Kali, the last captive-bred Mindoro tamaraw, has died. Throughout his 21 years, he symbolized hope for a critically endangered species that is also a national symbol. His full name, Kalikasang Bagong Sibol (Nature Newly Sprung), underlined that optimism.
His passing reignited public attention on the plight of the Mindoro tamaraws, whose population the government tried to salvage for four decades. The awareness and accompanying support, however, may be too late, according to those who have long fought for Kali’s survival.
“Masakit isipin na kung kailan patay na siya, ngayon pa sila nagkukumahog na kunin siya. Nung buhay siya, katok kami nang katok sa mga opisina nila para humingi ng tulong para mapaganda yung rescue center,” said Mikko Reyes, a volunteer veterinarian at the Mindoro Biodiversity Wildlife Rescue Center where Kali lived in captivity.
What led the Mindoro tamaraws to near extinction?
In the 1930's, there were as many as 10,000 tamaraws roaming free in the wild. But a rinderpest outbreak brought by the introduction of non-native cattle swept in and killed thousands of them. By the late 1970's, only about 100 were left.
The shrinking population prompted the government to launch the Tamaraw Conservation Program and captive-breeding program from which Kali was born. Kali was a miracle, having lived for 21 years when the others lived for two at most.
The situation is worse in the wild, where many threats persist, driving the likes of Kali to be better off in captivity. For example, efforts to establish a diagnostic laboratory that will help detect disease among the tamaraws fell through due to lack of funding.
Mindoro may be small, but because of its location, it also harbors one of the world's most unique assemblages of animal life, according to Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, Inc. Apart from the tamaraw, the Mindoro warty pig and the Mindoro bleeding-heart are among those currently on the brink of extinction because of exotic diseases like the rinderpest that nearly decimated the tamaraws.
“Malaking dagok yung exotic diseases especially sa mga endemic na animals. Kasi hindi sila nag-evolve para magkaroon ng immunity or defense against those diseases," Reyes said.
There are about 480 tamaraws left in the wild, based on the most recent count. Conservationists regard this number as “too small” for a wild population’s survival.
What worked against the Mindoro tamaraws' favor?
Reproduction isn’t a problem. In fact, tamaraws, as a species of cattle, are naturally prolific. The problem lies in the limited area in which they roam. With only 1,800 hectares, the tamaraws are squeezed into a core habitat where there is immense competition among harems, the basic family unit in tamaraw society. Anything beyond this small area is too big of a threat for their existence, where they are just one hunting trap away from becoming game meat for low-landers.
“Isang napakalaking step ang captive breeding program pero yung sustainability sa wild, ‘yun talaga pinaka-goal ng conservation. Kahit maparami natin sa captivity or sa wild yung tamaraw, kung wala naman silang place para makapag-roam sila, hindi rin magiging successful yun,” Reyes said.
As Mindoro's human population grew, so did demand for food. The island's vast pasteur land for cattle has long been regarded harmful for endemic animal life. When farms and habitats overlap, the tamaraws are exposed to harm. There's also the threat of poaching.
“Generally ang buong population ng Mindoro, hindi pa sila aware sa importance ng tamaraws. Minsan kung sino pa yung head ng mga areas, sila pa yung mismong naghu-hunt, sila pa yung gustong makakain ng mga game meats. Kumbaga nandun pa rin sila sa point na medyo primitive pa yung pag-iisip nila," he said.
Even Mindoro's indigenous people, who are considered guardians of nature, are slowly succumbing to the low-lander's corrupt practices, Reyes said. Last August, forest rangers caught three of them drying tamaraw meat inside Mount Iglit-Baco Natural Park. "Mga katutubo yun na inutusan lang ng taga-baba. Natuturuan na silang gumamit ng mga baril," Reyes said.
