Philippines, Nov 2015

Philippines 2015-8679 Bubalus mindorensis Tamaraws, Bubalis mindorensis

The chance to run a workshop in Manila in November 2015 was a welcome opportunity for a few days mammal watching. That said, the Philippines comprises more than 7,000 islands so planning what to do with my 2 weekends was far from straightforward.  I was pretty sure I should visit the island of Bohol, where I could see Colugos and maybe a Tarsier. And after chatting with Dominique Brugiere I discovered there ought to be a good chance of seeing a Tamaraw – the endemic and critically endangered dwarf buffalo – on the island of Mindoro. Sold.

There are surprisingly few reports from the Philippines on in fact, in late 2015, just two.  Thankfully Fiona Reid and David Bishop, both of whom knew the country, came through with some great contacts.

Philippines 2015-8416 Carlito syrichta Philippine Tarsier, Tarsius syrichta

Fiona Reid introduced me to Nina Ingle, bat person and President of the Philippines Wildlife Conservation Society. Though she would be out of the country she was kind enough to introduce me to Reizl Pamaong-Jose of Bohol Island State University and Geoff Tabaranza of Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation Foundation. Meanwhile David Bishop introduced me to Filipino wildlife tour operator Nicky Icarangal  who had great tips for Bohol (which I followed to the letter) and also introduced me to Rodel Boyles, aka Mr Tamaraw, on Mindoro (Geoff Tabaranza also introduced me to Rodel – he really is the go-to guy for Tamaraw watching).


Philippines 2015-3643 Bohol Sunrise Bohol Sunrise

Bohol is a 90 minute flight from Manila. Its on the tourist circuit – and particularly well known for its diving – though from the mammal watchers point of view the Colugos and the Tarsiers are the star attractions.  Nicky Icarangal recommended I stay at Habitat Bohol (formerly called Simply Butterfly ) and book their guide Julius to search for Colugos and Tarsiers.  This is not be the fanciest accommodation on the island, but it might be the friendliest. It is also home to Julius, who is a fabulous guide.


Philippines 2015-8356 Stenella longirostris Spinner Dolphins, Stenella longirostris

On the first afternoon, Julius took me on the back of his motorbike to the nearby Rajah Sikatuna Park.  We drove a few kilometres through the park until the road ended at a grassy campsite/ recreation area “Magsaysay Park”.  Colugos are abundant here.

Philippines 2015-3641 Magsaysay, Rajah Sikatuna Park: Colugo Central

It took Julius less than 5 minutes to find a pair in the trees at the edge of the open area.

Philippines 2015-8221 Cynocephalus volans Philippine Flying Lemur, Cynocephalus volans

Once the sun had set we turned our attention to Tarsiers and staked out a spot where Julius had recently heard them. We didn’t see (or hear) a Tarsier but did see another 3 Colugos in an hour as well as several smallish fruit bats which I didn’t see well enough to hazard an ID

Philippines 2015-8251 Cynocephalus volans Philippine Flying Lemur, Cynocephalus volans

In a small cave nearby we found a few of the distinctive Asian Sheathtail Bats (Emballonura alecto).

Philippines 2015-8240 Asian Sheathtail Bat, Emballonura alecto

The next morning I was driven down to the coast before dawn to pick up a 5.30am boat for some dolphin watching around Pamilacan Island (contact Joselino “Jojo” S. Baritua from Pamilacan Island Dolphin and Whale Watching Tours ).  The trip was very reasonably priced: 6 hours for 60 USD which included lunch on the island and a snorkel over the  reef.  A range of interesting species have been reported from here including Beaked Whales, Kogia sp. Melon Headed Whales, Frasers and Rough Toothed Dolphins, along with seasonal Bryde’s, Sperm and Blue Whales. The species mainly encountered though are Spinner and Bottlenose Dolphins and I was happy to get a good look at a pod of the former: the first time I have seen Spinners spinning.

