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No Bull: Tamaraw Surveys Reveal Unexpectedly Large Population of the Critically Endangered Buffalo

By Lindsay Renick Mayer on August 02, 2019   duration

Tamaraw, <i>Bubalus mindorensis</i> (Photo by Gregg Yan)
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Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) changed its name to Re:wild in 2021

Finding bolsters hope for future of Tamaraw conservation

Between a steep climb to the high-altitude forests on the Philippines’ Mindoro Island, the potential for a run-in with rebels who hide out in the rough terrain, and a search for a buffalo species known for its tough attitude, the journey that led to the recent discovery of a large population of Tamaraw was an uphill battle, literally and figuratively.

The results of that expedition, however, are helping conservationists better understand the impressively adaptable nature of the Critically Endangered dwarf buffalo, and spurring hope for the future of the Philippines’ national land mammal. In addition to finding a population large enough for successful breeding, the survey revealed a group of Tamaraw that had adapted to live in habitat different from where they are found on the rest of the island.

“The discovery of a larger-than-expected population is a very exciting new discovery,” says James Burton, chair of the IUCN SSC Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group. “In the past 20 years, the news about Tamaraw populations has always been bad: that they have declined or been lost, with the exception of the Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park population. These declines have been mainly due to hunting pressure, so to have an additional confirmed population is excellent news for Tamaraw conservation.”

Giant Boost for a Dwarf Species

Although there had been reports of Tamaraw living on the border of Occidental Mindoro and Oriental Mindoro in the Eagle Pass region, over the years biologists have struggled to confirm how many individuals were left because of the remoteness of the area. Emmanuel Schütz, program manager for the Mangyan-Tamaraw Driven Landscape Program at D’ABOVILLE Foundation and Demo Farm Inc, had previously been on six expeditions in the central mountainous region, but didn’t find any evidence of Tamaraw—until this trip, when his team found signs of Tamaraw in the form of scat, hoof marks, wallowing pools and brush pushed aside for resting places.

Newly found Tamaraw population's habitat on Mindoro Island Mountainous region representative of known Tamaraw habitat on Mindoro Island (Photo by James Slade)

“It was really rewarding to personally observe the first evidence that Tamaraw did, indeed, still live here,” Schütz says. “It was even more exciting to continue to find new tracks, confirming that we were not in the presence of a few isolated Tamaraws that had remained there until today, but a sustainable population with both adults and young, according to the signs we saw.”

On the last of three surveys, members of that team—which also included the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Tamaraw Conservation Program, Alangan guides and porters, and biologists from the Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc.—also saw 12 different individual animals.

Based on these observations and reports from the Alangan indigenous people—who played an instrumental role in making this survey possible—the experts estimate there may be somewhere between 65 and 100 animals roaming the mountains of the Eagle Pass region, making it the second largest population of Tamaraw after the population of Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park. There are two other known populations of Tamaraw, one with about three to 12 individuals, and another one reconfirmed in June of 2019 with fewer than five animals left.

Mindoro Island was once entirely forested, but its forests have been cleared for agriculture, cattle ranching and commercial logging, forcing Tamaraw living in Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park to inhabit grassland areas of the island. The Eagle Pass population of Tamaraw is a further testament to the ecological flexibility of the species. The animals are confined to the mossy forests of the mountains, where they’ve become browsers, feeding on a more fiber-rich diet than the grassland population of Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park.

“I was quite surprised to find that Tamaraws are able to survive in such habitats as mountain forest, mossy forest and highland meadows,” Schütz says. “It proves the ecological plasticity and adaptability of the species to live in various habitats. This shows that we have more options in terms of conservation strategy, thus increasing our chance of success. It has also helped continue to spur the interest of the international community along with the commitment of local authorities—all of which is a sign that long-term Tamaraw conservation is on the right track.”

A Tamaraw-worthy Team Effort

The Eagle Pass region Tamaraw population lives on the officially recognized ancestral domain of the Mangyan Alangan Tribe, bringing a new indigenous community into the comprehensive efforts to save the Tamaraw from extinction. According to Schütz, not only did members of the Alangan tribe make the success of the survey possible by guiding the team and sharing their expertise, they had already been taking steps to change how they manage their land to ensure minimal disturbance to Tamaraws.

“The Alangan indigenous community has been living and surviving in this area for many years with minimal impact on the Tamaraw,” Burton says. “They are therefore acting as a kind of guardian to the Tamaraw, and this role played by the community will be key for the future survival of this population.”

The Alangan indigenous people were one of three indigenous tribes that participated in last year’s Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PHVA) workshop, in addition to the Tau Buid and Buhid tribes. The recommendations from that PHVA will soon be published in a Conservation Management and Action Plan that will outline strategies to increase the three known populations of Tamaraw and reintroduce Tamaraw to two other sites where they were once found.

“Including representatives from all the indigenous communities in planning phases for the management and protection of the Tamaraw and Tamaraw habitats has been a great step in furthering a positive relationship between everyone involved in Tamaraw conservation,” says James Slade, GWC wildlife crime prevention officer. “By involving them in Tamaraw conservation for the next 10 years and beyond, we’re unifying the approach and respecting their place in the habitat, while incorporating their thoughts on how to protect Tamaraw. We don’t expect the news of the confirmation of this third population to be the last of the good news for this captivating species.”

About the author

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay is the Director of Media Relations for Re:wild and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.

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