We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquita are preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone. Writes Mona Gonzalez
Conservation efforts to save and grow the tamaraw population in Mindoro, Philippines, are being compromised by COVID. Sanctuary wardens and rangers rely on earnings from tourists, hikers, conservationists, and transients.
They double their meager income by second jobs as mountain guides and porters. But economic difficulties from COVID mean some may lose their jobs. The wardens and rangers of tamaraw sanctuaries are Mangyans comprised of eight tribes in Mindoro.
This animal is ranked by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Critically Endangered, one step away from being extinct in the wild.
The Philippine tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis), is a reserved, yet curious bovine, also called the dwarf buffalo. It’s the biggest land mammal in the Philippines. This individualistic bovine, when mating, occasionally associates with its partner all year. After two years the cow will give birth, and the mother and the young one will stay together for 2-4 years. Herding isn’t normal to tamaraws but small groups of juveniles have been seen.
The tamaraw is vicious and can smell predators a mile away. When cornered, this it is dangerous. If humans disturb it, it reacts violently. Tamaraws also fight among themselves by chasing each other up to one kilometer away. When mad, it lowers its head making its horns vertical, and shakes its head side to side.
Tamaraws often relax on forest edges beneath dense vegetation. It meanders to a water source and wallows in mud pits. It eats a variety of shoots and grasses. Sadly, its IUCN status is may worsen with COVID.
Because of COVID, tourists, hikers, conservationists, and other transients have stopped visiting Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park in Occidental Mindoro (MIBNP), the largest tamaraw sanctuary at 75,445-hectares, situated at the center of Mindoro Island. Ninety percent of tamaraws live here. It’s an ASEAN Heritage Park.
Before COVID, 35 wardens and 24 rangers ran the park. Many of these park employees are indigenous people (IP) who speak the languages of the different tribes. They guarded MIBNP’s core protection zone of 2,500-hectares by working 22 days a month. Regularly, they made their rounds and asked nearby Mangyan tribes such as the Buhid, Taw’buid, and Iraya, who reside in the area, about poachers. The home dwellers gave the wardens valuable information. The wardens and rangers doubled their meager income by also working as mountain guides and porters.
With the loss of tourism due to COVID, some wardens, and rangers may lose their jobs. Because the pandemic restricts movement, employees from different municipalities can’t enter the MIBNP. Those who live in the sanctuary work more hours to make up for a smaller staff. Workers who live outside MIBNP secure tamaraw habitats that are closest to their homes.
As of November 2020, COVID caused a 10% budget slash for the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP), totaling ₱230,000 pesos, (US$4,700.00), or one month’s salary for 31 tamaraw rangers and 10 wardens. The TCP allowed The Protected Areas Management Bureau (PAMB) to transfer three rangers.
Additionally, the United Nations Development Programme-Biodiversity Finance Initiative, raised ₱1.1 million (US$22,700) through a campaign crowdfunding campaign, Together for Tamaraws. The money paid tamaraw workers for half a year.
With COVID, poaching has increased. Poachers have guns, while rangers and wardens have no weapons or handcuffs, just binoculars, and cameras.
Prehistorically, the tamaraw wandered through the Philippines. Tamaraw records from Luzon date to the Pleistocene epoch. A tamaraw was written about in 1888 when tamaraws freely roamed throughout Mindoro’s lowland forests and highland mountains. In the 1900s only 10,000 individuals were left due to intensive farming, ranching, logging, hunting, poaching, and disease.
In the 1930s, a rinderpest outbreak (a virus that today is eradicated), attacked cloven-hoofed animals, killed cattle and left behind less than 100 tamaraws. In 1996 a conservation plan for tamaraw in MIBNP was implemented. By the year 2000 tamaraw numbers reached 154. By 2010, the numbers doubled to 300. In 2018 there were 500 at MIBNP, where 80% of tamaraws live. With COVID the numbers fell to 480. Some 120 other tamaraws live elsewhere in Mindoro, totaling some 600 individuals.
One other place with tamaraws is Mt. Calavite Wildlife Sanctuary (MCWS), Paluan town, Occidental Mindoro. A tamaraw was seen in 1992. They continued through the years to look for living tamaraws but found none.
Based on tracks and dung, scientists estimated that 15 tamaraws lived in the park in 2004. They came back in 2010, 2013, and 2015. Then in 2019, a young male tamaraw emerged near the pinnacle of Mt. Calavite. Its presence showed that with care and protection, tamaraws can increase. But because there has been no sighting since, there is concern that the numbers fell.
In 2007 a TCP survey suggested 16 animals live in Aruyan-Malati. This number was reached through a survey and interviews of locals. The restricted area is less than 1,000-hectares in size.