Philippines 2015-8282 Stenella longirostris Spinner Dolphin, Stenella longirostris

I got back to Habitat Bohol after lunch  to meet Julius who the day before had seemed pretty confident that he could find me a Tarsier this afternoon.  I was sceptical about this. And my scepticism wasn’t helped by my total lack of Tagalog and Julius’s very basic English.  From what I could gather – and there is a lot of room for error here – Julius claimed to know how to find Tarsiers in the day time, particularly in secondary forest, and had worked with at least one university researching this species.  He’d planned to walk through the forest that morning to find one, which he would then take me to see.

Philippines 2015-3722 Julius Julius

Julius took me on his bike to a patch of scrubby forest near his house, not more than 10 minutes from Habitat Bohol.  This spot was where (I think – communication was more guess work than comprehension) he had heard a Tarsier early that morning.  He walked 20 metres into the forest, looked around for a minute and called me over: he’d found a Philippine Tarsier roosting in a tree a metre or two off the ground.  It wasn’t shy, and although it jumped around a bit, it didn’t seem to mind my approaching within 2 metres to take pictures.


Philippines 2015-3709 Carlito syrichta Philippine Tarsier, Tarsius syrichta

I don’t understand how Julius found it so easily and whether this is guaranteed.  But I swear the animal wasn’t nailed to a tree.

Flushed with success, Julius took me to a large cave, a few kilometres away which he said was full of bats.  He wasn’t wrong. There were several species inside and a big thanks to Reizl Jose for helping me to ID them.

Dozens of a smallish megabat near the entrance were my first of the endemic Greater Musky Fruit Bat (Ptenochirus jahori).


Philippines 2015-8451 Ptenochirus jagori Greater Musky Fruit Bat, Ptenochirus jagori

The main species inside the cave were Diadem Roundleaf Bats (Hipposideros diamema) – I had forgotten how big they were – roosting in their hundreds or thousands.

Philippines 2015-8473 Hipposideros diadema Diadem Leafnose Bat, Hipposideros diadema

A few smaller Bentwings were roosting in the weep-holes in the roof of the cave, but I would have had to have caught and measured them to ID them down to species level (presumably either Miniopterus australis or M. schreibersii).

Philippines 2015-8492 Miniopterus Bentwing Bats, Miniopterus sp

And there were also a few much smaller Hipposideros species (quite tiny compared to the Diadems) scatterd around.  Reizl identified these as Dusky Roundleaf Bats (Hipposideros ater) and Philippine Pygmy Roundleaf Bat (Hipposideros pygmaeus), the latter a second lifer for me.


Philippines 2015-8563 Hipposideros pygmaeus Philippine Pygmy Roundleaf Bat, Hipposideros pygmaeus

Philippines 2015-8514 Hipposideros ater Dusky Roundleaf Bat, Hipposideros ater

A fun afternoon.  But  a crushingly humid short walk up to the cave.

Subic Bay

Philippines 2015-8632 Acerodon jubatus

Golden-capped Fruit Bats, Acerodon jubatus

Subic Bay is a couple  of hours north of Manila and its an easy trip to see the endemic Golden-capped Fruit Bats (Acerodon jubatus).  There are several hundred roosting in trees near the southern end of the airport (keep following the road past the airport and the bats are on the right just before the T junction at the southern tip of the airport).  There are also Giant Flying Foxes (Pteropus vampyrus) in the same roost, though the bats seem to cluster according to species.


Philippines 2015-3819 Iglit Baco Mount Iglik-Baco National Park

I planned to fly to Mindoro from Manila.  Although Cebu Pacific Air operate only a few flights a week, the timing was perfect: out of Manilla on a Friday and back early Monday to connect to my flight home to New York.  But the APEC Heads of State summit got the better of me: the comings and goings of various presidents meant a virtual closure of the Manila airport for several days and my flight was cancelled.  Undeterred, I took a 13 hour bus and ferry trip.  There are various ways to get to San Jose in Mindoro but my overnight trip was surprisingly easy and comfortable (largely because the bus was a quarter full …. It was a different story on the way home).

