A View to a Kill: Tagging Along on a Tuscan Boar Hunt
Morning sunshine beamed down on the Tuscan valley before me. The first few days of my visit here had been rainy, so this was my first proper glimpse of the hills I'd dreamed so long of seeing, gently rolling across the horizon in soft shades of green and autumn brown, kissed by the bright blue sky above. I took a deep breath. The crisp fall air smelled faintly of harvested vineyards, wood smoke-and death.
Suddenly, dogs began barking in the distance. Many dogs. Their yelping intensified. Human voices yelled out. Male voices, Italian voices, loud voices. The dogs were now frenzied. More shouting. A gunshot. Then another, then a flurry of them. More barking and yelling, this time triumphant.
Our guide, who'd climbed a small tree by the side of the path to get a better look in the direction of the commotion, glanced down at us briefly, but he didn't explain the noises. He didn't need to. We were, after all, on a wild boar hunt. We were experiencing just what we had come for.
I'd never yearned to be on a hunt of any kind. While I'm hardly vegetarian, like most modern carnivores, I've always preferred as many steps as possible between me and the meat on my plate. The idea of being physically close to guns or killing repulsed me.
But in the name of journalism and wanderlust, I had taken an assignment. An old friend was putting together a piece about big game hunting for an ultra-high-end luxury magazine, and he needed a cameraman who could come with him on a lavish all-expense-paid trip to Tuscany. I struggled with the brutal nature of the story, but I told myself that the hunt would happen whether I was present or not.
So I wound up here, some 25 miles southwest of Siena, on a bright autumn morning, traipsing the forested hills of a nature reserve with a squadra of some 100 hunters from across the region (and some from as far away as Switzerland), all part of a local sport hunting society.
The hunt had begun as it always does during the long fall and winter Tuscan boar season. An early morning reconnaissance team of tracciatori sets out to look for fresh boar traces in the reserve's dense forests. (Wild boars are largely nocturnal, so most will have just settled down for slumber after a busy night of foraging.) Once the area is chosen, the hunt's shooters (called the postaioli) quietly assemble in a horseshoe-shaped formation nearby. When everyone's in position, the capocaccia (hunt leader) orders the canai to release their teams of dogs to flush the cinghiali (wild boar) out into the open.
Lacking hunting licenses, my journalist friend and I had to keep a safe distance from the hunt's main action for security and legal reasons, as the Italian government tightly regulates it. But violence can never be entirely orderly, and the unexpected can happen. An hour into the hunt, we happened upon an entire boar family still in its resting place deep in the woods, somehow oversniffed by the bloodthirsty dogs. It was a haunting vision, a mother boar keenly aware that severe danger was nearby and desperately trying to figure out how best to protect her babies. It made the scenes we were to see later of the hunt's aftermath all the more difficult to stomach.
Indeed, when all was said and done, 18 boars lost their lives that morning. The hunters gathered at a local farm estate, lined up their victims in neat rows and congratulated one another, especially the man who had slain the largest boar, a 200-pound male. Many of the hunters' families joined in the celebration, and, in one of the most bizarre and disturbing scenes from an already bizarre and disturbing day, one hunter gleefully plopped his young granddaughters on the back of the biggest boar for an impromptu photo op.
Digital cameras and surreal horrors aside, it all felt incredibly timeless, and it was. Boar hunting has been an integral part of Tuscan culture for centuries, and its results are still readily apparent in the omnipresence of pappardelle cinghiale, a pasta with wild boar ragú (considered the "national dish" by many locals) at restaurants throughout the region.
Despite its apparent ruthlessness, the hunting serves another purpose. Though it's been near to extinction at times, a much more rapidly multiplying breed of boar was introduced some decades ago. Tuscany's wild boar population is now in need of regular population control, lest hoards of hungry boars get pushed down from the hills to terrorize the crops and animals of local farmers.
After the hunt, my friend and I were very ready for a more familiar brand of Western civilization. We found it nearby in Florence, where we eagerly soaked up some of the world's best-known cultural highlights, including Michelangelo's "David" and the Uffizi Gallery. While wandering the city's gorgeous streets, we stumbled upon "Il Porcellino," a life-size bronze statue of, what else, a wild boar. For nearly five centuries, visitors to Florence have flocked to this shrine to Tuscany's deeper past-tradition holds that if you put a coin in his mouth and rub his snout, "Il Porcellino" will ensure good fortune and a return to Florence.
As I stroked the statue's nose, I silently apologized for what I had witnessed in those hills not so far away. "Bring me back to Florence," I asked. "But please, keep me far, far away from your forest."