Lack of tenure, proper gear take toll on Mindoro's tamaraw rangers

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – You know a natural park ranger when you see one.

Uniformed, geared up, and armed – that's what an equipped ranger should be, ideally. But not all rangers have these job essentials. 

Take for instance the tamaraw rangers in Mindoro. They don't have complete uniforms, and with no GPS device, they rely on six, 15-year-old binoculars and a point-and-shoot camera while patrolling the Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park (MIBNP)

The MIBNP is home to tamaraws (Bubalus mindorensis), which are not only endemic in the Philippines (especially in Mindoro) but also critically endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

From a population of around 10,000 in the 1900s, they are now down to a significantly low count of 480 heads, according to the United Nations Development Program Biodiversity Finance Initiative (UNDP BioFin). 

The rinderpest outbreak during the 1930s, coupled with biodiversity loss, hunting, and poaching caused a huge decline in their population. 

Protecting the tamaraws from these threats are the rangers who have devoted their lives to this job despite lack of tenure, lack of proper tools and gear, and the dangers that come with the job. 

Tamaraw rangers

Field operations officer Eduardo Bata has been a ranger for decades under a contractual employment. His contract is renewed every 6 months. 

According to Nella Lomotan, a travel and conservation enthusiast who had talked to him when they visited the site, 15 rangers would patrol the MIBNP for 22 days straight, keeping it safe from hunters and poachers. 

He told her that while on duty, they had encountered lowlanders who fired at them. 

View this post on Instagram Meet some of the Tamaraw Rangers, men who dedicate their lives to protect our critically-endangered tamaraws. For 22 days straight, 15 of them patrol 23,000 hectares of land, keeping Mt. Iglit-Baco (now a Natural Park) safe from hunters and poachers. • Kuya Ed, pictured 2nd in this set, has been in service for 32 years. He said his post was contractual and renewed every 6 months, I asked even after all these years? Yes, even after all these years. We continue to talk, and he laughs as he recalls the times when they’d encounter lowlanders firing gun shots at them while in duty, as if it were a matter to be taken lightly. • That was the nature of their job. But he has stayed all these years because he’s proud of his job as a ranger and treats the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP) as his family. This is where he found his calling, his family, and where he even started to build his own. It’s where he got married and had kids. • When I asked what his biggest challenge was after all these years, he told me it was not being there for his family when they needed him most, when his daughter was sick and couldn’t be there as a father. • We talked about more things and I learned so much about the ins and outs of the post, of being a ranger, some I’d rather not disclose for their own security and for political reasons. But in the short span of time I’ve gotten the chance to speak to them and know them, I’ve come to understand even more the true meaning of service, sacrifice, and loyalty. Their stories are those I won’t forget. • While the conservation plan is still being completed, if you want to learn more about the Tamaraw Conservation Program and support the work of the rangers, send me a message. #hatawtamaraw2018 #biodiversityPH #everydayphilippines @undp.ph @undp @biofin_ph @denrmimaropaofl A post shared by Nella Lomotan (@nellal) on Oct 18, 2018 at 4:39am PDT

 

Yet the biggest challenge of this job, according to Eduardo, is being away from their families. It made him miss moments at home when he's needed the most, like when his child is sick. 

For 32 years, his job arrangement has remained the same. 

In her disbelief, Lomotan had to ask him: "After all these years?"

"Yes," the ranger answered.

Lomotan said the rangers are aware of the nature of their job, but they choose to stay because they consider it their calling.  

According to an article contributed to Eco Explorations – an environmental nongovernmental organization (NGO) that has an ongoing tie-up with the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP) – some rangers had also encountered "slipping down the mountain because they were patrolling without lights, and chased off poachers with firecrackers because they had no guns." 

Tamaraw Conservation Program 

The TCP was established in 1979 through Executive Order No. 544, due to the pressing need to conserve these only endemic bovine in the country. 

As a special government project under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, its aim is to protect the remaining tamaraws, whose population in the MIBNP has increased in the last 16 years. 

