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Saving Mindoro’s last tamaraws amid tragedy and pandemic

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As COVID-19 impacts wildlife conservation in the Philippines, initiatives and interventions to save a critically endangered tamaraw take center stage. Camera Trap Photo retrieved with Tamaraw Conservation.

San Jose, Mindoro (CNN Philippines Life) — The gunshot boomed through the quiet mountain morning, startling both beast and man. At the Magawang ranger station in Mts. Iglit-Baco Natural Park, Geronimo “Cocoy” Barcena watched a harem of tamaraws hurtle out of their grazing spot. Scared stiff moments ago, he and his team quickly shifted to high alert: wildlife poachers had entered the protected zone.

For the last twelve years, Barcena has been a ranger for the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP). He works to protect a species of dwarf buffalo found nowhere else but on Mindoro island in the Philippines. His ward is the tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis), one of the 11 remaining species of wild cattle and the closest to extinction. Once widespread on the island, it now only numbers to about 500, with the bulk of their population residing in 1600-hectares of mountain ranges, grasslands, waterways, and lowland forests within the Mts. Iglit-Baco Natural Park (MIBNP).

Spanning Rizal, Calintaan, and Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro, and Mansalay, Bongabong, Gloria, Pinamalayan, and Bansud in Oriental, the MIBNP is a protected area by law and an ASEAN Heritage Site, 2,500 hectares of which is designated as a “strict protection zone,” placed under regular patrol by the tamaraw rangers.

Normally patrolling the site for six days straight, and a total of 22 days a month, tamaraw ranger teams had been restricted by the coronavirus-induced community quarantine since March and had to stay in place for longer in the field. Barcena and his team had been on duty for almost a month straight when the dreadful sound rattled the air one morning in late August.

“We spotted two men in the general direction of the gunfire,” he recalls. “We reported the incident and monitored the area for 24 hours. Then, at around 9 a.m. the next day, we saw eight people up the ridge.”

Barcena called the office for backup, and the TCP responded with additional manpower. The Protected Areas Management Bureau (PAMB) of MIBNP also sent forest rangers to the area. On August 28, the task force trudged their way to the suspected hunters camp on a spot called Anyayos.

Geronimo Barcena, the captain of the Tamaraw Rangers patrols and overlooks the critical protection zone in the tamaraw Plaza where the greater population of the tamaraws live. Photo by GAB MEJIA

A lone tamaraw bull galloping across the wild grass fields of Mts. Iglit-Baco in the strict protection zone in the Tamaraw Plaza. Photo by GAB MEJIA

A harem of tamaraws emerges from the deep woodlands of Mts. Iglit-Baco. The herd steps out of the shadows to wallow in the mud, and bathe under the sun. Camera Trap Photo retrieved with Tamaraw Conservation.

“We were able to corner them,” says Barcena. “But the problem was, when they stood up, they were carrying shotguns.”

The rangers are not deputized to carry firearms. Situations such as this are faced with nothing but moxie and some well-delivered bluff — words were the rangers’ only ammunition. Fortunately, the response group outnumbered the poachers 12 to two. They were able to intimidate the latter into dropping their makeshift rifles called pugakang, convincing them to surrender. Yet relief was far from what the rangers felt when they entered the hunters’ base.

Strewn across boulders were pieces of tamaraw meat, left to dry out in the sun to become jerky. The rest of the adult male tamaraw’s body was discarded along the nearby stream – bones, organs, hide. The skull – prized as a trophy and said to go for as high as four million pesos (approximately $82,600) – was never recovered.

“We protected this animal for years and then they [hunters] come here to take and kill them like that. It was really painful to see,” says Barcena.

The hunters were discovered to be indigenous people (IP), belonging to the Tau Buwid and Buhid – two of the eight Mangyan tribes who are the original residents of Mindoro and who traditionally hunted the tamaraw for food. They identified a third person who left ahead of them, managing to evade capture.

Initially, the poachers said they’d been working on their fields when someone ordered them to get tamaraw meat. They wouldn’t say who. Later on, they recanted and said they wanted the meat for their own, intending to sell some to the lowlanders. With a said going-price of ₱300 pesos ($6) per kilo, tamaraw meat is often passed off as other bushmeat like deer or wild pig to avoid arrest.

