It’s Tamaraw Month in the Philippines — here’s what you need to know about the rare water buffalo

It’s impossible to miss: a large bovine, frozen in mid-leap, in front of San Jose Airport, gateway to the province of Occidental Mindoro, its fearless eyes and V-shaped horns setting it apart from the docile carabao, the ubiquitous beast of burden of the Philippine countryside. Say hello to the tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis), a rare and critically endangered species of dwarf water buffalo found nowhere else but on Mindoro, the country’s seventh-largest island. Aside from the distinct shape of its short horns, the country’s largest endemic land animal can be distinguished from its domesticated cousin by a few other qualities: the tamaraw is smaller, has light markings on its face and is feisty by nature.

In the early 20th century, thousands of tamaraws once thrived across the island that is also popular among divers because of Apo Reef, but tamaraw numbers plummeted to around 100 by the 1960s due to rampant poaching, disease from cattle and deforestation. A government-funded captive breeding program was launched in 1982 but proved unsuccessful, producing only one calf that reached maturity. The 19-year-old bull named Kalibasib — a portmanteau of the Tagalog phrase kalikasan bagong sibol (nature newly sprung) — is the lone superstar of the Tamaraw Gene Pool Farm in Barangay Minoot, which will eventually be converted to a wildlife research and rescue center.

Conservation efforts have shifted to the on-site protection of wild tamaraws since then, concentrated in Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park, where the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP) conducts an annual population count every summer. This April’s survey yielded 523 animals, 30% up from the year before. “Strengthened patrolling by park rangers and the presence of more tourists have significantly reduced poaching,” says TCP project coordinator June Pineda, explaining the spike in the population. With their numbers slowly bouncing back, the future of this iconic species finally looks bullish.

. . .

Go wild with rare animal spotting

The Palawan binturong

Is it a bear? Is it a cat? Features-wise, it’s a bit of both, but the Palawan binturong is a subspecies of the bearcat that’s endemic to Palawan, where it thrives in the tropical rainforest. Like its cousins, it has a chunky, furry body, a small face with long, cat-like whiskers, sharp claws and a long, prehensile tail that comes in extra handy for hanging from branches.

The Visayan warty pig

This little piggy once thrived across the Visayas region, but due to widespread hunting and habitat loss, it is now only found in dense forests and grasslands of Panay and Negros islands. The fierce forager gets its name from three pairs of fleshy growths on its face, which are believed to assist as a natural defense against the tusks of a rival animal. That’s the truth — warts
and all.

This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Smile magazine.

Written and Photographed

Martin San Diego

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