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Tamaraws no longer on brink of extinction, say conservationists

October 3, 2008 5:59pm
MANILA, Philippines — The tamaraw, the Philippines’ flagship species found only in the island of Mindoro, is now out of danger from extinction, officials say.

Dr. Arnel del Barrio, director of the Department of Agriculture’s Philippine Carabao Center (DA-PCC), said that from 2001-2008, the tamaraw population has increased yearly by an average of 10 percent.

Reporting on the findings of the latest tamaraw expedition by government and private entities, including students from the Far Eastern University (FEU), last April, Del Barrio said the tamaraw population was counted at 263 this year compared to only 175 heads in 2001.

“The calving rate estimated by number of yearlings is considerably high... (which could mean that) more than 55 percent of the Tamaraws are giving birth," Del Barrio reported during the Third Tamaraw Forum at the FEU Conference Center in Manila on Friday.

The expedition was organized by the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP) at the Mt. Iglit-Baco National Park in Mindoro Occidental

In another bit of good news, the TCP figure was considered conservative by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

DENR Undersecretary Manuel Gerochi said a “systematic counting" conducted by the department’s field personnel in all possible tamaraw habitats on the island estimated the tamaraw population to be more than 1,000.

“The figures of the TCP are based on actual, visual counting; and done only in one area, Mt. Iglit-Baco," Gerochi said in the same forum.

The TCP and DENR attributed the increase in the tamaraw population to continuing initiatives to raise awareness regarding the significance of the species and its preservation by national and local government, as well as the private sectors.

Through the tamaraw awareness campaign, the island’s native Mangyan dwellers stopped their tradition of killing the animal for its blood, which the tribesmen consider as a source of strength and good health.

Known to scientists as the Bubalus mindorensis or Mindoro dwarf buffalo, the tamaraw population was estimated at 10,000 during the 1900s, when the island was unpopulated due to malaria.

But the population of the animal started to decline with the eventual increase in human activity and the occurrence of diseases, starting in 1930 with the outbreak of rinderpest, a viral disease mostly affecting cattle.

In 1953, the estimated tamaraw population was placed at around 200, slipping to only about 100 in the 1960s when the animal’s range was reduced to three areas: Mount Iglit, Mount Calavite and areas near the Sablayon Penal Settlement.

Haribon Foundation also noted the introduction of cattle into Mindoro in the early 1900s, rampant hunting of the species and the widespread logging that destroyed much of Mindoro’s forests where the Tamaraws live as among the major causes of the decline in tamaraw population.

Concerns over the deteriorating population of the tamaraw were elevated in a conference of the International Union for the Conservation of Species (IUCS) in Bangkok, Thailand; resulted in the establishment of a 280-hectare gene pool farm in Rizal municipality of Mindoro Occidental.


Captive breeding

Breeding the tamaraws in captivity, however, was found to be ineffectual. Only four births were recorded from 1990 to1997, and all four calves did not live long.

Learning from experience, the government shifted focus on improving actual habitat conditions and educating the local populace.

Gerochi said that tamaraws “should be somehow isolated from human population" and must be allowed to roam freely, as incidents of suicide or self-inflicted harm have been noted from tamaraws that were held in the gene pool farm.

“The tamaraws should be somehow isolated from human population so we need to know their real habitat during its highest population," Gerochi said.

“Breeding in captivity might not be good, same as what happened with our experience with the Philippine eagle," he said.

He said captive-bred Philippine eagle encountered difficulties when they were released in the wild.

“It seemed that if we restrict them or these animals, we lose the glory of that species," Gerochi said.


Carabao's cousin

Tamaraws are usually mistaken as carabaos, but scientists say it differs in several aspects.

Dr. Antonio Manila, assistant director of the DENR-Protected Areas Wildlife and Bureau (PAWB), said that tamaraws are smaller and darker in color than carabaos. He also said that tamaraws have shorter tail and have V-shaped horns, unlike the carabao’s which are large and C-shaped.

A mature tamaraw stands at only about three feet high at the shoulder and weighs 300 kilograms.

Unlike the domesticated carabao, the tamaraw is wild and fierce that if cornered or disturbed in its natural habitat, it will attack and pursue the intruder relentlessly.

“The indigenous Mangyans of Mindoro rightly respect the tamaraw and keep their distance from it," says researcher Art Fuentes in the Haribon Foundation’s Web site (http://www.haribon.org.ph).

Gerochi stressed that extensive reforestation might be the key to accelerate the propagation of the tamaraws, which are found only in the mountainous portions of Mt. Iglit-Baco National Park, Mt. Calavite, Mt. Halcon-Eagle Pass, Mt. Aruyan-Sablayan-Mapalad Valley, and Mt. Bansud-Bongabong-Mansalay.

“The current sanctuary is big enough, I think. So, really it is the preservation of their habitat, which should be undertaken," he said.

In 2002, by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 273, the governmentset the month of October as a “Special Month for the Conservation and Protection of the Tamaraw in Mindoro," emphasizing the need for more intense effort to protect, conserve, and eventually perpetuate one of the country’s flagship species and national pride. GMANews.TV