The tamaraw, the Philippines’ largest and rarest endemic land animal, is on a comeback. In 1969, the global population was thought to have dropped to less than 100 heads, threatening the species with extinction.

Tamaraw Month Photo by Gregg Yan & WWF
Tamaraw family photographed in the Iglit-Baco Mountain Range in Occidental Mindoro. The tamaraw is the world’s rarest buffalo species, with just a few hundred holding out atop Mindoro’s highest mountains. Fortunately, the population is steadily recovering. The country celebrates Tamaraw Month this October. (Gregg Yan / WWF)

Today, due to strong conservation efforts, the tamaraw population stands at 382 – the highest ever recorded.

A collaboration between the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Tamaraw Conservation Programme (TCP), Far Eastern University (FEU), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Mindoro’s indigenous Tau Buid tribesfolk, the Tamaraw Times Two project aims to double the number of wild tamaraw from 300 to 600 by 2020.

“We counted 382 heads during our annual survey last April – a big improvement from the 345 recorded in 2013, and the 327 we saw in 2012. We’re also seeing more juveniles – a sure sign that population recovery is underway,” reports TCP head and Mts. Iglit-Baco Park Superintendent Rodel Boyles.

Differentiated from the larger and more docile carabao (Bubalus bubalis carabanesis), the stocky tamaraw (Bubalis mindorensis) bears distinctive V-shaped horns, a shorter tail and a scraggly coat of chocolate to ebony fur. Adults stand four feet tall and average 300 kilograms – half as much as a typical carabao.

An estimated 10,000 tamaraw thrived in Mindoro in the early 1900s. The population was decimated by widespread logging, hunting and an outbreak of cattle-killing rinderpest in the 1930s. Just a few hundred survive atop the grassy slopes and forest patches of Mts. Iglit, Baco, Aruyan, Bongabong, Calavite and Halcon in Mindoro today.

Except for calving cows, adult tamaraw are mostly solitary. Cornered or threatened, they can be aggressive, chasing their foes up to a kilometer. They are extremely tough: hunters have long claimed to have emptied entire assault rifle clips into charging bulls, to no avail. The tamaraw is classified as critically endangered – the highest risk rating for any animal species. Four national laws protect it from poaching – Commonwealth Act 73 plus Republic Acts 1086, 7586 and 9147. Conservation efforts date back nearly 40 years.

“We aim to synthesize improved park management with enhanced population survey methods. Adding new survey sites and deploying motion-activated camera traps for example, shall give us a clearer picture of tamaraw numbers – especially in areas too remote to study effectively,” explains WWF-Philippines Conservation Programs Head Joel Palma. “Empowering adjacent communities for the protection of tamaraw breeding, grazing and wallowing areas is also crucial in boosting numbers.”

State-of-the-art camera traps deployed by WWF and TCP in Mindoro’s Iglit-Baco Natural Park have also revealed new images of Mindoro’s rarely-seen fauna – suggesting that enhanced park management has buoyed more than tamaraw numbers. The cameras have captured images of Philippine brown deer (Cervus mariannus), Philippine warty pigs (Sus philippensis) and red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus), the wild form of the domestic chicken.

The Tamaraw Times Two project aims to revitalize much of Mindoro’s deforested mountain habitats, promoting a holistic ‘Ridge-to-Reef’ approach. Healthy peaks and forests translate to a better-managed source of water so essential for the vast rice-lands of Mindoro’s western floodplains. Healthy mountains in turn, are conducive to productive coasts and coral reefs, a source of seafood for millions.

“It is doubtless that the tamaraw population stands at its highest in years,” concludes FEU President Dr. Michael Alba, whose school emblem also bears the horned visage of the tamaraw. “More than any other animal, it is a symbol of Filipino pride and ferocity. That our allies have counted 37 more heads from last year proves we’re on the right track.” The Philippines celebrates Tamaraw Month this October.