Written by Gerald Lois Roldan
Illustrated by Cedric David Cortez
When the cows moo and the cattles gallop, the meadows are filled with sounds so familiar that even children can act them out. However, in a gold mine, a little mina de oro, there thrive herds that are softly heard – not due to its light strides which, believe me, are not to be taken lightly, but because these strides dwindle in number over the years.
Aside from being an island of its own, Mindoro is considered to be one of the several biogeographical regions found in the Philippines.1 It shelters a whole picnic basket of endemic species ranging from the eye-catching Mindoro bleeding-heart pidgeon (Gallicolumba platenae)2 to the little peculiar Mindoro Warty pig (Sus oliveri).3 At the forefront of this string of endemism is the ever-renowned Bubalus mindorensis4 or more commonly known as the Tamaraw.
The Tamaraw, or dwarf water buffalos, had once thrived in the 1900s at 10,000 heads, yet by the dawn of the 21st century, their population had dwindled to less than 200 heads.5 Ironically, this drove the poor land mammal to a spiraling journey as the lost heads were replaced not with baby Tamaraws but by with symbols, emblems, and university sports teams.
By the Numbers
Contrary to general perception, Tamaraws are smaller than the carabao – about half its size.6 However, it still remains as the largest wild land animal in the Philippines standing at around 100 centimeters from the shoulder and weighing 180-220 kg.7 It’s usually mistaken for a carabao but can be differentiated through its V-shaped horns which slopes upward from its head, short limbs, and stocky build.8 Seeing as it’s a dwarf species, this should come as no surprise.
Still, don’t let the dwarf get to you because they are nowhere close to Snow White’s cuddly ones. They are normally not prone to aggression but, as every teenager reacts now, they will keep their guard up once threatened and they will defend their lives – however short and mysterious it might be.
Steadily, today’s Tamaraw population increased to around 600 in March 2022 with 480 heads found in the Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park.9 This decline from 10,000 heads in the 1900s is attributed to habitat loss as a result of infrastructure development, illegal logging, and deforestation. Interestingly, the dwarf buffalo does not thrive in dwarf habitats as well. Still, one major contributing factor to this decline is the deadly outbreak of rinderpest, also known as cattle plague, caused by widespread cattle ranching plummeting below 100 cattles in 1969.10
On top of this, there are several initiatives to stop this decline and repopulate the disappearing bovine. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) launched the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP) in 1979 as the flagship initiative to protect the lone wild bovine in the island and its habitat.11
Since then, several movements have emerged to help bring back these dwarf mammals in the mountains of Mindoro. In fact, since 1996, the Philippines has conducted a Tamaraw Population Habitat and Viability Assessment (PHVA) workshop to better assess the situation. The DENR also launched an annual population count, using a standardized multi-vantage point count method to bridge the data gaps which focused within Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park, where the largest subpopulation of Tamaraws are located.12 These one-of-a-kind bovines are getting their numbers bumped up. What a sight.
The journey of the Tamaraw is well off towards repopulation steadily growing around 100 heads a year. However, it’s still not quite sustainable yet. As they repopulate in the mountains, they also have been repopulating down the slopes in a different form – as a cultural symbol.
More than Just a Symbol or Product
If one is to survey the locals in the island, whether they have already seen a tamaraw, some would say yes. However, it’s just the head that they have seen attached in almost every cultural product – in provincial and school seals, in poster-making contests, and even in the Mall of Asia Arena, in time for the newest season of the UAAP. This representation is ironic and misleading on the conservation of Tamaraws.
For instance, the carabao is the go-to symbol of strength, hard work, and patriotism in semantics as evident in provincial and school seals and poster-making contests. Then again, those are carabaos, not Tamaraws. Although these Tamaraws convey the same symbolism with the addition of the Mindoro and endemic pride, not all can tell the V-shaped horns are of a Tamaraw, a little specific than the common carabao.
This goes beyond telling everyone to be a zoologist and distinguish representative species of a family from each other. Emphasis should be on how we move forward after crafting these heads and displaying them. For instance, not brown but green and yellow Tamaraws thrive in Morayta as Far Eastern University brandishes the endangered bovine as their mascot.13 These Tamaraws pay tribute to the endemic mammal with the TAMworld Roving Exhibit aiming to boost public awareness and appreciation for the Tamaraw, the bovine.