To see a Tamaraw you have to go to Mt Iglik-Baco National Park.  The best way to visit the park seems to be through Rodel Boyles who runs the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP) in San Jose, Mindoro.  Rodel and his team run a conservation program, not a tour agency. And though they can arrange visits to the park, do not expect the sort of customer service you might get from a travel agent.  Rodel responded to emails intermittently; but he did respond eventually and was ready for me when I arrived.  He arranged transport to the park entrance, porters, a compulsory guide and permit, groceries and so on.  My 24 hour visit ended up costing $350: about $200 of which was groceries. Granted there were at least 5 people in our entourage but I think it would have been a lot cheaper had I done the shopping myself.  Still the left-over food (and beer) presumably went back to the local indigenous communities thereby adding weight to the idea that there is money in seeing – not spearing – Tamaraws.

Philippines 2015-3821 Iglit Baco Tamaraw core habitat

Though the Tamaraws are critically endangered, and survive in just a couple of sites on Mindoro, Rodel and his team have had some success and numbers increased to over 400 in the 2015 annual count.  A lot of Rodel’s work is with the local indigenous tribes, whose territories surround the Tamaraw core habitat and who still hunt the animals.  Trips like mine employ locals as porters  and should ultimately benefit conservation.

I could find very little information about visiting the park other than what Dominique Brugiere could recall from many years earlier.  So here are the details.

Getting to the Tamaraws means a one and a half hour drive from San Jose to the park entrance, and  a 6 hour walk. i.e. all day. My bus pulled into San Jose at 6am but by the time Rodel had met me; we had repaired the Jeepney (a sort of stretch limo jeep that is ubiquitous in the Philippines that was taking us to the park); waited for breakfast; waited for someone else; and picked up more groceries it was 11am by the time I got to the start of the trail.

There are three National Park stations  en route.  Station 1 is a 30 minute walk from the trail head (though by 2016 the road should run all the way there).  Station 2 took another 2.5 hours walk from Station 1.  Station 3 is a further hour and 20 minutes from Station 2.  It is 25% quicker on the way down.

Long rest stops and food seemed to be the go at each station (indeed I had to push my guide to leave Station 2 so we could get to the top before dark). The walk is a steady – but not too taxing – climb.  November is the start of the cool season. It was brutally hot and humid when the breeze and shade stopped. I do not want to imagine how unpleasant this would be in May.

I arrived at Station 3 at 5pm and saw my first Tamaraws as soon as I got to the top of the small hill behind the bunkhouse.  The next morning I spent 3 hours staking out an area of grassland abutting a forest patch about a mile east of Station 3: an area which I was told was good for both Mindoro Deer and Warty Pigs. I didn’t see them but did see a couple more Tamaraws.

Tamaraws are all around Station 3 and easy to spot. The mountain is mainly meadow – albeit with shoulder high grass that hides everything – and small islands of forest.  The Tamaraw emerge from the trees in the early mornings and mid to late afternoon. When the moon is full – as it almost was when I was there – they become more nocturnal and harder to see. There are several hundred living on the mountain top. This is an artificially high density, but the animals are pinned in by hunting pressure from the indigenous communities surrounding them.

Philippines 2015-8665 Bubalus mindorensis Tamaraw, Bubalus mindorensis

Rodel runs the annual Tamaraw count in mid-April, when the park is closed for a few days to visitors. But immediately before – or after  – the survey might be the very best time to visit: the TCP burn the grass to prepare for the count so both Tamaraws and other mammals would be easier to see.  It is going to be stinking hot though.

Tamaraws aside, there are other interesting mammals living up there, though it was difficult to get accurate information: much of what I was told was contradictory.  So far as I could gather, Philippine Brown Deer (Rusa mariana) are not uncommon, and Mindoro Warty Pigs (Sus oliveri) are also seen from time to time. I saw neither though did see fresh deer poo and heard them barking at night. The Station 3 rangers had seen a pair of deer the afternoon I arrived.

With a longer stay – even just 2 nights – I imagine I would have had a pretty good  chance of the deer. The pigs seem harder to spot though as I was leaving I was told that another bunk house (visible on the left as you walk from Station 2 to Station 3) was a  better place to see both deer and pigs. With 2 nights there I would have been “sure” to see both species. Please check it out and let me know.

