Trapped along the banks of an angry swollen river, the old Taw’buid woman sat freezing, trembling uncontrollably under the pelting rain, protected by nothing but a flimsy banana leaf.
I too was cold, but had an umbrella – slightly less flimsy than her banana leaf. Giving it to her, I dropped my jungle pack and considered our predicament.
Pelted by rain, this Taw’buid woman has nothing but a banana leaf for protection. She made it out safely. (Gregg Yan)
A sudden downpour engorged Occidental Mindoro’s mountain rivers an hour ago. Fording was suicide. The only crossing was through a bamboo ‘monkey bridge’ made of two slippery poles – a rotting base pole and a flimsy handrail. Which of course, was broken. The bridge spanned 25 feet over churning, chugging, life-taking brown water. Just like a movie.
With no alternatives and because a Siganon or lowlander like me cannot touch a female Taw’buid tribeswoman even for warmth, I ploughed forward to repair the bridge, tying myself to a branch with thick vines – a trick I learned from jungle survival school. White-knuckling the broken bamboo rail, I took a step. Another. Knew I should’ve dieted more. Suddenly I felt the rotting bamboo pole give way. Craaaaack!
THE WILD, WILD MOUNTAINS OF MINDORO
Tamaraw Rangers look for wildlife below the crest of Mt. McGowen – now called Mt. Magawang – in Mindoro Occidental. The summit is the best place to observe wild Tamaraw in the Philippines. (Gregg Yan)
The Iglit-Baco Natural Park in Mindoro spans 75,445 hectares and is dominated by Mt. Baco (2488m) and Mt. Iglit (2364m). Eight major river systems wend through its grassy peaks. When I first visited at the height of the monsoon season of 2012, we crossed a total of 42 rivers and streams. My ankles were leech magnets.
The park is famed for hosting the best-protected population of Tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis), Earth’s most endangered buffalo species. Droves of mountain climbers and birdwatchers visit – intent on seeing flying jewels like the Mindoro Hornbill (Penelopides mindorensis) and Mindoro Bleeding Heart (Gallicolumba platenae).
The park is also home to the reclusive Taw’buid, largest of the eight tribes collectively called Mangyan – the others being the Alangan, Bangon, Buhid, Hanunuo, Iraya, Ratagnon and Tadyawan. Last time I visited was when the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Tamaraw Conservation Programme (TCP) and National Geographic gave the tribe a shipment of solar lamps. The Taw’buid holds a special place in my heart.
This year I was invited by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to join the second Bio-Camp, an annual move to enhance public support for Tamaraw conservation. UNDP’s Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) works to mobilize resources to finance nature and sustainable development, deliver more efficient outcomes, improve spending efficiency and choose current investments which can save money in the future. BIOFIN helps close the funding gap to implement critically-important biodiversity conservation projects.
Tamaraw are the world’s rarest buffalo – with only about 600 holding out in selected mountain ranges in Mindoro. (Gregg Yan)
Led by TCP Coordinator June Pineda, participants Bibiana Aguha, Jes Aznar, Mitch De Juan, Kim Lim, Nella Lomotan, Bernard Magcarang, Gab Mejia, Maricor Montalbo, Celine Murillo, Angie Ogena, Kamille Rosales, Mitch Tuyan, Derald Umali and Gab Visenio all summited Mt. Magawang, saw Tamaraw in the wild and had lively discussions on how best to help rangers – the real heroes of the Iglit-Baco Natural Park.
RANGERS ON PATROL
“If the rangers disappear, the Tamaraw disappear. The Taw’buid believe that if the Tamaraw disappears, their people will too. We can thus say our Tamaraw Rangers are key to sustaining the natural habitat of the Tamaraw within the Iglit-Baco Natural Park,” says TCP Coordinator June Pineda.
We were accompanied by three kinds of rangers: Park rangers safeguard the park against poachers, tamaraw rangers lead expeditions and protect Tamaraw wherever they may be, while wardens are rangers-in-training.
“Tamaraw patrols are sent out once or twice weekly and last about three days each,” explains TCP Field Operations Officer Ed Bata. “Last August we found a Tamaraw skull and the lower left jawbone of a Philippine Deer – probably shot for meat by hunters. Poachers come at night, flashlights rigged under the barrels of illegally-acquired long-arms like M14s.”
As I found in Borneo for another wildlife adventure years back (to find and photograph the world’s rarest elephants), many wild animals stop and stare at bright lights at night, their eyes glowing a freaky red.
“Our equipment is old. Our last computer broke down recently. Though we badly need new gear, our rangers will keep going,” promises Pineda. “It is from them that I draw strength.”
Back at the river I hop back before the bamboo pole completely collapses. I gaze at the shivering Taw’buid woman on the riverbank and curse myself for not being able to do more. Eventually the rain eases up, the river becomes calmer – and help arrives.
Award-winning communicator Gregg Yan is the Director of Best Alternatives, an environmental nonprofit. He is a Loyola Mountaineer and a graduate of the advanced Jungle Environment Survival Training (JEST) School in Subic Bay. Read more about his adventures on the Wild Side, his monthly online column. (Bernard Magcarang)
The first of our team’s Taw’buid and Buhid porters arrive to assess the situation. Rapidly they string more vines around the battered bridge while a lithe scout crosses with a fisho, a long Taw’buid blade – emerging minutes later with two fresh bamboo poles. As we sweat, grunt and try to avoid falling in the river, the bridge takes form.
BIOFIN’s Kamille Rosales hands the Taw’buid woman a dry shirt, warming her. After a half-hour, the bridge is up and the column trudges once more for civilization.
As we crossed that rickety bridge, I realized how the brave, resourceful rangers of TCP and the Iglit-Baco Natural Park surmounted these obstacles all the time – fording swollen rivers, patrolling against heavily-armed poachers, dismantling dangerous spring-loaded spike traps set illegally within the park’s core zone. Building bridges and keeping a lifeline to the lowlands open has kept the park and its endangered animals alive and thriving. This year, the park’s Tamaraw numbers swelled to 523, the highest recorded since conservation efforts began.
“We rangers have dodged bullets and charging Tamaraw. Once I slid down a mountain for we were patrolling without lights,” remembers Ranger Team Leader Ronnie Estrella. “We even chased off a dozen poachers with kwitis or fireworks because we had no guns! This has become much more than a job for us. This is where many of us have devoted our lives.”
Making do with equipment which have seen better days, the plucky rangers are every bit as tough as the Tamaraw they protect.
As we celebrate Tamaraw Month this October, I urge you to help re-equip Mindoro’s Tamaraw rangers with GPS units, spotting scopes, binoculars, laptops and field uniforms by contacting the Tamaraw Conservation Programme at +63977 809 1498. As I found while repairing that rickety bridge, help goes a long way.
All words and photos courtesy of Gregg Yan