Oct 5

Population numbers of the tamaraw, the world’s most threatened buffalo species, have reached their highest since annual surveys began in 2001, according to figures from WWF-Philippines.

Tamaraw image

The tamaraw is the largest mammal native to the Philippines

Small but mighty

The tamaraw, also known as the Mindoro pygmy buffalo, is a national icon in the Philippines, where depictions of this small, robust species feature heavily on everything from coins to cars, and provincial statues to university sports teams. Sadly, this wary and famously fierce bovid also has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the rarest mammals in existence, but according to recent population surveys, conservation efforts are proving to be successful in increasing tamaraw numbers.

Historical threats

Some 12,000 years ago, tamaraw herds ranged across much of mainland Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, yet by the early 1900s, migrants had killed off many populations of this stocky buffalo species, leaving just 10,000 individuals on the island of Mindoro. Since then, several other factors have contributed to the continued decline of the tamaraw, including a crippling outbreak of the cattle-killing Rinderpest virus in the 1930s. Poaching and habitat destruction have also proven to be major threats to this species, leaving just a few hundred individuals surviving on the grassy slopes and forest patches of Mindoro, and have contributed to the tamaraw’s listing as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Tamaraw image

Gregg Yan from WWF-Philippines took this wonderful shot

Continued crisis

Despite being legally protected from poaching by four national laws, including the Wildlife Act which can lead to imprisonment and substantial fines for violators, illegal hunting, mainly for trophies, continues to be a problem on Mindoro.

Even the island’s wildlife reserves are not spared by poachers, as Edgardo Flores, a ranger with the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP) who leads patrols in core zones within Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park, explains, “Still some poachers come here to hunt them, mainly for sport. Just this April we chanced upon a poaching laager. Our rangers recovered a tamaraw hide and assorted parts. Six hunters with tracker dogs snuck into the park at night, armed with M2 carbines, .22 hunting rifles and some homemade 12-gauge shotguns. Examples will be made – we’re now filing for their arrest.”

Close-up of tamaraw horns

The tamaraw has stout, powerful horns, measuring up to 51 centimetres

Teaming up for the tamaraw

WWF-Philippines has teamed up with the Far Eastern University (FEU) to further support TCP initiatives, and together they have formed Tamaraw Times Two by 2020, dubbed ‘Tams 2’. This project has set conservationists an ambitious goal: to double wild tamaraw numbers from 300 to 600 by 2020. To monitor success, annual population counts are conducted each April, with promising results so far.

Yes, I believe we can double the number of wild tamaraw before 2020,” affirms Rodel Boyles, TCP head and Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park Superintendent. “This April we counted 327 heads – the highest ever posted since we began our annual surveys in 2001. There were many calves and yearlings, a sure sign that the population is breeding. Finally, the count is conducted in a 16,000 hectare portion of a 75,000 hectare park. If we can find 327 heads in this small area, then there should be many more.”

Photographic mission

Armed with nothing but cameras, and shooting only pictures, a group from TCP and WWF-Philippines recently set out on the grassy slopes of the Iglit-Baco mountain range with one goal in mind: to photograph the world’s rarest buffalo species. The expedition was a success, despite several close encounters with the confrontational tamaraw.

Philippine brown deer image

Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park is home to several other threatened species, including the Vulnerable Philippine brown deer (Rusa marianna)

Home to many – tamaraw to tribesfolk

As well as the tamaraw, several other threatened species call Iglit-Baco National Park home, including the Mindoro warty pig (Sus oliveri), the large Mindoro forest mouse (Apomys gracilirostris), and the Philippine brown deer (Rusa marianna). These animals share the park with the reclusive, forest-dwelling Tawbuid or Batangan tribe, part of eight indigenous groups known as ‘Mangyan’.

Human activities, such as slash-and-burn farming, are a major concern in the area, with many groups, including the Tawbuid, cutting down essential forest groves. To mitigate these threats, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has been working tirelessly through the TCP to ensure that tamaraw core habitats are managed and protected, whilst engaging local communities in conservation efforts and simultaneously improving their lives.

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,” says Mr Boyles. “Community-based education is our drive. Some groups cannot read nor write, so it is our duty to let them know that certain animals are protected by law. Our dream is to turn the park into the Mounts 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.”

Read more on this story at WWF-Philippines – Return of the Tamaraw.

Learn more about the tamaraw on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author