There may be 1,000 Tamaraws in the wild

By TJ Burgonio
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 06:26:00 10/04/2008

MANILA, Philippines – After being decimated to near extinction, tamaraw have maintained a stable population of over 200 in the wilds of Occidental Mindoro since 2001, but there could be more than 1,000 of them out there.

This year, 269 head have been counted on the island of Mindoro, up by 30 heads the previous year, environment and provincial officials said Friday.

"To have 30 more tamaraw, that's an accomplishment,” Dr. Lydia Echauz, Far Eastern University president, said in a forum, lauding environment and Mindoro officials for their conservation program.

The tamaraw is the icon of the university; its basketball players are known as the Tamaraws.

From a high of 10,000 in the 1900s, the population of the tamaraw was been drastically reduced to 200 head in the late 1970s due to the destruction of their habitat by logging and cattle-ranching, as well as hunting.

The tamaraw, a cross between a carabao and a deer, is one of the world's 204 endemic mammal species. It can only be found on Mindoro island.

Environment officers have counted 269 head this year in their habitat in Mt. Iglit-Baco Natural Park on the island, according to Antonio Manila of the Protected Area and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB).

From 185 head in 2001, the population jumped to 253 in 2002 and further increased to 261 in 2003, but dipped to 232 in 2004 before sharply rising to 269 in 2005. The number dipped to 263 in 2006 and 239 in 2007.

The stable population could be attributed to the government's conservation program started in 1979 and the populace's growing awareness of the need to conserve the animal.

The annual count, however, has been limited to the tamaraw's habitat in Mt. Iglit-Baco, where many of them are found, according to Manila.

They can also be found in Mounts Calavite, Halcon-Eagle Pass, Aruyari-Sablayan-Mapad and Bansud-Victoria-Bongabong-Mansalay, he said.

Symbol of conservation

"Today, the tamaraw are the living symbols of the urgency of the need to conserve what is left of our rich biodiversity," Environment Undersecretary Manuel Gerochi said in his speech at the forum on tamaraw conservation.

But he added: "Based on our systematic counting, more than 1,000 are in the wild. This may allow us to recoup its former population."

To do this, their habitat should be rehabilitated. Otherwise, it would be impossible to bring back the original 10,000 population, he said.

Gerochi said the public should bear in mind that tamaraw contribute to the equilibrium of the ecosystem. People have a moral responsibility to protect them for future generations, he added.

"In the mainstream conservation paradigm, it is said that we could benefit much in appreciation rather than the exploitation of our natural resources through ecotourism," he said.

Tourist attraction

The tamaraw could be made a prime tourism attraction – an activity that could generate money – which could be used to finance its conservation, he added.

At present, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is taking care of two tamaraw (a mother and offspring) in a gene pool farm in Rizal, Occidental Mindoro under the government's conservation program.

Occidental Mindoro Gov. Josephine Ramirez-Sato pushed for the establishment of a research center to further study how the tamaraw population could be increased in their habitat.

"We believe the tamaraw should be studied in their natural habitat," she said.


 The Mindoro tamaraw is vanishing

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By Roberto C. Navarro

It is one of the world's most endangered land mammals, found only in the Southern Luzon island of Mindoro. Habitat loss, hunting and disease have reduced its population to near-extinction levels--from about 10,000 in 1900 to the present estimate of 260-300 heads.

Now widely dispered in the grasslands of F.B. Harrison, Mt. Calavite, Mt. Aruyan-Sablayan, Eagle Pass and Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park, the fragmented populations of the tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis) are left with not much opportunity for natural exchange or breeding.

Captive breeding in a 280-hectare gene pool farm in Aguas, Rizal, Mindoro Occidental had led to four births recorded in 1990, 1992, 1996 and 1997. But all four calves died. The first calf succumbed to undetected parasite infestation after surviving for only one year. Stillbirth and twin birth were listed as the causes of death of the succeeding captive-bred calves.

Two female and three male tamaraws are currently confined in the gene pool. Armed with more information on the reproductive behavior of the endangered species, the staff of the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP), which is now under the direct supervision of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Southern Tagalog (DENR-Region 4), is focusing its efforts on simulating actual habitat conditions in the gene pool.

TCP, which has solicited the technical assistance of scientific groups, such as the International Union for the Conservation of Species (IUCS), is bent on saving the tamaraw from extinction.

Various measures to ensure the continuous survival of the tamaraw were identified by TCP and IUCS experts and scientists in a Per-Population Habitat Viability Analysis (PHVA) Workshop conducted in May 1996. These were: captive breeding, wild population management, massive behavioral studies of tamaraws in the wilds, and community involvement in implementing the tamaraw information, education and conservation campaign.

"But the main emphasis of the program, which was turned over by the Protested Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) to DENR-Region 4 early this year, is habitat protection, rehabilitation and management," Norma M. Molinyawe, supervising ecosystems management specialist of PAWB, said.

Based on a work plan provided by PAWB, protection activities are now in place in all known tamaraw grazing ranges, with special focus on Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park and Mt. Aruyan in Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro, where 260 heads were sighted and counted as of April 1998.

"Sightings are difficult to ascertain," Molinyawe noted. "We rely on reports made by the field staff of the project consisting of forest guards."

Six Bantay Tamaraw teams have been created by the project to monitor illegal activities which have caused the rapid decline of the species: hunting for food and tropy, shifting agriculture, logging, and cattle ranching, notably in the vicinities of Mts. Iglit-Baco and Mt. Aruyan.

Consisting of five to 12 members each, the teams roam the grasslands of the two mountain ranges which straddle the boundary of Occidental and Oriental Mindoro.

The fierceness of the solitary animal and the vastness of its grazing territory make counting and monitoring very difficult.

Often mistaken as a pygmy carabao (it grows to about 1,000 mm high at the shoulders and weighs 300 kg), the animal has a very keen sense of smell and can detect an intruder even a mile (1.6 kilometers) away. The bulls and the cows are together only during the breeding months from April to July.

Based on the latest status report of the TCP, habitat restoration and rehabilitation, involving 5.27 hectares in Kawadlay Hill, Magtangcob and Poypoy, and another five hectares within the gene pool farm, have been planted with narra, pajo, amugis and other suitable tree species.

School- and community-based nurseries were also grown in Barangays Ligaya, Burgos and Poypoy near the Mts. Iglit-Baco sanctuary to serve as alternative sources of livelihood for residents of communities which lie close to the sanctuaries.

"Support of the public is key to the success of the conservation program," Molinyawe said. "If communities around the sanctuaries are not conscious of issues such as illegal hunting, the program will not succeed."

Occupants of conservation areas, mostly Mangyans, are thus tapped as active partners in conserving tamaraws and other wildlife as well. For instance, a barangay tamaraw conservation councill (BTCC) was created in Barangay Malpalon to assist in protecting the Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park.

The TCP has initiated other alternative livelihood projects such as hog-raising, buri production and weaving with selected members of the BTCC as initial beneficiaries.

"All these have been put in place despite TCP's limited logistics and funding support," Molinyawe said. -- Environment News Network