Tamaraw Ranger Captain Barcena (in blue shirt) and Field Operation Officer Bato patrols Mts. Iglit-Baco Natural Park in search of any suspicious markings and activities inside the park since the rise of poaching incidents. Photo by GAB MEJIA

The homemade shotguns that was used by the poachers who killed an adult male tamaraw last August 28, 2020. These homemade shotguns have power enough to kill the tamaraw with one to two shots. Photo by GAB MEJIA

The preserved skull of the tamaraw named Mimi, who is Kali's mother. Photo by GAB MEJIA

Statements taken and evidence collected, the rangers herded the two men down the mountains. They were to be brought to the police station in the town of Calintaan. Upon descending an area called Palagdan however, the hunters took advantage of the tricky terrain and straggled away from the group. Outmatched by the hunters’ knowledge of the landscape, the rangers were unable to catch up to them and lost them in the bush.

In spite of this, and despite contentions from the tribal leaders, the TCP and the PAMB decided to file violations of Republic Act No. 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, and Section 20 A & B of the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas Systems Act, which criminalizes hunting and poaching in protected areas.

“We're hoping that the IPs would tell [us] who they are getting their firearms and their ammunition from,” says Neil Anthony del Mundo, TCP’s Project Coordinator and Assistant Protected Area Superintendent of MIBNP. “IPs shouldn’t have those. If they hunt, they do it with their traditional traps, their traditional techniques.”

The case is ongoing.

Pandemic Pressures

Before the coronavirus outbreak, MIBNP enjoyed a steady stream of visitors. Hikers and conservationists frequent the trails in hopes of seeing a tamaraw in the wild or to simply bask in the otherworldly landscape of the park. Tourism not only supplemented the salary of the rangers but also provided livelihood to the IPs who serve as mountain guides and porters. The presence of tourists also deterred suspicious, and possibly illegal, activities.

Ever since lockdown began in March, rangers reported an increase in trespassing, noting that poachers and hunters became more and more aggressive. Limited income sources also exacerbated the situation.

Even the rangers themselves weren’t spared.

To boost the national government’s COVID-19 response, public agencies had to endure a 10% slash from their annual budget. For the TCP, this amounted to ₱230,000 pesos ($4,700) – a month’s worth of compensation for 31 tamaraw rangers and 10 wardens. The TCP would’ve had to lay off eight people so the rest wouldn’t have to go a month without salary if it weren’t for interventions from partners. Three of the rangers were taken in by the PAMB of MIBNP, while the rest of the personnel as well as some of the IP guides and porters will be sustained by the United Nations Development Programme-Biodiversity Finance Initiative’s crowdfunding campaign called Together for Tamaraws. The campaign raised a total of ₱1.1 million ($22,700), enough to cover their salary for half a year.

To cope, TCP had to shuffle its manpower.

The Tamaraw Rangers who have dedicated their lives in protecting and conserving the most endangered bovid species in the world. Due to the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, 10% of the total budget of the Tamaraw Conservation Program has been slashed where four Tamaraw Rangers, and four Tamaraw Wardens are to be laid off. Photos by GAB MEJIA

A heartbreaking reunion

One of the rangers who had to be reassigned is Team Leader Ronnie Estrella.

Estrella used to hold fort at the second station of MIBNP, but in May, quarantine regulations prohibited him from leaving the town of San Jose where he resides. In the meantime, he was transferred to the Gene Pool Farm, which sits right outside the San Jose-Rizal borders.

Established in 1980, the 280-hectare Gene Pool Farm was the site of a tamaraw captive-breeding project spearheaded by the University of the Philippines Los Baños Foundation, Inc. The project was meant to serve as a fallback population in the event of a catastrophe in the wild.

Throughout 1982 to 1989, capture of tamaraw for the stock population was conducted in the Aruyan-Malati range in Sablayan. Rangers dug deep pits into the ground, covered them with grass, and herded the fallen individual tamaraws through trenches, into a holding crate, where they were injected with tranquilizer before being flown all the way back to the Gene Pool.

Throughout the seven-year period, a total of 17 individuals were captured in this way.

Births, deaths and stillbirths occurred. In 1991, “Gene Boy” the first recorded birth of a tamaraw in captivity, died due to internal parasites.

One by one, the stock population perished due to several diseases.

