In the Philippines, there’s an animal that appears on the one peso coin. Basketball teams are named after the same animal, as is a widely used public vehicle in the country – the Tamaraw FX. A bill is also pending to declare the tamaraw as the country’s national land animal.
The tamaraw can be distinguished from the carabao or domesticated water buffalo used as farm animals across Asia by its smaller size, v-shaped horns, and light markings on the face. They’re found only in the highland meadows and forests of Mindoro Island, about 130 kilometers south of Manila.
Despite the animal’s iconic status however, tamaraw numbers have dropped drastically over the years. This year, following a hopeful spike in numbers last year, the Tamaraw Conservation Program(TCP), a special project of the government, reported a significant slump in the population of the country’s largest endemic land animal. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists tamaraws as “critically endangered.”
I joined this year’s population count in April at Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park, along with rangers, government employees, NGO workers, and volunteers, who camped out for five days. We hiked for five hours along mostly open trails baking under the summer sun, to reach Magawang, which harbours the highest concentration of tamaraws in the protected area. Aside from Philippine warty pigs, we spotted island-endemic species along the hiking trails like Mindoro racket-tail parrots and a Mindoro striped rat, affirming the exceptional biodiversity of the mountain range.
Twice a day, at dawn and dusk, we scanned the undulating grasslands with our binoculars, for tamaraws. After consolidating and double-checking the collected data for weeks, the final tally recorded an estimate of only 480 tamaraws — an 8%decrease from last year’s count of 523.
While the lower count may be partially attributed to new methodology, hunting and habitat loss remain a serious threat to the survival of this unique species. While monitoring, other volunteers chanced upon a slaughtered tamaraw carcass and bamboo platforms used for drying bushmeat, evidence of continued poaching within the protected area. Large swathes of forests and grasslands were also seen destroyed by kaingin or slash-and-burn farming, a traditional practice that persists among the Tau-buid, the indigenous people who claim a large portion of the 75,445-hectare protected area as their ancestral domain. From our vantage point in Magawang, we saw distant mountain slopes ablaze at nightfall, billowing columns of smoke.
Around 10,000 tamaraws roamed across Mindoro in the early 20th century, but numbers disastrously fell to around 100 by the 1960s due to rampant poaching, rinderpest disease from cattle, and deforestation. A government-funded captive breeding program was launched in 1982 but proved unsuccessful, producing only one offspring that reached maturity. Conservation efforts have since shifted to the on-site protection of wild tamaraws at Mounts Iglit-Baco, where TCP assigns 15 tamaraw rangers to patrol the 1,600-hectare core habitat.
With government funding slashed year after year, tamaraw rangers receive a meagre average monthly wage of PHP 8,500 ($160) and are ill-equipped, relying on old, broken equipment and even resorting to firecrackers to scare away poachers.
“Our rangers risk their lives facing hunters unarmed with nothing but their dedication and love for the tamaraw as their only resource,” said TCP project coordinator June Pineda.
It’s clear however that much more is needed to save Mindoro’s dwarf buffalo, an irreplaceable national treasure, before time runs out.
The photo series below shows tamaraws in the wild, and scenes from the population count:
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.