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Rangers protecting Philippine tamaraws go hungry as pandemic bites

Image by Gregg Yan

  • Rangers tasked to protect the critically endangered Philippine tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis) are facing a different kind of threat: hunger, as budget cuts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic bite into their already meager salaries.
  • The tamaraw, also known as the dwarf buffalo, is a critically endangered species found only on the island of Mindoro, with an estimated population of just 480.
  • The tamaraw’s island stronghold is Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park, which is protected by 24 rangers and Indigenous volunteers.
  • But the tamaraw program has been chronically underfunded, and diversion of funds to help fight the pandemic has left some of the rangers unemployed and the rest going hungry, even as they continue to do their jobs.

For the rangers protecting one of the most threatened species of cattle in the world, a day at the office can involve facing off against poachers or walking a tightrope between the military and armed rebels in a conflict zone.

But with the onset of COVID-19, the guardians of the critically endangered tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis), a species found only on the Philippine island of Mindoro, face a different kind of threat: hunger, as budget cuts caused by the pandemic bite into their already meager salaries.

Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park (MIBNP) on Mindoro is the last stronghold of the tamaraw, a dwarf wild buffalo whose dwindling population stands at 480, based on a 2019 count.

“They used to roam around in the lowlands, but the eventual growth of communities pushed the tamaraws into the mountains,” says Neil Anthony del Mundo, coordinator of the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP). “Now, tamaraw habitats are isolated into patches, with most of the present habitats under constant threats [from] encroachment, kaingin [slash-and-burn farming], deforestation, poaching, and hunting.”

The elusive Philippine tamaraw can only be found in Mindoro Island, Philippines. Image by Gregg Yan

The TCP was established in 1979 as a special project under the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to protect and conserve the remaining tamaraws that inhabit the park’s 2,500-hectare (6,180-acre) core protection zone. Twenty-four rangers regularly patrol the park 22 days out of the month. But during the Philippines’ pandemic lockdown period, which began in March, they logged even more hours, out of fear of an increase in poaching and hunting activities.

However, rangers from other municipalities with confirmed COVID-19 cases can’t go to their assigned stations due to movement restrictions, and the Indigenous Buhid and Tau-Buid tribes that live within the park’s 106,655 hectares (263,550 acres) have barred outsiders, even rangers, in an effort to keep the coronavirus out of their communities.

These tribes are part of the Mangyan Indigenous group, the original inhabitants of Mindoro, who consider the tamaraw a crucial part of their culture. To protect the cattle, some tribe members have joined as rangers, employing their field skills and knowledge of the bush. “Those that were not allowed to patrol in MIBNP went to secure the tamaraw habitats nearest to their residence,” del Mundo says.

The government’s biodiversity action plan calls for a 24 billion peso ($494 million) budget per year for the conservation and management of Philippine biodiversity by 2028. But public funding as of 2019 only amounted to 4.95 billion pesos ($102 million).

Tamaraw Conservation Program rangers Ed and Ronnie have been working to protect the Philippine tamaraw for decades. Image by Gregg Yan

This annual funding gap of almost 19 billion pesos ($391 million) has impacted the country’s forest rangers, whose jobs are inextricably linked to conservation and who continue to hold the front line against environmental crimes. Their works help protect ecosystems that, if left intact, provide 146.3 billion pesos ($3 billion) annually in the form of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and water provision, according to a 2019 report by the group Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE).

In 2018, the Philippines passed the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (ENIPAS) Law, authored by lawmaker Josephine Ramirez Sato. Roland Cabigas, a staffer in the congresswoman’s office, says an additional 500 million pesos ($10.3 million) has been approved to augment the budget of the DENR to support the enactment of the law, which established 94 protected areas in the country, including the MIBNP, and provides for management of these sites. He added that a similar supplementary budget must be raised in the Senate to ease the financing gap.

“This will be used in creating the Protected Area Management Office (PAMO) which will handle the operations of protected areas at the local level,” Cabigas tells Mongabay. He adds there must be a budget for the tenure of staff, including forest rangers, and for their improvement.

Most forest rangers aren’t regular government employees; they don’t have health and accident insurance and don’t receive hazard pay. At the same time, working for the government makes them ineligible for the various welfare benefits extended to many households affected by the pandemic quarantine.

The critically endangered Philippine Tamaraw population is down to only 480 in the Mindoro Island wild. Image by Gregg Yan

The TCP’s supposed budget for 2020 was 4 million pesos ($82,400) but it was slashed by 10% as the government diverted funds to augment its COVID-19 response. This compelled the TCP to let go of four rangers, three of whom were taken on by the MIBNP protected area office. The office itself can’t pay for the additional benefits of rangers and existing staff due to budget cuts.

In 2019, the TCP also saw its budget cut, from 4.2 million pesos the previous year to 3.3 million pesos ($86,500 to $68,000). It was slashed further to 2.7 million pesos ($55,600) as the provincial environment office took a cut (the office doesn’t have a budget allocation). This left the TCP short of the 2.9 million pesos ($59,700) it needs just to cover the wages of its 24 rangers and three office staff, who earn less than the minimum wage.

For new rangers like Oscar Bongray, a monthly salary of 6,000 pesos ($124) isn’t enough to raise a family on. “Only 1,000 pesos goes to my family, for I have to pay my 3,000 pesos debt for our rice consumption and keep the 2,000 pesos for my fare from home to the station and back,” he says.

Another ranger, who asked not to be named, says he doesn’t mind having a low position as long as there’s job security, especially during the pandemic. “Where will we get money for hospital bills when we get sick?” he says.

The Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park is home to the Philippine tamaraw. Image by Gregg Yan

While other rangers can earn up to 11,000 pesos ($227) a month, they lack the basic ranger uniforms and have to make do with a 15-year-old binoculars to survey the sprawling park. During the quarantine period, they also repaired all six rangers’ stations that were damaged by two recent typhoons — Ursula and Tisoy — paying for it out of their own pockets.

The tamaraw rangers are also in constant need of food subsidies while they’re on patrol, small basic necessities that can’t be covered by their minimal salaries. The Support-A-Ranger program, run by sustainable tourism operator Eco Explorations and the NGO Philippine Parks and Biodiversity, ensures a constant supply of food subsidies and other aid to the rangers.

These are also fundraising drives to provide hospitalization and accident insurance for all rangers, as well as for equipment to do their jobs effectively and comfortably, from tents and rain gear, to hammocks, radios and binoculars. Throughout the quarantine period and well beyond, they need a stock of disinfectant too.

Tamaraws were the prime prize in trophy hunting expeditions in past decades. Image by Gregg Yan

The United Nations Development Programme’s Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) has been helping secure funds for the Philippines’ biodiversity hotspots, including MIBNP. In 2019, it launched a documentary about the tamaraw rangers to raise awareness of their plight and the rare species they protect, and to raise funds.

Eduardo Bata, the president of the tamaraw rangers, who has dedicated the past 33 years to the job, says they still dream of becoming regular government employees one day, all while keeping their eyes on their target: to move the tamaraw off the IUCN’s list of critically endangered species.

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Banner image of Philippine tamaraw rangers surveying the landscape of the Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park in Mindoro Island, Philippines. Image by Gregg Yan.

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