The Menace of Poachers
In late August 2020, Captain Geronimo “Cocoy” Barcena and his team at the MIBNP heard gunfire while doing their rounds. Poachers hunt with guns, while IPs use traditional methods like traps.
Barcena and his team watched the area for 24 hours and saw eight armed poachers. They called for backup. After 48 hours only two poachers were left. The 12 rangers and wardens convinced the men to surrender their pugakang, makeshift rifles that can kill a tamaraw with just two bullets.
The poachers belonged to the Tau Buwid and Buhid tribes, the first two Mangyan tribes of Mindoro who came to Mindoro when the tamaraw was plentiful and formed a natural part of their diet. Tamaraw meat, disguised as deer or pig jerky, commands P300/pound. Its skull commands four million pesos.
Most poachers live in the lowlands and as Barcena and team led them downhill towards a police station. The two poachers escaped. The rangers and wardens were unfamiliar with the lowlands but kept walking until they found tamaraw meat laid on boulders to sun-dry into jerky. The hide and bones were thrown into a stream. The skull was not found.
The TCP and the Protected Areas Management Bureau (PAMB) filed charges against the two poachers based on anti-poaching laws. They hoped to discover where the poachers got their guns.
Here are two of a number of conservation efforts in the past and present:
Gene pool farm. In 1980, a 280-hectare gene pool farm was established by the University of the Philippines Los Baños Foundation, Inc., as a fallback population for tamaraws in the wild. In 1982, they had 21 individuals.
“Gene Boy”, the first tamaraw born in captivity, died in 1991. Most of the tamaraws died from diseases. By 1997 only nine tamaraws remained. And in 2015 only one animal born in captivity was alive and alone in a half-hectare enclosure.
Kali, born on June 24, 1999, was the last tamaraw on the gene pool farm. His full name, Kalikasang Bagong Sibol, means “Nature’s new sprout”. Kali outlived his mother and after she died, he became closer to the people who cared for him in his 2,000-square meter enclosure.
Ranger Arnold “Dodong” Roca watched over Kali for 10 years. Kali allowed those he trusted to touch him. Roca knew how Kali liked his bed to be, and at night he covered Kali with banana leaves, which Kali loved. When tourists visited Roca would coax the shy Kali so they could see him up close.
Team Leader Ronnie Estrella also became attached to Kali when he was transferred to her care during COVID. Kali taught Estrella about the ways of the tamaraw and this elusive, wild breed became more tangible, real, and accessible.
Kali died on a Saturday at age 21. Estrella was summoned and he immediately went to Kali’s enclosure. Kali laid in the furthest corner with some partly eaten bananas. It was as if Kali waited for him before dying at 2:30 pm on October 10, 2020. Neil Anthony del Mundo, TCP’s Project Coordinator, and Assistant Protected Area Superintendent of MIBNP said of Kali, “He was not a pet but somehow a brother to us.”
And Kali left one thing behind for all tamaraws, his reproductive system which was taken and preserved for in-vitro fertilization for any future breeding programs.
The National Tamaraw Conservation Action Plan, established in 2018, will last until 2050. Hopefully, tamaraw numbers will increase in three existing Tamaraw sanctuaries, and the plan is to add two more sanctuaries.
Ultimately, they foresee tamaraws thriving alongside Mindoro’s IPs. Many organizations support this plan including from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR):
The Biodiversity Management Bureau
Tamaraw Conservation Program
Regional Office-MIMAROPA, PENR/CENR Offices
Protected Area Management Offices
They collaborate with:
IUCN Species Survival Commission Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group, Global Wildlife Conservation
IUCN Species Survival Commission Conservation Planning Specialist Group
D’ABOVILLE Foundation (DAF),
Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, Inc.
Center for Conservation Innovation.
They aim for zero poachings, prevention of disease spread, management of invasive plants in tamaraw territory, enlisting Mindoro’s IPs to mesh their culture with tamaraw recovery, and cooperation from local and global conservationists, policymakers, and IPs.
Fun facts about the tamaraw
A tamaraw’s age is determined by the length and thickness of its horns.
Tamaraws love resting while hidden in the middle of tall grasses.
Tamaraws consider dense forests as home.
Tamaraws like to take mud baths.
Thus far, no predator of tamaraws has been identified, except for humans.
Tamaraws eat grass and bamboo. Their role is critical in sustaining the balance of forest and grassland ecosystems. They adapt well to environmental changes. When humans intruded, they became nocturnal. At MIBNP, they’ve resumed a diurnal lifestyle, perhaps because it’s a protected sanctuary.
Mona Gonzalez is a writer, educator, and coach. Writes about home safety, environmentalism, personal, and social development for Enrich Magazine and has published children’s stories in Enrich. Contributor, Philippine Graphic Magazine. A life coach with a focus on social intelligence. Also conducts writing and personal growth webinars and seminars. Currently working on a book on ecology.
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