically, although changes were recommended. Local pork could also not compete with the imported ready-cut pork as neither the abattoir nor the butchers had the necessary facilities to produce equivalent cuts. It was clear, however, that the pig farmers would be more willing to invest money in feed if the necessary steps are put in place to improve the marketing strategy and make competition with the imported pork a reality.
In case this raises concerns, however, the rapidly expanding tourist industry, with large new hotels being built on both Rodrigues and Mauritius, should be able to absorb the pork produced locally without making very much difference to the amount that needs to be imported from South Africa, and a better market for local pork would open up the market for South African genetics as well.