In a mountainous island in the Philippines, an indigenous group collectively known as Mangyans are sharing their home with the rarest buffalo in the world, the critically-endangered tamaraw.
The mountains of Iglit-Baco in Mindoro Island in the central region of the Philippines are home to the 480 of 600 remaining tamaraws in the wild. Within its 2,500-hectare protection zone are the ancestral domains of five Mangyan tribes — the Tau-buid, Buhid, Bangon, Tadyawan, and Hanunuo.
Philippine law recognizes the role of indigenous communities in biodiversity conservation. Aside from the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997, the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 2018 or eNIPAS states that the indigenous people have the rights to “govern, maintain, develop, protect, and conserve” their ancestral domains including those within the protected area. The Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park ensures the representation of Mangyans in the decision-making process by providing seats for Mangyan leaders in its management board.
Among all Mangyan tribes, the Tau-buid has the largest number of communities. According to the latest count of D’Aboville Foundation, there are 70 Tau-buid settlements being led by 24 fagtaynans or tribal leaders. The tribal leaders are the ones who communicate with the outsiders including park rangers of Mounts Iglit-Baco. There are three supreme leaders who are constantly consulted on all the activities including patrolling, the scheduled treks of hikers, and even installation of infrastructure such as ranger stations and tourist facilities.
According to the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP), the Tau-buids are working closely with the park management in protecting and conserving the last frontier for Philippine tamaraws. To date, there 32 Mangyan wardens — 22 from the Tau-buid tribe and 10 from the Buhid. Other tribesmen served as guides and porters to tourists.
In 2018, the United Nations Development Programme’s BIOFIN Project organized a BioCamp to Mounts Iglit-Baco. The journalists and social influencers who participated became staunch advocates of tamaraw conservation. They have been using their influence to spotlight the issues being faced by the tamaraws, park rangers, and Tau-buid tribe.
Gregg Yan, an environment journalist who participated in 2018, recalled his experience with the park rangers and the Tau-bid tribesmen. They were trapped on the bank of a swollen river amidst heavy rain.
“The first of our team’s Tau-buid and Buhid porters arrived to assess the situation. As we crossed that rickety bridge, I realized how the brave, resourceful rangers of the Tamaraw Conservation Program and the Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park surmounted these obstacles all the time, fording swollen rivers, patrolling against the heavily poachers and dismantling dangerous spring-loaded spike traps set illegally within the park’s core zone,” he says.
The lives of the Tau-buid are not easy. During rainy season which lasts from June to October and when tourist numbers fall, they need to devote extra effort in hunting food even if it means risking their lives under the harsh weather.
“We call this period ‘tiis-pilipit’ (to twist in hunger) and we must make do. We are lucky. We caught some rats and frogs today,” said Tau-buid gatherer Robar.
Since 2013, UNDP’s Biodiversity Finance Initiative, or BIOFIN has been supporting efforts to protect and conserve the natural habitat of tamaraws. As improved biodiversity financing remains a challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic makes it more difficult for the programme to continue. The #TogetherforTamaraws crowdfunding campaign was launched July to help park rangers and Mangyan wardens keep their jobs
“A little help goes a long way. We ask people to donate just a bit to save the Tau-buid, tamaraw, and the rangers keeping everything working,” says Anabelle Plantilla, Project Manager of BIOFIN Philippines.
And as UNDP moves forward to a post-pandemic green recovery, it is set to kick off the Biodiversity Corridor Project with indigenous people on Mindoro Island at the very core of the process, by engaging them in managing biodiversity corridors effective conservation of globally-threatened species, reduce deforestation and expand biodiversity-friendly livelihoods. To ensure the effective engagement of indigenous people the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the lead agency, will be working closely with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples. This initiative includes the mountain ranges of Mounts Iglit-Baco and many Mangyan communities in Mindoro.
The Tau-buids, with their traditional knowledge and practices, have proven that it is possible to exist harmoniously with nature. These tribesmen-turned-wardens will always remain neighbours and protectors of the last Philippines tamaraws.
Story from UNDP Philippines; photos courtesy of Gregg Yan