The tamaraws' defenders are also under threat
According to advocacy group Eco Explorations, poaching and illegal wildlife trading threaten not just to tamaraw, but biodiversity at large. Humans are culprit to staggering amounts of wildlife loss. But the reality is, even those inclined to protect wild animals are also being threatened by their own kind.
In 2019, the Philippines became the deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders. It overtook Brazil, whose Amazon Rainforest is rapidly being replaced by cattle ranches as indigenous tribes attempting to prevent it are being killed.
"Pumupunta sila sa bundok na itak lang ang dala. Sobrang delikado 'non kasi may mga armas usually yung nakaka-engkwentro nila. As in pramis nakakaawa sila," Dr. Reyes said.
Tamaraw rangers differ from government-secured forest rangers. While the latter are hired on plantilla positions, with higher pay and authority to bear guns, tamaraw rangers only get P6,000 a month, with no other benefits or even hazard pay.
"Kumbaga passion nalang talaga yung nagd-drive sa kanila pati yung pagmamahal sa conservation eh. Kahit nga yung security ng tamaraw rangers, pinoproblema pa namin what more for projects on Tamaraw conservation," he said.
There's a bigger problem, one that spawned COVID-19
The COVID-19 crisis, which changed life as we now it, serves a lesson in public health: if you want to prevent epidemics that begin in animals, you need to halt the trade of wildlife, a New York Times report said.
Southeast Asia is now regarded as a hotspot of emerging zoonotic diseases, which are harmful agents that occur in wildlife that can find their way to domestic animals and humans through mutation or new contact.
As animals like the tamaraw go extinct, nature has a lot to lose as biodiversity becomes threatened. Every species has its unique and important role in its environment, in the intricate web of life, and in the maintenance of that life and the balance that biodiversity facilitates, according to Ireneo Lit, a scientist concerned with environmental biology at the University of the Philippines Los Baños.
The destruction of habitats is also confounded and further complicated by threats from current climate change events that bring about disasters and extreme environmental events. A degraded environment also exacerbates poverty, the latter also leading people to further extract resources from natural ecosystems, which promotes a vicious cycle of destruction, he said.
Scientists have already began sounding the alarm globally. Earth is in the middle of a mass extinction, the sixth one in the planet’s history. They noted that one extinction can cause ripples throughout an ecosystem, which leaves other species vulnerable to the same fate.
“Extinction breeds extinctions,” the paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said. They blamed human overpopulation and overconsumption, and said that there's only a short window of time to act.
How can endangered species survive?
But the not-so secret key to a species' survival is this: if you want to save a species, you also have to ensure that everything around it is saved, too.
“In this world, a species can only thrive when everything around it thrives too." said David Attenborough in his new Netflix film, A Life On Our Planet. The interconnectedness within nature highlights how the threat to the tamaraw's extinction should be enough cause for serious alarm.
Kali may have only been one death, but his was already one too many among the endangered species of tamaraws which are two levels away from complete extinction.
"With his passing, [we] believe that we can create a stronger alliance for the conservation of the remaining tamaraw in the wild. It's time people see beyond an animal they hear about in textbooks, an animal that is a symbol for a university (FEU Tamaraws), or an animal that used to be a vehicle for transportation (Tamaraw FX). It's time for everyone to see that the tamaraw is a natural heritage, an icon, a species unique to the Philippines and a pride for every Filipino," said Nella Lomotan of Eco Explorations.
“Ngayong kumalat ang awareness, sana di masayang yung death niya na maging aware mga tao na meron pa tayong mga other endemic wildlife, hindi lang mga Philippine Eagle. Marami kasing wildlife animals na nangangailangan ng tulong natin, ng awareness natin, tsaka boses ng mas marami pa. Hindi lang din tamaraw," Reyes said.
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Support includes capacity building, and the provision of food subsidies for patrols, gear, equipment, medicine supplies, and others. In partnership with several local protected and key biodiversity areas where the rangers patrol, they believe that to protect the habitats, we must protect the people who protect them.
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