Conservationist Neil Anthony del Mundo's childhood dream came true when he got a job in his home province of Mindoro defending the tamaraws from extinction. Until Kali, the last of the majestic beasts that are captive-bred died last year, it became even more of an urgent and personal crusade.
Del Mundo, a UP Los Banos graduate, stayed on as coordinator of cash-strapped Tamaraw Conservation Program. At the time of Kali's death, he had been with the program for just a year, so he couldn't believe how much he took his job personally.
"One year pa lang ako sa TCP and I was just trying to enjoy the work ‘cause it’s been something i’ve been dreaming of for the longest time and then biglang ganon. Andami pa namin sanang gustong gawin especially for Kali. So ngayon, gusto ko bumawi," Del Mundo told reportr.
WHAT WENT BEFORE: Why the Tamaraw’s Story Shouldn’t End with Kali's Death
Like his full name, Kalikasang Bagong Sibol (Nature Newly Sprung), Kali's unexpected death in October 2020 reignited public attention on the four-decade fight to save the critically endangered tamaraws that are endemic to Mindoro.
Facebook and Twitter had condoled for at least a week then, as the tamaraw's face, which closely resembles that of the carabao, took over social media timelines. To children of the 80s and 90s, the tamaraw is the animal on the P1 coin that served them well on commutes and during recess time.
Saving the Tamaraw is a hard fight
Del Mundo's dream of working on the survival of the tamaraws started only in college where he specialized in Philippine wildlife studies. With meager funds, the TCP's goal was to make life as "comfortable" as possible for Kali.
"Although may fascination na ako for wildlife in high school because of our biology class, nu'ng college ko lang nalaman how rich the wildlife and biodiversity of Mindoro, my own province, is. Being young and idealistic, I had this sense na ‘Ah kailangan ata ako dun’," he said.
"I’ve seen a tamaraw when I was in high school and nakakulong siya, ine-exhibit and dinadala sa bayan-bayan, and sabi ko, 'kalabaw lang, parang kalabaw lang.' Pero I saw 'yung sadness and loneliness niya kasi nakakulong nga siya. It finally made sense looking back, kasi sa wild pala dapat talaga sila," del Mundo said.
Mindoro may be small, but because of its geography, it harbors one of the world's most unique assemblages of animal life. Apart from the tamaraw, there are also the Mindoro warty pig and the Mindoro bleeding-heart, both on the brink of extinction because of exotic diseases like the rinderpest, which nearly decimated the tamaraws before, prompting the government to launch TCP and its captive breeding program.
For a moment, del Mundo said Kali's death was "somehow a blessing in disguise" as it raised much-need awareness on the nearly extinct species. "Pero if you were asking if as a result, nadagdagan 'yung budget because of that media attention, no."
"Most of the time, andun 'yung desperation kasi you’re doing everything pero kulang pa rin. Although of course, thankful pa rin kasi meron, kesa naman wala," del Mundo said. Without Kali to look after, the TCP's budget will likely be cut. They consider themselves "lucky" to get support from the provincial government and non-government organizations.
One year later, "wala pong nagbago", said veterinarian Mikko Reyes, the only wildlife expert who monitored Kali's health since 2018. He remains involved at the Mindoro Biodiversity Wildlife Rescue Center, where Kali lived in captivity, on a voluntary basis as TCP still cannot afford to employ him.
Reyes said he's currently looking for a job that is still around Mindoro just so he could continuing volunteering.
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But it has to be done
Based on TCP's latest count, the number of tamaraws left in the wild fell to 427 from 480 in 2019. Though it would be unfair to compare the numbers given a change in their methodology, del Mundo said if you take into account how Tamaraws reproduce, as well as the recent rise in poaching incidents, the number is enough to conclude that the species' population has not improved.
It's all the more reason for the fight to preserve Kali's legacy to continue, he said, noting how there is one way the entire country (not just them as caretakers) can honor Kali: push for the passage of the "Tamaraw Conservation Management Act”.
The bill was filed by Occidental Mindoro Rep. Josephine Ramirez-Sato, seeking to institutionalize TCP as an office under the Department of Natural Resources.
If enacted, "it will change everything for Tamaraw conservation," he said, noting how the bill can solve their problem of job and life security especially for the Tamaraw rangers who, at the moment, are only paid P6,000 a month with no other benefits or even hazard pay.
"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," Reyes had said of their daily struggles on the job.
"Sa ngayon kasi, ang focus lang talaga namin is protection and monitoring, so nagpapatrol lang yung rangers sa bundok then pag may nakitang poachers, we just report to the police, who has enforcement powers. But with that bill, magkakaroon 'rin ng quick response team," del Mundo said.
The bill also includes the establishment of a Tamaraw Research Center, which could focus on the study of the tamaraw and their habitats, behaviors, diet, and how they can still multiply in numbers. Upon his death, tissue samples from Kali was taken to the Philippine Genomic Center where his DNA was mapped, serving as the first official record of the Tamaraw's DNA for future studies.
Lastly, "of course we don't just want to solicit help but also educate people, especially here in Mindoro. Marami pa rin na ang thinking ay tamaraw is for food or for trophy hunting. If we can correct this, we're not just protecting the habitat of the tamaraw. We're also protecting other endemic species, and thus, the overall conservation of Mindoro's wildlife," he said.