A core area in Mts. Iglit-Baco Natural Park is not large enough for the Critically Endangered Tamaraw population to continue growing, but conservationists are working to find new areas that can support them
By Devin Murphy on January 18, 2023
Every April for nearly the past 22 years, rangers from the Protected Area Management Office of the Philippines' Mts. Iglit-Baco Natural Park and rangers from the Tamaraw Conservation Program--both under the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources-- hike to a grassy area high inside the more than 264,000-acre (106,655-hectare) massif. The four-to-six hour hike follows a well-used trail, but the rangers and their partners are looking for something that can rarely be found outside of a 7,400-acre (3,000-hectare) corner of the park: Tamaraw.
The wild cattle species, which is a dwarf buffalo, only lives on Mindoro Island. There are several small isolated populations of Tamaraw scattered across Mindoro, but the largest population–which possibly numbers no more than 400 animals–lives in a core area of Mts. Iglit-Baco. That population has grown due to efforts to protect the park and species living in it.
Despite the methodical and continuous population counts of the core Tamaraw area in Mts. Iglit-Baco, conservationists are still learning about Tamaraw and the health of the population.
“There are very few papers in the [scientific] literature on Tamaraw in general, and nothing on how populations of Tamaraw have grown, shrunk or plateaued over time,” says Christophe Bonenfant, a researcher at the University of Lyon and lead author of the paper describing the analysis.
The Tamaraw Conservation Program, along with D’ABOVILLE Foundation and Demo Farm Inc. (DAF), IUCN Species Survival Commission Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group, and Re:wild recently completed the first-ever analysis of the data collected during Tamaraw counts from 2000 to 2021, allowing them to see how population dynamics are trending for Tamaraw. They published their results in a paper titled: "Cast away on Mindoro island: lack of space limits population growth of the endangered tamaraw."
“Local authorities and rangers have been putting a lot of effort into conducting a population count every year, for 20 years, using the same method, which creates a time-series dataset of comparable results,” explains Emmanuel Schütz, program director for DAF. “That enabled us to extract important information on the population dynamic of the Tamaraw in this site, and especially to measure population growth rate, as well as how the population is spread out or clumped together in the site.”
The results both surprised and concerned the team. The Tamaraw population in the core Tamaraw area of Mts. Iglit-Baco has grown during the past 20 years, but it is experiencing something scientists call a “negative density-dependent feedback.” That means the core Tamaraw area is approaching its carrying capacity. The population of Tamaraw in it will eventually plateau and potentially shrink in the future, which is troubling for a Critically Endangered species.
At a glance, the number of Tamaraw living on Mindoro seems to tell a cautiously optimistic story. There were about 10,000 Tamaraw on Mindoro at the beginning of the 20th century, but the population quickly and dramatically plummeted. Habitat destruction–driven by agriculture–disease and poaching, took their toll on the Tamaraw. Several conservation measures helped Tamaraw–including becoming a protected species by the Philippine government in 1953 and the creation of Mts. Iglit-Baco (a protected area) in 1970. But the team, including conservationists with DAF and park rangers, suspected those efforts may not be enough to turn the tide for Tamaraw.
“The results from our analysis validate our feelings in the field; the growth rate is quite low for a protected ungulate inside a protected area compared to other similar species,” says Schütz. “It highlights that there may be increasing competition between animals for space and resources–meaning after 20 years of successfully protecting Tamaraw, new challenges are emerging. Those new challenges could justify taking new specific conservation actions to help Tamaraw.”
There are several actions that could help the Tamaraw population. The first is expanding a no-hunting area, within the core Tamaraw area. In order to expand the no-hunting area the Protected Area Management Office in Mts. Iglit Baco, the Tamaraw Conservation Program and their partners will have to work closely with Indigenous communities, such as the Taobuid, whose territory includes part of Mts. Iglit-Baco.
Inside the core Tamaraw area, there is a nearly 4,000-acre (1,600-hectare) plot where even traditional hunting by Indigenous communities is not permitted. Indigenous communities initiated an effort to clarify areas where they would be able to practice traditional hunting. Those areas are separate from areas where rangers patrol and enforce the law (aside from Indigenous communities, hunting is not allowed in Mts. Iglit-Baco). Those conversations resulted in an agreement between Indigenous communities and DENR and the creation of the no hunting area in 2016.
“The idea now is to increase the Tamaraw safe zone by using the customary laws of the Indigenous peoples, meaning not to impose a state-made concept of another ‘no-hunting agreement,’ but instead using the terminology and practices of the Taobuid, creating a stable ‘wildlife reproduction zone’ for Tamaraw toward the south of the current no-hunting area,” says Schütz.
The Tamaraw is sacred to the Taobuid, making it imperative for any decisions about the animal’s future to be decided in partnership with them. The Protected Area Management Office for Mts. Iglit-Baco Natural Park and DAF have started consultations with the Taobuid about eventually creating a larger wildlife reproduction zone.
The second action that could help Tamaraw is increasing and strengthening the species’ protection in Mts. Iglit-Baco. That could be done by supporting rangers in the park–improving and making their patrols more efficient and better coordinating with other agencies to prevent illegal activities (such as poaching) in the park.
Mts. Iglit-Baco Natural Park and the Taobuid are also creating a Community Conservation Plan, which will define the boundaries of the wildlife reproduction zone, in addition to other measures that will help ensure co-management of the park.
The third conservation action that could help Tamaraw would take a significant amount of time and effort, according to the paper. Even if the no-hunting area is expanded, at some point it also may not be large enough for a genetically healthy and self-sustaining population of Tamaraw. The Tamaraw Conservation Program may eventually need to consider translocating Tamaraw or establishing a breeding program for the species, but that will take years of careful and strategic planning, if feasibility studies determine it’s even possible.
“Another concerning aspect that was discovered recently is that the current counting method has been overestimating the true number of Tamaraw for years,” says Schütz. “Meaning that there might be far fewer Tamaraw than the 400 animals estimated by the annual count–and more importantly that the problem of available space remains true even for a smaller population. Our work now will be to inform local stakeholders about the result of this paper and explain the revised population estimate in order to prepare for the next steps, such as improving monitoring methods and protection, implementing a strategy to increase the available safe area for Tamaraw, and conducting a feasibility study for an ex situ program and translocation.”
Bonenfant agrees and hopes that the results of the paper will help other conservationists trying to save other species.
“Our results can be used by other scientists or biologists as a baseline for a comparison with their own species, be they endangered or not,” he says. “We hope our case study will shed some light on the rapidly changing situation that occurs when efficient conservation actions are taken, but without opportunity to increase the population’s geographic range. Tamaraw are likely not an anomaly, other species are likely to face the same problem.”
Devin Murphy is Re:wilds’s senior communications specialist and helps Re:wild and its partners tell stories about the work they do to protect wildlife and wildlands around the planet. Her favorite stories about conservation include fascinating and little-known species and the dedicated humans protecting them.