On a Filipino island about half the size of New Jersey, there lives a species of shaggy, black dwarf buffalo that’s slightly taller than a yardstick. The animal is known as the tamaraw, and while it looks a bit like a water buffalo, you can easily distinguish this species by its backward-facing set of horns that resemble an open-mouthed Pac-Man.
Oh, and the tamaraw will also be the species charging at you from the underbrush if you get too close. The animals have a reputation for, let’s say, standoffishness.
A little more than a century ago, the island of Mindoro was home to around 10,000 of these secretive, solitary buffalo. But then decades of human population growth and subsequent deforestation destroyed most of the habitat in which the tamaraw evolved. With more people came more livestock, some of which passed along diseases that could leap from one species of bovid to another, including a particularly deadly rinderpest epidemic that spread from nonnative cattle to wild tamaraw populations in the 1930s.
These days, only around 500 tamaraws remain, warranting the species a “critically endangered” classification from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But a new effort aims to change the tamaraw’s fate — and for once, everybody seems to be on board.
You see, while many Westerners have never heard of the tamaraw, the people of the Philippines have long looked to the animal in much the same way Americans do the bald eagle.
“The tamaraw is the emblem of Mindoro” says Barney Long, senior director of species conservation at Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC). It has also been proposed as the national terrestrial mammal, he says.
In the past, Toyota Motors Philippines named a popular pickup truck after the tamaraw — the species is synonymous with things that are rugged — and sponsored a team in the Philippine Basketball Association, the Toyota Tamaraws. Far Eastern University in Manila also claims the tamaraw as its mascot, and its affiliated women’s and high school teams follow suit as the Lady Tamaraws and the Baby Tamaraws. Long says the animals’ popularity seems to stem in part from the idea that they are “small and feisty, with a kind of die-hard attitude.”
In short, the tamaraw is kind of a big deal in this part of the world.
So perhaps it’s not so surprising that when the island nation hosted a workshop in December to discuss a reinvigorated focus on the National Tamaraw Conservation Action Plan, 70 individuals from numerous stakeholder groups showed up eager to talk.
The attendees included representatives from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, regional government officials, scientists from the IUCN Species Survival Commission Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group, and several international and local conservation organizations, including GWC. Perhaps most important, the delegation also included representatives from three Indigenous communities: the Tau-Buid, Buhid, and Alangan.
Long says the feeling at the workshop was that the Indigenous communities are going to take the lead on tamaraw conservation. Exactly how this will play out has yet to be determined, but as the only people on Mindoro who live in proximity to the animals, the Tau-Buid, Buhid, and Alangan people are in a unique position to save them.
“They can’t conceptualize living in an area with no tamaraws,” says Long. “They’ve always had tamaraws in their lands. It’s just the way of the world. And now they’re starting to understand that way may be disappearing.”
What is also clear is that the best way to save tamaraws is to first protect the animals from hunters who seek their meat. Protecting the species’ habitat is equally important, as all conservation efforts will be for naught if the species has nowhere to live.
One key will be to prevent more logging. Removing an invasive plant known as the Christmas bush, or Chromolaena odorata, may also be necessary. The plant is part of the sunflower family and comes from North America, but in nonnative habitats where it has no predators, the species can crawl over other vegetation and spring to heights of more than three stories. Christmas bushes are taking over the grasslands many of the last tamaraws take refuge in, and unfortunately, tamaraws don’t seem to eat them.
The tamaraw action plan is looking to do more than maintain the existing population. Long says the bigger goal is to build up the largest of the three known tamaraw populations to the point that scientists can start resettling animals in two other areas where the species once thrived. This would mean getting the number of tamaraws living entirely within Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park up to at least 500, from the current 400.
Success is not as unlikely as one might assume. The last time this group of stakeholders met was in 1996. The entire tamaraw population stood at just 200 animals then. But after making conservation a priority in the Mounts Iglit-Baco park and adhering to the action plan, the park’s population more than doubled.
Alas, during the same period, tamaraw populations outside the park crashed. The message now seems clear: These animals will disappear without a concerted effort to rescue them.
Fortunately, Long says, there was a general attitude of excitement at the workshop. “You’re talking about the pride of a nation,” he says. “It was fantastic to see. You don’t always get that when you’re making conservation plans. Not just talking about abating threats to the species, but actually wanting to return the tamaraws to numerous sites where they haven’t been for many years and looking at a range-wide recovery. It’s quite exciting.”
“Conserving the tamaraw is important for future generations,” says Jackie Belmonte Jr., a field technical assistant for the D’Aboville Foundation, which is one of GWC’s local partners. Belmonte is of Indigenous descent, and his father was a Tamaraw Conservation Program field ranger. “I want to show my siblings the tamaraw. We protect it for the future,” he says. “The tamaraw is only found here, in Mindoro. If we lose it, it cannot be found anywhere else.”