Even more interestingly, the rangers talked about some large rats – “Cloud Rats” – that they sometimes see on the rocks in the forest near Station 3 early in the morning.  I walked down there shortly after dark – just a couple of hundred metres from the bunkhouse – and heard something largish running through the leaf litter on the rocks that sounded about the right size for a Cloud Rat.  But I didn’t see it.  I walked back after dinner and though I heard a few rustles didn’t get close to seeing anything. I then slipped and lote the trail, which resulted in a battle through the razor sharp grass to get back to the Station.  The resulting scars looked more like a shark attack than a grass cut.  Take care.

The accommodation in the bunkhouse is rustic but the food was tasty, the TCP provided a mattress and a sleeping bag, and there were very few biting things other than a leach or two near the forest.

Philippines 2015-3840 Chief Indigenous chief

A big thank you to everyone who helped before, during and after this trip especially Fiona Reid, David Bishop, Nicky Icarangal, Rodel Boyles, Geoff Tabaranza, Reizl Jose and Nina Ingle.  Filipinos are an incredibly friendly group of people. I must go back.

Philippines 2015-8428 Carlito syrichta Philippine Tarsier, Tarsius syrichta

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19 Comments on “Philippines, Nov 2015”

  1. heavenlyjane Says:

    Never underestimate the skill of a native woodsman. I spent a year doing research on Barro Colorado Island, a Smithsonian reserve in Panama in the 1980s. There was a guy there named Bonafacio, who was the consummate woodsman. For fun, we’d challenge him to locate the most difficult species and he never failed. We had heard that silky anteaters lived on the island but no one had seen one in decades. We brought the question to Bonafacio and he marched into the forest and within 10 minutes he came back with a tiny silky hanging from a broken branch. We were not worthy.

  2. heavenlyjane Says:

    His name was Bonifacio DeLeon. You can google him and see that he has been an essential contributor in mammal studies at BCI. His eyes were the best estimators of population density of arboreal species on BCI because he was so darn good at seeing stuff in the trees. As I remember, he was a self-educated man who was bemused by his legendary status. I do not know if he is still employed there, or even alive. It was 32 years ago that I lived there.

  3. heavenlyjane Says:

    It’s likely that he retired by then. He was in his 40s back in the day. I wish a physchologist had studied his way of seeing the world. There was something remarkable about his abilities, something one just cannot learn.

  4. vdinets Says:

    Well, you sure squeezed a lot into two weekends 🙂
    I think the bentwings are M. australis, since M. schreibersii have shorter, more triangular ears.

  5. brugiere dominique Says:

    Great Jon! You got it. It is the Mariana deer that I saw there.

  6. Maurice Tijm Says:

    Fantastic that you saw the Tamaraw Jon, and that they are still surviving. I remember looking for recent pictures of Anoa, Tamaraw, Yak, Bongo, Mountain Tapir some years ago but by now all these mythical ungulates are covered by this website. If Vladimir Dinets is going to manage to cover Saola in a report, I don’t know what to say and what to wish for next.

    • vdinets Says:

      There’s plenty left. Northern pudu, African wild ass, beira, dibatag, royal antelope, etc. 🙂

      • vnsankar123 Says:

        I think even some of those are findable now. I’m aware of spots for African Wild Ass and Dibatag in Ethiopia and Beira in Somaliland (Speke’s Gazelle and Silver Dik-dik are easy too, in the right areas). I might go in the next couple of years (the sites are currently safe and doable) — Ethiopia is one of my top priority destinations. Gambella NP would get you Nile Lechwe too.

      • vdinets Says:

        I know there are places for them (I’ve seen the pudu and almost certainly the wild ass), it’s just that they’ve never been discussed on this forum.

        A Somaliland/Djibouti combination trip would be great.

