What would you do if you were told that you’ll be going on a 10-hour bus and boat trip followed by a 25-kilometer, three-day trek through a mountainous jungle infested with limatik (blood leeches)?
That was a part of the itinerary of Eco Explorations’ Mts Iglit-Baco National Park Tamaraw Expedition. The rest of our itinerary included an orientation about Mts Iglit Baco National Park, the critically-endangered tamaraw (or the Mindoro Dward Buffalo) exclusively indigenous to the area, and the Mangyan that inhabit the mountains. It also included meeting the people behind the Tamaraw Conservation Program and the rangers themselves, who would act as our guides.
You may also like:
The whole adventure included lodging and meals with the rangers at the two stations that would be on our trail. We would end our second day at the Magawang Ranger Station at 800MASL and with the best views of Mts Iglit-Baco National Park. We would also have the opportunity to see the tamaraw in the wild, in their natural habitat.
During our trip, the mood of the expedition started to shift at Magawang Station. As the kids say, “things got very real, very quick.” Sometime after dinner, we had the opportunity to hear the stories of our ranger hosts and the challenges that they faced on a regular basis.
We learned about the massive 106,000-hectare expanse of the national park, and how there are only 21 rangers at the moment, and are all expected to recon the entirety of it every month. Certain groups and individuals doubt the authenticity of the rangers’ declared annual tamaraw count. They even question whether it was the rangers themselves that were hunting them.
They talked to us at length about their constant cat-and-mouse encounters with the hunters that enter Iglit-Baco. How firefights with these hunters were a common occurrence and how they had to make do with the makeshift weapons that they confiscate from the ones they do catch. The rangers would be perched on the cold summit, looking out for the hunters down below and chasing after them from all directions wherever they were.
All of this while getting marginal support as the rangers also fight a battle at sea-level to get out of their contractual work status and into permanent hire. Along with the shift comes the hope that they would finally get the basic incentives that we take for granted such as hazard pay, overtime, insurance, SSS, Philhealth, Pag-Ibig, and 13th month pay. These are all unavailable to them currently, even as they spend 22-day shifts in the mountains on a monthly basis.
That their own supplies come out of their own pockets from the unfairly low wage that they get isn't even surprising at this point. To say that the working conditions that the rangers have is unfair is clearly an understatement.
As infuriating and gut-wrenching these stories are, the rangers always have an air of positivity, smiling and laughing about their situation because they know that this is all for something far bigger than themselves.
They stand their watch with a goal of seeing tamaraw grow in number despite the odds. It gives them pride to see it grow from just a little over a hundred some years ago to 480 today. But they know that their work is far from over, they have a long way to go if they wish to see the tamaraw back in the tens of thousands that it was some decades back.
Call of the wild
These rangers know that their work is vital in protecting something that is genuinely ours. In protecting the tamaraw, they are exhibiting humanity the way that we envision humanity to be.
Their purpose is so clear that despite knowing that there are far better opportunities for them outside, they stay. Some have stayed for over 33 years, while a majority of the ones that we were with had served anywhere from 6 to 12 years. Some of them leaving behind other employments to be where we were that night.
It’s rare to see such a display of kindness and compassion, rarer even when you think of the conditions that the rangers are predisposed to. I was in the presence of brilliance that would far outshine any diamond, performed under pressure that is very rare in this modern age of employment, conservation, and public service.
As that evening’s session came to a close, I couldn’t help but think of the ways that many of us in the private sector could lend a hand to their cause. How we can help alleviate some of the conditions that make an already difficult mission unnecessarily dangerous?
We went back down to sea-level the following day, the walk made easier by the sun that finally decided to show up. It was almost cathartic, the walk. Seeing the range in all its majesty and hearing these rangers joking around and laughing, and seemingly not caring about anything else but our safety.
They would stop us to point out where the tamaraw were, and it was there that you could really see what was going on. It was this genuine love for these animals that keeps them going.
While I was expecting to see these rare animals, the tamaraw, in the wild and being completely fascinated by them when I did. It was clear that they weren’t the rarest beings occupying Iglit-Baco. And like the charge that they care for and grow out and away from extinction, we should also care and make sure that the rangers don’t fade out of history first.
The next Exploration for Tamaraw Conservation will be from October 25 to 27, 2019 to celebrate National Tamaraw Month. For more information, visit Eco Exploration facebook page. To know how to help a ranger, visit EcoExplorationsph.com/SupportARanger.
Photographs by Nella Lomotan of Eco Explorations