With the number of heads in posters and seals surpassing the actual heads roaming in the mountains of Mindoro, we ought to do more than these exhibits and showcases. It’s a little counterintuitive to display Tamaraws and not know what Tamaraws are and what they’re for. After all, we owe these Tamaraws not just the cultural relevance but the biodiverse biogeographic region of Mindoro.
A Reflection of Us
At the end of the day, we are all for art and culture. Still, their journey must not stop there—endangered species are not just displays for conservation. These species tell a lot about our journey as a society. They are more than symbols of nationalism, they are signs of where we are in our biodiversity conservation—if we are caught with the poster-making or if we are actually doing something beyond it.
The journey of a Tamaraw from our mountains to our emblems and posters is a manifestation of what, why, which, and how we value our natural resources. These herds are already softly heard. Let’s not make them completely silent as they keep dangling from provincial seals as mere decor.
- Center for Conservation Innovations Ph Inc. 2019 Nov 19. Mindoro Forest and Biodiversity Conservation Program – CCIPH. CCIPH. https://conservation-innovations.org/project/mindoro-forest-and-biodiversity-conservation-program/.
- Carlos J, Tomas A. 2022. Birds and mammals of the fragmented forests along the Anahawin River, Mt. Iglit-Baco National Park, Mindoro Island, Philippines. University Knowledge Digital Repository. [accessed 2023 Mar 26]. https://www.ukdr.uplb.edu.ph/journal-articles/5198/.
- Geoff D, Schütz E, Carlos J, Espiritu-Afuang LM. 2017. Mindoro warty pig Sus oliveri (Groves, 1997). University Knowledge Digital Repository. [accessed 2023 Mar 26]. https://www.ukdr.uplb.edu.ph/journal-articles/1493/.
- Braun A, Groves C, Grubb P. 2015 Dec 11. Rediscovery of the type specimen of Bubalus mindorensis Huede, 1888. Anueduau. doi:https://doi.org/1616-5047. https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/73395.
- Dela Pena K. 2022 Oct. 10,000 to less than 500: How people are driving the tamaraw to extinction. INQUIRERnet. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1676307/10000-to-less-than-500-how-people-are-driving-the-tamaraw-to-extinction.
- Hance J. 2019 Jul 19. The ambitious plan to recover and rewild the feisty, dwarf cow. Mongabay Environmental News. https://news.mongabay.com/2019/07/the-ambitious-plan-to-recover-and-rewild-the-feisty-dwarf-cow/#:~:text=The%20tamaraw%20is%20not%20the,)%2C%20known%20locally%20as%20carabao..
- Hisashi Matsubayashi, Boyles RM, Salac RL, Kanai Y. 2010. Present Status of Tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis) in Mt. Aruyan, Mindoro, Philippines. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/270137300_Present_Status_of_Tamaraw_Bubalus_mindorensis_in_Mt_Aruyan_Mindoro_Philippines.
- Namikawa T, Masangkay JS, Maeda K, Escalada RF, Hirunagi K, Momongan VG. 1995. External Characters and Karyotypes of the Captive Tamaraws, Bubalus (B.) mindorensis, at the Gene Pool in the Island of Mindoro, Philippines. The Journal of animal genetics. 23(1):19–28. doi:https://doi.org/10.5924/abgri1993.23.19.
- Basa A. 2023. PH celebrates National Tamaraw Month: Endangered species now only about 600. Manila Bulletin. https://mb.com.ph/2022/10/13/ph-celebrates-national-tamaraw-month-endangered-species-now-only-about-600/.
- United Nations Development Programme. 2019. DENR, UNDP-Biofin Launch Suwag o Suko: Saving the Tamaraw from Extinction Documentary | United Nations Development Programme. UNDP. https://www.undp.org/philippines/press-releases/denr-undp-biofin-launch-suwag-o-suko-saving-tamaraw-extinction-documentary.
- International Union for Conservation of Nature. 2021 Nov 23. Conservation Progress for the Philippine Endemic Tamaraw. Reverse the Red. https://www.reversethered.org/stories/tamaraw#:~:text=In%201979%2C%20Philippine%20authorities%20launched,the%20Tamaraw%20and%20its%20habitat..
- UNESCO World Heritage Convention. 2018. Mt. Iglit-Baco National Park – UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Unescoorg. https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5036/#:~:text=Mount%20Iglit%2DBaco%20National%20Park,deforested%20parts%20of%20the%20archipelago..
- FEU Diliman. 2019. Feudilimaneduph. https://feudiliman.edu.ph/happenings/tamworld-goes-to-feu-diliman.