Key to this success is the patrolling and monitoring in the MIBNP, according to a summary report from D'Aboville, a foundation that helps the TCP.

Celine Murillo of The Poor Traveler who was with Lomotan during their MIBPN visit said that majority of the Mangyans, whose hunting practices contributed to the decline of the tamaraws, are also now part of this conservation program. These tribes live in the area and depend on its biodiversity for sustenance. 

Through negotiations, the Mangyans agreed with the TCP to designate a hunting season and a hunting area in order to protect the tamaraws. Some of them are now rangers, she added. 

Challenges and support

A limited budget fund is the root of the TCPs many challenges. Murillo said the TCP has to rely on agencies like the BioFin and D'Aboville Foundation, as well as private individuals, for support. 

She said wardens, who are additional manpower in the MIBNP, receive a P3,000 allowance for 11 days of duty from D'Aboville Foundation.

The World Wildlife Fund, together with the Red Cross, also grant a one-year accident insurance to 20 rangers, she added.

Last year, BioFin co-organized the second Biodiversity Camp in the MIBNP to help raise funds for the TCP. The camp is held annually by the TCP to raise awareness on the plight of the tamaraws and mobilize resources for species protection.

According to Murillo, TCP project coordinator June Pineda David sometimes shell out her own money and find ways to provide for the needs of the rangers.

Funding and legislation

But David and everyone in the TCP team are worried about the budget cut. 

"They wondered if the increase in the tamaraw population – the largest being recorded – is not enough to warrant them better funding," Murillo said. 

She said there are fears that the years of conservation efforts will be undone along with the slash in their budget.

According to Angelique Ogena of UNDP BioFin, David had said that the approved 2019 budget for TCP is P3,300,000. Back in 2018, the program's approved budget was P4,200,000. 

Ogena added that the budget has a net of P2,790,000, which is less the mandatories and 10% share to the provincial office.

Ogena said that according to David, the budget is not enough especially since the TCP needs P2,952,120 for the wages of 25 rangers and 3 office staff.

The rangers' salary depends on their roles (e.g. team leaders) and length of service. New rangers receive P6,000, while those in service for 33 years receive P11,000, Ogena added.

Last year, 4 tamaraws were spotted in Mt Gimparay in Naujan, Occidental Mindoro, affirming once more the need for conservation attention in these areas.

To date, there are only 25 rangers and a few wardens in the MIBNP, which is a total of 2,000 hectares. About 1,600 hectares of the park is the core habitat, while the rest is buffer zone. 

Under the Philippine Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (PBSAP) 2015-2028, P24 billion is required annually for biodiversity conservation in the country.

"However, the current level of spending on biodiversity is only at P5 billion per year, which leaves an 80% financing gap," according to BioFin, which helped mainstream the PBSAP into the Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022.

BioFin is also exploring policy reforms through Congress. This partnership resulted in House Bill 4604, filed in the 17th Congress by Occidental Mindoro Representative Josephine Ramirez Sato. The bill aims to tap the Malampaya Fund for biodiversity conservation and renewable energy development.

Ultimately, the institutionalization of the TCP is crucial for it to have a permanent office with permanent items and benefits for the rangers. 

Other ways to help

According to BioFin, local governments can adopt the PBSAP and create their own local version, as it is proven effective in increasing financing for biodiversity at the local government level. 

Private sector investments in biodiversity-friendly enterprises are also being explored, while the TCP's existing private sector partnerships help the team get by.

They receive help in terms of research and technical assistance from NGOs, donations (including in kind) from guests, two units of desktop computers from the academe, and 6 Android phones from an international NGO. The rangers use the phones for SMART spatial monitoring and recording tool. 

Conservation-focused tour providers like the Eco Explorations include the MIBNP in their destinations and provide a portion of the fee to the TCP. Ogena said the TCP plans to implement ecotourism strategies in the MIBNP that are similar to their tie-up with Eco Explorations. – Rappler.com

If you want to help rangers and wardens of Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park, please contact Angelique Ogena at angelique.ogena@undp.org. You can also get involved with the TCP through Eco Explorations.