A rusted iron foot bridge hangs across the Lumintao River, where the Mindoro roads end and the single-track trails begin. Last time I was here was about 10 years ago to join the annual headcount of the iconic but critically endangered dwarf forest buffalo called the tamaraw in their last redoubt at the Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park.
The span is likewise a metaphorical drawbridge separating the rest of the world from the nomadic forest people called the Mangyan, the indigenous loincloth-wearing peoples who owned the island before waves of migration of Tagalogs from across the Verde Passage in Batangas to Ilocanos from as far away as as Bani, Pangasinan and Batac, Ilocos Norte pushed them from the flat, rich and low-lying coastal plains to the fastness of the mountain interior. Poypoy, the Mangyan village of Calintaan town on the island’s southwest coast, is now a mainly Ilocano area and the Mangyan are penned in, between the river and the tamaraws, in a ramshackle settlement of palm-frond huts called Tamisan. That was where we delivered notebooks, pad paper, pencils, erasers, sharpeners, ballpens, and homemade teddy bears to more than a hundred Mangyan kids before hiking up to the ranger station used by government rangers in patrolling the park, protecting the poor mammals from rich poachers armed with high-calibre hunting rifles as well as poor slash-and-burn farmers laying waste to the bovine habitats. From there it is a 4.5-hour assault to Iglit, one of the major peaks, or the nearby peak of Magawang, where I first caught sight of tamaraws in 2007. Both trails are under the scorching sun, which reached 38 Celsius that day.
I joined this hike after a month-long bout with pneumonia and had very low expectations. I immediately ruled out a summit push, so my first target was to reach the intermediate camp site before nightfall and photograph tamaraws the next morning, something I was not equipped for during my first visit. However there was just no time to do that on an overnight climb for somebody who had had no proper training for more than five weeks, so I had to settle for less, which was to photograph the endemic species of parrots, doves, pigeons, hornbills and other forest birds now facing extirpation due to the rapidly changing landscape. To do that I had to carry an extra six kilos of birdwatching equipment including a camera, binoculars and tripod behind my back. To stay within reasonable pack weight of about 13 kilos I had to chuck off most of my camp clothes and sleeping gear and make do with rudimentary food while sharing a tent instead of bringing one.
I did manage to keep pace in the first 3.5 hours until I was hit by thigh and calf cramps as expected at the last river crossing, with a kilometre's worth of hike still to go, the first part of it all uphill. From that time on it was a painful crawl, which took another two hours. I was forced to surrender my pack to Onie the bird guide over the last 800 metres or so. The alternative was to force our sweeper team to trek with me far into the night. I remember hiking this trail at night with a huge 24-kilo load the first time. It was a cakewalk, but I was much stronger then. About half the team left for the summit assault at 4 the following morning, while I cooked my breakfast at a leisurely pace before heading off to a minor peak to bird with Onie. I was back at camp before the first of the climb team returned.
I asked the Tamisan school principal what options there were for the Mangyan children after grade school. He said there were a few who had since gone on to college, but many never manage to get past the imaginary drawbridge across the Lumintao. That leaves the expanding Mangyan population to slash and burn their way to more of the finite lowland forests below the grassland peaks to eke out a living planting yams, taro, avocado, jackfruit, bananas, and upland rice. It is not a sustainable proposition, and the result has been carnage. All the forest canopy from Tamisan to the ranger station is basically gone. We passed a still smouldering patch just before the ranger station at dusk, and there were signs of fresh burning of grassland during our descent. The remaining birdlife is concentrated on the steep gorges above the river floor where it is impossible to plant anything without risking a landslide. Of course this does not mean these areas are safe from burning. "We try to dissuade them from continuing their nomadic lifestyle and to burn only in one place," said the lead guide, also a ranger. But in truth the rangers are virtually powerless to enforce the law.
What do all of these things mean for the tamaraw? Onie said the last count last month yielded only 401, less than the previous year and basically just a heartbeat away from extinction. Most of us were bitten by sand mites, but all made it back safely to Poypoy for a nice bed and shower by sundown. Things are a lot less certain on the other side of the suspension bridge. It's a sad story all throughout for the buffalos and their spiritual brethren the Mangyan who, it must be noted, are not averse to hunting and eating the buffalos themselves.