The 280-hectare Tamaraw Gene pool where the past 1980-1999 Captive Breeding took place, and the location of future captive breeding program being pushed by the Tamaraw Conservation Program in the next 10 years. Photo by GAB MEJIA

Kali short for “Kalikasang Bagong Sibol” (Nature Newly Sprung) was the only successful and lone captive bred tamaraw to have been born and survived during the past tamaraw captive breeding programs. Photo by GAB MEJIA

Arnold "Dodong" Roca, 56, is a Tamaraw Ranger who served 10 years of his life in taking care of Kali. Photo by GAB MEJIA

The last to be born was Kali.

Kali’s full name is Kalikasang Bagong Sibol. Picked from a provincial-wide naming contest, it translates to nature newly sprung. He was born on June 24, 1999.

Five months into his duty at the Gene Pool, Estrella received news he’d hoped he would never have to hear.

Kali, the lone surviving captive-bred tamaraw, had died at 21 years old.

“When my colleague told me, I ran immediately to confirm,” says Estrella.

It was 2:30 p.m. on a Saturday when he found Kali in the far corner of his 2,000-square meter enclosure at the Gene Pool Farm, laying still on the ground, with pieces of half-eaten bananas by his gaping mouth. It was ten days into the National Tamaraw Month, and Kali was indeed gone.

“It took five years for me to be assigned here again,” notes Estrella. “I was there when Kali was born up until he was a young adult. It’s like... he just waited for me to return.”

The wave of grief and loss over Kali’s passing rippled throughout the country, but it was overwhelmingly present across the TCP.

For much of the 10 years that he has worked as a ranger, Arnold “Dodong” Roca had been tending to Kali’s needs as well as assisting visitors who would like to see him up close.

“We made up where he laid,” Roca begins, barely able to complete his sentences. “We covered him in banana leaves so other animals wouldn’t bother him.”

This tenderness and reverence for Kali are present in everyone who’s part of the TCP. For them, Kali was their flag bearer. He made the tamaraw tangible and real. Accessible.

“It’s like having a loved one die,” says del Mundo. “He was not a pet but somehow a brother to us.”

Kalibasib's unfortunate death on October 10, 2020, sparked new hope for the future of the tamaraws as his reproductive system was cut out and preserved for in-vitro fertilization for the future captive breeding program. Photo by GAB MEJIA

On top of the emotional blows, Kali’s death also placed the future of the conservation efforts on a precipice. Almost 70% of the TCP budget is allocated to Kali’s welfare. From this chunk, compensation for all the rangers is drawn. Now that Kali’s gone, del Mundo is at a loss, uncertain how to go about TCP’s affairs in the coming years.

“The rangers were crying when they called me about Kali,” shares provincial veterinarian Mikko Angelo Reyes. “Of course, they were sad because Kali had been with them for a long time. They were also worried they would be blamed for his death, that they could lose their jobs. I felt really sorry for them.”

Reyes had been deployed to the remote island of Lubang when Kali passed away. He had been the tamaraw’s “unofficial” attending doctor since he came to Mindoro in 2018. On weekdays, he works for the provincial government. He volunteers his weekends and holidays to the TCP.

“Among all my patients, Kali was the VIP,” he says.

As much as he wanted to return as soon as he heard the news, limited transportation options made going back a challenge. For nine days, Kali had to stay in a cold storage facility in San Jose until Reyes finally arrived to perform a necropsy.

Apparently, the beloved tamaraw “died happy” as all his four stomachs were filled with undigested food. Tamaraws are expected to live for up to 25 years and they can die from multiple factors like chronic pneumonia, toxic hepatitis, acute cardiac failure, congestive heart failure, and parasitic infestation. Reyes thinks Kali might have died from conditions brought about by old age, and liver cirrhosis.

“For us to know what really happened,” explains Reyes. “We need to subject samples of Kali’s heart, lungs, liver, and kidney to histopathology.”

Reyes did not have the luxury of conducting the necropsy the usual way because from the get-go, Kali was meant to undergo taxidermy.

To help with this, the Philippines’ National Museum of Natural History was contacted, but the slow response prompted the provincial government to eventually seek out a private taxidermist. After the necropsy, Kali had to stay in cold storage for another five days, incurring a total of ₱196,000 ($4,000) for 14 days storage fee.

Kali’s preservation finally began on October 24. His skin, legs, hooves, and skull were placed inside a Styrofoam box along with heaps of salt and ice. The box was sealed shut with brown packaging tape and loaded on a passenger ship bound for Manila that same day. The taxidermy process, which costs ₱300,000 ($6,200), will take eight to 10 months to complete.

