Tamaraw multiply in the wild
The tamaraw, along with the Philippine eagle, is considered the country’s flagship species. Every October, the Philippines celebrates Tamaraw Month as part of a national policy to save the rare buffalo, which looks like a small, stocky carabao, except that it has a darker coat and shorter horns that form a “V” on the buffalo’s head.
Kalibasib, the only tamaraw ever bred in captivity, is 13 years old and alone.
He is strong and healthy but he has been “lonely” since his mother’s death last year. He idles away his days in a grassy enclosure in Rizal town, Occidental Mindoro.
Isolated from his kind, Kalibasib (short for kalikasang bagong sibol, Filipino for nature’s new growth) will never get the chance to build a harem, the basic unit of tamaraw society. He will live out the rest of his life in his pen as the solitary remnant of the government’s abandoned gene pool project for his species.
Kalibasib’s story may sound sad, but a happier story awaits his cousins now freely roaming the savannas of the mountainous Occidental Mindoro. For while the captive breeding project has failed, a parallel program to protect wild tamaraw is making gains, officials said.
Numbers of the critically endangered Bubalus mindorensis , a small buffalo species found only on Mindoro island, have been rising little by little since 2000, according to Rodel Boyles, project manager of the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP), and the superintendent of the Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park.
From a low of 75 in the 1960s, the official count of tamaraw spotted in the 75,000-hectare park now stands at 327, Boyles said. He believes the actual population may easily be double or triple that since the tamaraw survey covers only about 20 percent, or 16,000 hectares, of the entire reserve.
On top of this, small extant populations have been observed in other parts of the province and neighboring Oriental Mindoro, especially the slopes of Aruyan, Bongabong, and Mts. Calavite and Halcon.
In 2000, only 154 buffaloes were sighted. That number has risen steadily over the past decade, thanks to a more aggressive conservation strategy involving increased watch for hunters, information drives and the cultivation of cultural pride in the tamaraw among the people of Mindoro.
“If I had to make a guess, I’d say there could already be 800 to 900 tamaraw in the wild as of now,” Boyles said in an interview with the Inquirer.
An indication of the recovery of the tamaraw is the frequent sighting of calves. “This shows that they’re breeding and multiplying in the wild,” Boyles said.
“The adult tamaraw stands 4-feet tall (1.2 meters) and average 300 kilograms—about half as much as a typical carabao,” according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Philippines.
The tamaraw used to number 10,000, but the introduction of cattle and the outbreak of rinderpest disease in the 1930s drastically reduced the buffalo’s numbers. Other major problems were poaching, logging and land clearing.
WWF has formed a partnership with Far Eastern University (FEU), whose school mascot is the tamaraw, for an ambitious goal—to double wild tamaraw numbers from 300 to 600 by 2020.
The campaign “synthesizes satellite-tagging, DNA analysis and other [scientific] research initiatives with improved park management practices,” WWF said in a news release.
If the population of wild tamaraw tops 500, it may be taken off the critically endangered list, the highest risk category on the International Union of Conservation for Nature’s Red List of threatened species.
“But it may no longer be possible to get it off the threatened list entirely,” said Mundita Lim, director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
The reason is that the natural range of the tamaraw has been severely depleted by human settlement.
“What we need to do is to determine a viable population for the tamaraw that is sufficient to ensure there is enough genetic material to prevent inbreeding,” Lim said. “Perhaps 800 is already a good number.”
Strategies should also be developed to avoid “human-animal” conflicts in the conservation effort for the tamaraw, a territorial beast known to charge people when cornered or threatened, Lim said.
Tamaraw can be quite fierce, “chasing their foes for up to a kilometer,” WWF communications head Gregg Yan said.
“Hunters have long claimed to have emptied entire assault rifle clips into charging bulls, to no avail,” he said.
Boyles observed that the tamaraw, often thought to be solitary, are actually socially grouped into small harems consisting of a dominant bull and one or two cows and their calf.
The harems don’t mix but they may have adapted to a shrinking territory. In one area in the park, up to 14 harems have been monitored. “Before, it’s very rare to see tamaraw, but now, sighting is almost guaranteed,” Boyles said.
Old bulls are usually driven out of their harems by younger and stronger bulls, while young bulls reaching breeding age (4 years old) are chased out of the family. In some cases, violent goring occurs. Boyles estimates that three to four bulls die each year in these confrontations.
But more studies need to be done to fully understand tamaraw relationships. It is possible, he said, that instead of harems, where the females are “appropriated” from other harems, the grouping could be by “family” instead, meaning inbreeding.
PAWB’s Lim said the effort to save the tamaraw was now focused “in situ,” or on site, following the dismal results of the TCP’s “ex situ” gene pool project.
In the 1990s, some 20 unrelated tamaraw were captured in the wild in the hope they would breed. But the experiment produced only one offspring, Kalibasib, who was born in June 1999. The others were stillborn or died young.
Lim said the government had abandoned indefinitely the captive breeding program, focusing its time and resources on the management of wild tamaraw population and habitat.
“Probably, in the future, we can apply what we learned from our mistakes in captive breeding. But this is not in our immediate plans,” she said.
Kalibasib now lives in a 1-hectare pen on the gene pool farm in Manoot village. It is no longer possible to release him to the wild, TCP’s Boyles said.
“He will just be driven out by dominant bulls. He will be ostracized,” he said.
Kalibasib has grown dependent on humans, fed daily by park workers and accustomed to visitors. He will not be able to survive on his own.
Tamaraw are believed to have a life span of up to 25 years.
Describing a visit to Kalibasib’s pen last year, blogger Allan Lazaro said the bull “looked pretty sad to me not only because [he]’s alone now in the gene pool farm but also because [he] wasn’t able to live a normal life in the wild.”
“All [he] did was eat grass, cool [himself] in the mud pool, walk around in the holding pen and sleep,” Lazaro wrote on his blog.
Boyles observed that Kalibasib had seemed lonely and listless since his mother, Mimi, died in August last year.
Lim said there were proposals to turn the farm into a wildlife research center. “It won’t exactly be a zoo, but maybe a sanctuary,” she said. Kalibasib will be the star attraction if the plan pushes through.
Tamaraw hunting still occurs, including by indigenous Mangyan villagers, whose traditional practices are protected by law.
But Gwendolyn Bambalan, technical director of the Protected Areas, Wildlife and Coastal Management Service in Mimaropa (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan), said illegal hunters of the tamaraw were not generally trophy hunters, although those remained a threat.
“The poachers are usually from the lowlands who kill for meat,” she said.
Boyles said poaching was no longer as widespread as before because of stronger laws and stiffer penalties. Earlier this year, a man caught hunting tamaraw was arrested and successfully prosecuted.
Under the Wildlife Act of 2001, anyone who kills a tamaraw and other critically endangered species faces imprisonment of six to 12 years or a fine of P100,000 to P1 million or both unless the killing is part of a ritual by an indigenous group, among other exceptions.
Besides the law, the communities themselves have begun to embrace the tamaraw, Boyles said.
“If they find a dead tamaraw, the villagers will actually bury it instead of eating the flesh. It’s because they now respect the animal.”
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