World’s rarest buffalo, the Mindoro dwarf buffalo, reaches highest level for many years in the Philippines30/09/2012 14:47:54 Hope has Horns in Mindoro - Words and Photos by Gregg Yan
I am a bush. Heavily-camouflaged by a sniper's Ghillie Suit and betrayed only by the scarlet glint of my field binoculars, I cautiously observe our quarry, a herd of tamaraw, emerging from a billowing field of cogon, not 50 metres away.
"We're within charging distance," warns our eagle-eyed tracker, Edgardo Flores. While hot, heavy and earthen-smelling, my leafy Ghillie Suit fools no one, as the buffalo herd stares right at us. Should they attack, Plan A was to scramble up the nearest tree. Plan B was well ... we hoped Plan A would do.
Guided by spotters atop nearby Magawang Mountain, we took 30 minutes to approach this herd. Sloth-like, I exchange the binoculars for a telephoto, framing three buffalo forming a skirmish line, preparing to charge. As I click they bolt off, bounding back to the brush with more grace than any carabao can dream of.
I glance back at a smirking Ed. "Next group is behind that ridge. Maybe we'll get lucky."
Less than 350 alive?
I slink off my perch and silently follow Ed into the bush, thankful that neither Plan was put to use. Yet.
Locking Horns with Extinction
Except for calving cows, adult tamaraw are mostly solitary. Cornered or threatened, they can be aggressive, chasing their foes for up to a kilometre. Hunters have long claimed to have emptied entire assault rifle clips into charging bulls, to no avail.
Sadly, this last population has taken severe blows - ranging from a crippling outbreak of cattle-killing Rinderpest in the 1930s to incessant land clearing and poaching. It is thought that only a few hundred hold out atop the grassy slopes and forest patches of Mts. Iglit, Baco, Aruyan, Bongabong, Calavite and Halcon in Mindoro.
Today the tamaraw is classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered - the highest risk rating for any animal species. Four national laws protect it from poaching - Commonwealth Act 73 plus Republic Acts 1086, 7586 and 9147.
Under RA 9147 or the Wildlife Act, violators can incur from six to 12 years of imprisonment plus a fine ranging from PHP100,000 (USD2440) to PHP1M (USD24,390).
Rare mammals and indigenous tribes
"Logging plus kaingin or slash-and-burn farming is also a major concern," adds Ed, explaining that many groups including the Tawbuid cut down the groves so essential for wildlife to thrive. Researching in Manila before the expedition, the future of the tamaraw seemed bleak - until I met TCP head and Mts. Iglit-Baco Protected Area Superintendent Rodel Boyles in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro.
Tamaraw to Tribesfolk
Since 1979, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has been working tirelessly through the TCP to manage and protect tamaraw core habitats, while engaging local communities to partake in conservation efforts. "We make it a point to hire Tawbuid tribesfolk not just as trackers or porters but as actual staff. Their bushcraft and knowledge of terrain make them particularly effective rangers," he adds.
The superintendent explains that their objective is to augment tamaraw numbers while improving the lives of the indigenous Tawbuid. "Our dream is to turn the park into the Mts. Iglit-Baco Biotic Area - a zone where the influence of modern society cannot replace the traditional practices of indigenous groups. We work not just to conserve the tamaraw - but the Tawbuid's way of life."
Target to double population
Dubbed ‘Tams 2' (Tamaraw Times Two by 2020), the campaign combines satellite-tagging, DNA analysis and other science-based research initiatives with improved park management practices. These upland efforts will in turn be tied in with WWF's ongoing work to conserve the rich coasts of Occidental Mindoro in a holistic ‘Ridge-to-Reef' conservation plan.With its gold and green tamaraw icon, FEU has since 2005 provided support for a tamaraw management and research-oriented program by participating in annual tamaraw counts each April. FEU has additionally extended health and livelihood services for communities residing in and around the Mts. Iglit-Baco range as part of its ‘Save the Tamaraws' project.
Highest count since surveys began
It's too early to determine if these different tamaraw populations are true subspecies, but knowing they still thrive is a sign that for the tamaraw, hope pulsates.
"This new initiative raises the stakes for all groups," says WWF-Philippines Vice-Chair and CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan. "Our engagement will revitalize logged-over mountain habitats, with the tamaraw as its conservation icon. Healthy peaks and forests translate to a better-managed source of water so essential for the vast rice-lands of this island's western floodplains, while healthy reefs generate vast amounts of protein. Together with FEU, TCP and the DENR, our goal is to bring conservation results to the groups that need them the most."Hope Has Horns
Back on the grassy slopes of Magawang Mountain, Ed and I examine fresh tamaraw hoof-prints. I know the tracks are no more than a few minutes old, as they are still filling up with water. I glance at the summit to see if our spotters saw where the animals went - but they are waving frantically.
Ed suddenly stiffens. "Tamaraw coming this way!"
A hundred metres off, obscured by a knoll, are two charging tamaraw. With a distinctly comic delay, Ed and I lock gazes, shrug - and run like hell for the nearest stand of trees. Plan A was what again?!
As we round the base of a young tibig tree, we look back to find that the chargers had broken off. Amazed that we might just have set a new Olympic sprint record, we start laughing. Shouldering our gear, we trek back to base-camp. Our time here is done.
Now, when I think of tamaraw, I still see those two charging. Not at us (well alright, at us too), but out of obscurity. Out of extinction. Out to take the field, snorting, proud and full of life.