That afternoon, tamaraw rangers gathered in a corner of the TCP’s beachside office. They took turns with a shovel, as if this was their way of paying their respects. Swathed in an orange tarpaulin, what remained of Kali’s flesh was lowered unto this resting place. A handful of plumeria and hibiscus blossoms were tossed in before the sands were scooped back into the hole.

“Kali was born at around 3 p.m.,” remarks ranger and field operation officer Eduardo Bata who has been with the TCP for 36 years. “He was also buried at 3 p.m.”

But Kali wasn’t completely gone just yet.

The preserved frozen reproductive system (testicles) of the last captive bred tamaraw, Kali. Photo by GAB MEJIA

An adult male tamaraw is caught with an infared camera trap in Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park in the strict protection zone in the Tamaraw Plaza.

Habitat loss remains one of the most pressing concerns for Tamaraw conservation. Photo by GAB MEJIA

What remains is hope

A tamaraw museum will soon be put up, with the taxidermy of Kali as the main piece. The Gene Pool Farm still houses rescue animals, including a Philippine forest turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis) and a Philippine crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis), and will continue to serve as the Mindoro Biodiversity Rescue and Conservation Center.

Kali’s remains, meanwhile, are important study materials. His body parts could help Reyes and the TCP, as well as other scientists, to better understand the tamaraw’s anatomy and biology. The size, structure, placement, and condition of his internal organs as well as his skeleton would become foundational benchmarks, as well as provide clues for disease-mapping (Kali’s stomach contents could give insights to the tamaraw gut flora, which is often susceptible to parasites, like the rinderpest outbreak that wiped out a lot of tamaraws in the 1930s) . But perhaps most interestingly, Kali’s death could likely jumpstart the next tamaraw captive-breeding project.

One of the interventions proposed in the Tamaraw Conservation Management Action Plan (TCMAP) — an ambitious 10-year roadmap to increase the tamaraw’s population — is another round of captive-breeding. The TCMAP involved the inputs of more than 70 individuals and forest and wildlife conservation organizations, as well as IP community leaders.

“Before we do captive breeding again, we will be subjecting the proposal into an intensive and in-depth feasibility study. We have to know if it's still socially accepted, if it's culturally accepted by the IPs, if it's financially viable, if it's biologically possible,” says del Mundo.

Said feasibility study was supposed to commence last March 2020 – and will resume when it’s permissible, adds del Mundo.

Kali’s sperm, via in vitro fertilization, could be used to augment the breeding stock and help increase genetic diversity.

Currently, there are three other areas where confirmed tamaraw sightings have been recorded: Aruyan-Malati Range, Amnay Uplands, and Mt. Calavite. Plans to introduce individuals from MIBNP into the subpopulations here are being considered. Alternatively, should the captive-breeding project take root, the resulting tamaraws could be the ones translocated to these areas.

Years of experience from taking care of Kali could also provide insights on how to prioritize tamaraw welfare and better manage their behavior. Ranger accounts and practices would be indispensable not just in captive-breeding but in translocation of populations — something that the provincial government of Occidental Mindoro is moving towards by finalizing a bill that would institutionalize the TCP, elevating it from being a DENR project to its own veritable agency with a stable budget, permanent staff, and even its own research center and a laboratory.

One thing that Reyes emphasizes: reproduction is not a problem for the tamaraws.

“Like most cattle species, they are prolific and have no trouble breeding,” he says.

For this veterinarian, the greatest threat to these creatures’ survival is habitat loss. Encroachment and conversion to farm lands and ranches remain a huge threat to conservation.

The TCMAP provides a possible solution to this. By involving the IPs in the decision-making, the action plan became holistic in its approach. The first step is to aid the Tau Buwid tribe in securing ancestral domain rights to Mts. Iglit-Baco. This would give the IPs a legal provision, allowing them to live, use resources, maintain their traditional lifestyle, and make it nigh impossible to convert their land for large-scale commercial and industrial use. Once they receive this recognition, a management plan aligned to MIBNP’s — which include tamaraw conservation — will be developed. This could then help ease the establishment of green corridors. "We must protect the current habitat then establish green corridors," says Reyes. "This will help connect fragmented populations and give tamaraws a larger territory to roam and graze."

***

This work was supported by the National Geographic Society. To help the Tamaraw Conservation Program, inquire through [email protected] or their Facebook page.