The old chief exhaled and the hut was enveloped in blue smoke.
"I remember," whispered Fausto Novelozo, chief of the Taw'buid tribe, "that a sickness drove us from the mountains. Measles we got from siganon or lowland visitors. Half our village of 200 died."
We're in the village of Tamisan Dos, one of two newly-established Mangyan communities at the foothills of the Iglit-Baco Natural Park in the province of Occidental Mindoro. Measles drove Novelozo's people closer to town, where they can have better access to western medicine.
Most people don't consider disease a major threat to biodiversity. But diseases ranging from coronavirus to African swine fever and Ebola have spread worldwide, taking thousands of lives and causing billions in economic damage.
For the reclusive Taw’buid, death and disease are part of life, hindering them from protecting an animal they revere – the critically-endangered tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis), only 600 of which remain today.
Living deep in forests, tribal communities are plagued not just by blood-sucking leeches, malarial mosquitoes and venomous snakes, but a lack of clean water, poor sanitation, poor nutrition, and inadequate medical knowledge. With hospitals often several days' journey away, many ailing tribesfolk die on their way to treatment.
Malaria, tuberculosis, measles and other diseases have always taken a steady toll on Mindoro's Mangyan population, estimated at 200,000. About 60% of Mangyan children are malnourished and almost all go hungry during the rainy season which lasts from June to October. With torrential rains turning Mindoro's streams into raging rivers, many cannot visit their upland ricefields and must hunt or gather whatever food they can.
"We call this period tiis-pilipit (to twist in hunger) and we must make do," said Taw'buid gatherer Robar, tiredly raising the day's catch. "We are lucky. We caught some rats and frogs today."
With limited healthcare access, tribesfolk have traditionally relied on medicinal plants to deal with cough, colds, fever, skin diseases, intestinal parasites, diarrhea, and other common ailments. The Taw'buid for instance use bungarngar to treat stomachaches, pito-pito to relieve pain and salimbayong for healing open wounds. A 1984 study by Garan and Quintana identified 128 medicinal plant species used by various Mangyan tribes.
"Isolated communities are especially vulnerable to diseases from the outside world because immune responses have yet to be developed," said medical anthropologist Gideon Lasco. "Limited access to health care and fear of hospitals also keep them from seeking treatment."
Taw'buid means "people from above" and is among two names the tribe calls itself – the other being Batangan or "felled forest." Close to 20,000 inhabit Mindoro's central highlands, making them the largest of the 8 tribes collectively called Mangyans by lowlanders – the others being the Alangan, Bangon, Buhid, Hanunuo, Iraya, Ratagnon and Tadyawan.
Many still sport loincloths called amakan, hunt game with spears called tulag, bows called gadun, and spike traps called silo. Unlike other Mangyan who chew betel-nut, nearly all Taw'buid men smoke a combination of papaya and tobacco – children included.
Once occupying Mindoro's lowlands, they were pushed into the mountains by both Spanish colonizers and Filipino immigrants. Their home forests too have retreated, with thousands of hectares converted into grazing land or rice paddies. As a people, the Taw'buid are peaceful, secretive, and deeply animistic – careful not to rouse the anger of their gods including Alulaba, lord of rivers and waterways, or Mangyan Muyod, lord of the mountains.
Contact with the Taw'buid has been established through missionary groups and the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP), which employs tribesmen as trackers and rangers.
For the Taw'buid, serving as a ranger is an honor and a stepping stone to become a fufu-ama or tribal elder – making them natural allies to conserve the world's most endangered buffalo.
Fufu-amas Henry Timuyog, Fuldo Gonzales, Oskar Bongray, and Pedro Salonga are some of the many Taw'buid who have served as TCP rangers. "We welcome them for their bushcraft and field skills," shared TCP head Neil Anthony Del Mundo as we trudged closer to the grassy peaks inhabited by herds of tamaraw.
A century ago, disease nearly wiped out the tamaraw. It's also disease which threatens its protectors.
The island of Mindoro has a long history of disease. The island was largely bereft of human settlement in the 1800s because of malaria, but was home to an estimated 10,000 tamaraw, a small dwarf buffalo with distinctive V-shaped horns that roamed its dense forests and wide rolling fields. But a century later, the island became a prime pastureland and the forests and open fields turned into a hunting ground for poachers armed with high-caliber weapons like M14 and M16 rifles.
By 1969, the outbreak of rinderpest and avid sport hunting drove the tamaraw population below 100, prompting the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to declare the species as critically endangered.
Decades of conservation led by the TCP, Biodiversity Management Bureau, Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park (MIBNP), and a host of allies including the Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) of the United Nations Development Programme and Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Incorporated, D'Aboville Foundation, Global Wildlife Conservation, World Wide Fund for Nature, Far Eastern University, Eco Explorations, and the Taw'buid people led by Novelozo, prevented the bovine's extinction, helping tamaraw numbers recover to around 600.
Today, the animals are confined to 4 isolated areas in Mindoro, all vulnerable to disease.
"Bovine tuberculosis, hemosep, and anthrax can enter Mindoro if we're not careful," explained Mikko Angelo Reyes, a Mindoro-based veterinarian. "The key is biosecurity, the prevention of disease through quarantine, inoculation, and immunization. We should ensure that at the very least, animals entering the island are checked for sickness. We should also establish and respect buffer zones around protected areas, which are often rung by farms and livestock."
Like the siganon visitors to Novelozo's village, imported cattle can spread diseases which tamaraw have not developed immunities to. The MIBNP spans 106,655 hectares. It is currently surrounded by 3,000 cattle belonging to 30 ranchers.
Together, TCP and MIBNP rangers work to ward off poachers and dismantle spring-loaded balatik and deadly silo snare traps while keeping disease outbreaks to a minimum, preventing cattle from intruding into the park and giving the park's indigenous people medicine and employment so they can buy supplies.
To gather much-needed resources for this, BIOFIN is helping raise funds via donations.
"A little help goes a long way. We ask fellow Pinoys to donate just a bit to save the Taw'buid, tamaraw, and the rangers keeping everything working," said BIOFIN Philippines project manager Anabelle Plantilla.
The nationwide lockdowns spurred by COVID-19 is also taking a toll on communities and institutions dependent on ecotourism revenues. UNDP is preparing crowdfunding campaigns in the Philippines and other nations to keep these communities afloat, especially as government funds are being redirected to fight the growing pandemic.
Since its inception in 2012, BIOFIN has worked with both the public and private sectors to enhance protection for the country's biodiversity hotspots by helping secure funds to implement sound biodiversity programs.
BIOFIN's second phase in the Philippines runs from 2018 to 2022 and includes the implementation of finance solutions to raise resources for the tamaraw and other endangered species through creative crowdfunding from corporations, government units, schools, and individuals.
Back in the Iglit-Baco Park, a weathered man in a loincloth emerged from a field of upland corn.
"Help us. We need medicine," coughed Ben Mitra, a Taw'buid fufu-ama. Our column, already returning to the lowlands, stopped to dig out whatever medicine we have left.
"Fadi-fadi," he said in Taw'buid, accepting our goods. Thank you. As we trekked back down, I prayed they'll be spared from disease and the fate of Novelozo's now-abandoned forest village.
Like many of the country's protected areas, the Iglit-Baco Natural Park exists in a fragile balance. One outbreak is all it takes, but we can all pitch in to prevent it. Contact email@example.com to know more. – Rappler.com