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Extinction Countdown

Extinction Countdown

News and research about endangered species from around the world

Little Time Left for the Tamaraw? Philippine Buffalo Species Down to Last 300 Animals

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You see that drawing to the left there? It appears to be the world's only public domain image of the tamaraw, or Mindoro dwarf buffalo (Bubalus mindorensis), a species endemic to a single island in the Philippines that is down to its last 300 or so wild individuals.

Oh sure, I could show you plenty of images of other things named after the dwarf buffalo. There's the super-popular Toyota SUV called the Tamaraw, known as "the People's Car," which looks like a cross between a school bus and a Humvee. There's also a basketball team, the Far Eastern University (F.E.U.) Tamaraws, that uses the endangered buffalo as its name and mascot. But images of the animal itself? Those are few and far between.

(Okay, here's one photo, but it's copyrighted, so you'll have to click the link in order to actually see it.)

Anyway, let's get back to the real tamaraw, the one those other things are named after. According to a recent report from the Philippine Star, tamaraws used to be quite plentiful in the forests and grassy slopes of Mindoro, the seventh-largest island in the Philippine archipelago. But human development in the past century has reduced the island's forests by at least 70 percent. Domesticated cattle were introduced to Mindoro in the 1930s, bringing with them the deadly disease rinderpest (aka "cattle plague"), which killed tens of thousands of the animals. In the 1960s and '70s sportsmen took a fancy on the buffalo, killing thousands more for trophies. Since then at least 2,000 people have illegally settled in Mangyan Heritage Park, further limiting the dwarf buffalo's range in that area.

All of this took a terrible toll: by the year 2000 there were only 154 tamaraws left on Earth. But the past decade has been a bit of a success story. The Philippine government's Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP) has worked hard to grow the population through captive breeding and habitat preservation. The species doubled to 300 animals by 2010.

Now there's a plan to double that number once again. The World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines (WWF Philippines) and F.E.U., home of the Tamaraws basketball team, have partnered with the TCP with a goal of increasing the tamaraw population to 600 by the year 2020. F.E.U. has operated a "Save-the-Tamaraws" program to count the species and manage the population since 2005, and provides what it calls "health and livelihood services" for local indigenous communities whose traditional lifestyles are based on subsistence farming.

Juan Miguel Montinola, the university's chief financial officer, told the Star, "The tamaraw is no mere F.E.U. mascot. It is a charismatic Filipino icon. We partnered with WWF because its holistic and people-oriented outlook transcends mere conservation. Our alliance is not just about the tamaraw. It is about connecting people with the environment." F.E.U. also recently published a coffee-table book about the tamaraw and the Mindoro region to help fund its conservation program.

Tamaraw resemble other buffalo species—so much so, in fact, that their taxonomy was debated for decades—but they are less than half the size of the carabao (Bubalus bubalis carabanesis), the domesticated water buffalos in the Philippines, standing less than a meter tall at the shoulder and bearing horns that are V- instead of C-shaped.

Hopefully the current efforts to save the tamaraw from extinction will continue to bear fruit. It would be a shame if the species died out while tens of thousands of Toyota Tamaraws continued to traverse the roads of the Philippines for decades to come.

Photo: Art by Adolf Bernhard Meyer from Säugethiere vom Celebes- und Philippinen-Archipel, 1-2 (R. Friedländer & sohn, 1896-9). Via Biodiversity Heritage Library

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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