Like Lightning: Up the Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

mts iglit baco mindoro

Storytime is a series of  stories about my most memorable travel experiences. Read more here.

For things illuminated, beauty is often a given. Light, after all, is necessary for sight. To be in the shadows and still be wondrous – now that’s rare. When my usual sleep-greedy self couldn’t wait to get out of bed, I knew I was somewhere special. 

I had suspicions of course. In daylight, when all were clear and bright, I watched how the tall grass gleamed with dew and sunfall, how they swayed mesmerizingly to the breaths of cool mountain air. Distant peaks lurked in the periphery. The land soared and dropped. Undulating. Rolling. 

Awe had eased the path through this otherworld, this encompassing space known as Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park, whose landscape consists of woods and waterways, valley and hills. Ridges, plains, and sierras. Everything except the ocean – although you could find that, too, if you ventured farther out. 

I came here – for the first time in a while – with expectations, but I didn’t have to wait long for these to be met. I wanted the mountains – here they are. I wanted trees – there’s plenty here. I wanted this terrain – I got it. Yet the purpose of my, and my companions' visit, wasn’t really about this place. It was because of what was in it.
mountains in mindoro

We came here for the Tamaraw. 

The Bubalus mindorensis aka Mindoro Dwarf Buffalo – the only endemic bovine to the country – calls MIBNP home. They’re often confused with the carabao, and for good reason. Save for the V-shaped horns and slightly paler hide, the two are almost identical. But while the carabao is often seen in the lowlands, out in the fields aiding farmers, the tamaraw dwells high up the mountains and are fabled for being both aggressive and reclusive.
where to find tamaraws

These creatures used to number in the hundreds of thousands, but poaching, hunting, and habitat loss, along with an outbreak of rinderpest in the 70s, had cut their population down to a mere few hundreds. The ones residing here, in this part of Mindoro, are the only known in the world.
tamaraw in iglit

There have been attempts to revive their dwindling numbers. In 1979, by virtue of EO 544, the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP) was established. This entailed an off-site breeding facility and gene pool. The breeding project had largely been unsuccessful. Of all the resulting calves, only one had survived: Kalikasang Bagong Sibol – Kali, the lone tamaraw in captivity.
only tamaraw in captivity

At present, the TCP is composed not of scientists but of Tamaraw Rangers and Wardens. These people go on the ground to patrol the areas where the tamaraw population is concentrated. But along with the gene pool and breeding program being scrapped was most of the TCP’s budget.
tamaraw rangers

In the Ranger Station at the foot of Mt. Magawang, we listened to the stories of the rangers. We sat on the cold floor, night fast approaching. For months, these men spend their time here in the mountains, away from their families. They roam the critical zones, making sure no harm – poachers or otherwise – will come to the creatures they’ve sworn to protect. It is a dangerous job and there have been many close encounters. Not deputized to carry weapons, they rely on their knowledge of the land to keep them safe. They lack decent binoculars and spotting scopes, but thank god for their sharp eyes that allow them to tell a boulder from a bull. We'd witnessed this unparalleled skill earlier at dusk when we went spotting tamaraws.
tamaraw gene pool

tamaraw mangyan

june pineda tcp

A lump formed in my throat as the men – and women – continued to speak. My eyes stung. I reached for a shot of rum to calm down. My heart was breaking. 

Here were people who sacrifice life and limb for something greater than themselves. They understood that their lives were a speck in the grand scheme of things, but what they do here in MIBNP is transcendent. They’re fighting to keep heritage – natural heritage – alive. In my mind, I thought, “the least we can do is to make it easy for them do so”.

This was why, upon learning about their situation – the lack of support, the absence of proper gear and better working conditions – something akin to fury took hold of me.

When it comes to environmental efforts, there are moments I question my intentions. Am I doing it to get noticed? Is this all just for show? But I knew I was serious when I imagine myself in a Faustian scenario and my take is this: I’d let the Devil – if he exists – have my soul in exchange for limitless money and power. I’ll get as much natural landscape privatized as I can. Pour all my wealth into keeping them as they are and making sure they remain that way for all time. This isn’t really altruistic. Like Faust, my conditions are selfish in nature. It’s not for the environment – this planet would recover once She gets rid of us all. It’s for me. I want what we have now, what we’re  losing at great speed. Never mind my mortal soul. I want the sublime. 

The TCP, once the deal is done, would be the very first to benefit. I get hopeless sometimes, with how we appear to be plunging into our own demise, how my efforts seem insignificant, and then I think of the people behind TCP, and I’m hopeful again. They are my inspiration. 

That night I lay on a bed absent of a mattress. The wooden frame rough against my back. In and out of slumber, I slid, but it wasn’t because I was uncomfortable. I just felt I needed to see this place at dark.

I swung out of bed and tiptoed out into the porch. Some of my companions had set up a tent here – I had to slowly sidle my way through. The cold white glow of my phone my only guide. I reached the bench and sat down, my arms resting on the wooden railings. I stared ahead but everything, save for the generous sprinkling of stars, was black. There were only hoots, tuts, caws, and snarls – wild songs.

A few minutes have passed and the inky sky glowed momentarily. I blinked, startled. In the distance – so, so far away from where I sat – was a flurry of light. A storm was being born and it was spectacular.
lightning in the mountains

Look at the stars, see how they shine for you.

Up the nearby view deck, I sat on a bamboo bench along with four of my companions. I came back inside to wake some of them up as agreed earlier. For photos, see. It was a few more hours until dawn.

While they look on one side to photograph the silhouetted range, I gazed on the opposite for the light show. Coldplay playing softly from one of my companion’s phone. 

There was a patch in the sky that throbbed with radiance, sometimes orange, sometimes blue. A jolt of light would zig across occasionally. If light traveled faster than sound, I wondered how long it would take for thunder to reach me.
mt iglit at night

I wondered about the survival of the Tamaraw, about the TCP’s condition. 

Some kind of comfort came with the ranger’s words, echoing in my head. So fleeting that I yearned for it, but strong enough to illuminate. Almost like a flash of lightning:

Kung walang tamaraw, wala kami. Kung wala kami, walang tamaraw.
tcp tamaraw rangers

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The Tamaraw Conservation Program is in dire need of binoculars, spotting scope, GPS devices, hiking gear, and uniforms for its rangers and wardens. To know more about and help save the Tamaraw, get in touch with the TCP through UNDP-BIOFIN c/o Angelique Ogena at angelique.ogena@undp.org.

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