      • brugiere dominique Says:

        Seeing Tamaraw is easy because they are now in a safe place. I did it a few years ago, but the first time I tried I turned back because of local war.
        I know also where to see African Wild ass, Dibatag, Speke’s gazelle, Beira, Nile Lechwe, Derby’s Eland but all are in area in trouble: Somaliland is not so safe and all the birdwatching companies have stopped to go there (Speke’s Gazelle and Beira); the areas where are African Wild Ass and Dibatag are in the same situation in Ethiopa; Djibouti for Beira is better; Nile Lechwe is in Soudan at a place in trouble(best seen by plane); Gambella in Ethiopa has apparently been completely depleted of wildlife; Derby’s Eland is mainly in north Cameroon and north Central African Republic, both in very insecure places, those in Senegal are very difficult to see(I tried) unless you have a plane or go in 2 fences reserves.

      • vdinets Says:

        There are a few places in Afar in Ethiopia where wild ass is still present, but the numbers are very low and usually you need at least a week. It’s not particularly unsafe (although a few people have been kidnapped and castrated according to local tradition, and if your car breaks down in a remote location you need to have good heat tolerance to be able to walk out).

        There is a large hunting concession in Cameroon where Derby’s Eland is said to be relatively easy and safely, but I haven’t been there and don’t remember the name of the place.

      • vnsankar123 Says:

        I was under the impression that African Wild Ass is doable in Danakil. Someone from an EWCA research team photographed them out there earlier this year (see Ethiopian Mammal Atlas for more info). A few years ago there was a stakeout for Beira in some hills between Hargeysa and Berbera in Somaliland (I’m aware that they are now findable in Djibouti) and Speke’s Gazelles were easy on the Ban Cade plains near Erigavo; not sure whether Abdi Jama is still running tours out there (birdwatchers used him I believe) but it would be worth checking. Is Somaliland really unsafe now? I was under the impression that it was still somewhat doable… Dibatag are common and easy to see around Kebri Dehar in the Ogaden – the problem is getting there safely as the situation is a little unpredictable out there (a little like going to Ishaqbini in Kenya for the Hirola).

        Lord Derby Eland are easy and safe in N Cameroon (not Far North, which is where most Boko Haram related problems are occurring right now) – there are a bunch of hunting concessions between Benoue and Faro where you can get big herds of them. I know European and American hunters shoot a number of them every year there. It might be worth contacting one of the hunting companies operating out there (Club Faune is the one I recall). IMO, the best place for Derby Eland is Chinko Project Area in CAR, which is currently being developed for conservation by African Parks. This place is so remote (can only be accessed by plane) that the areas near park HQ are totally safe.

        Re Royal Antelope, apparently an American guy (can’t remember his name) hunted them in Ghana somewhere. I remember reading that they were common on that particular concession and were easy to see if you walked trails at night with a spotlight…

      • vdinets Says:

        The wild asses in Danakil are spread over a large area, and there’s no easy way to find them. Yangudi-Rassa NP was created specifically to protect them, but a more recent survey found zero and the park has no real protection. I possibly saw one in 2009 in Mile Serdo Reserve, which is adjacent to YRNP along the same highway (you can see it in Google Maps if you zoom in on YRNP a bit); I’ve heard that there are at least 20 animals there, but never seen this published. The reserve has no protection either, and I didn’t even know it existed until much later, so I guess you can simply go there and drive around, there’s plenty of dirt tracks. In YRNP there is a little hut where three rangers live; they might be able to help a bit.

        Why would anyone want to hunt royal antelopes (animals the size of a large rabbit) is beyond my comprehension.

  7. brugiere dominique Says:

    Concerning Derbys’Eland, they are hunting concessions in the north of Cameroon and there is or was a good park in the north east (Boubandjiba if I remember well) but after heavy poaching of elephants 2 or 3 years ago the manager of the lodge tried the following season to reopen the place, but now it seems to be definetely closed. But these places are now very unsafe because of the activities of the Boko Haram’s group.

  8. vdinets Says:

    BTW, there are also a few Pteropus hypomelanus in Subic Bay roost. Check your photos 🙂

  9. Merijn van Leeuwen Says:

    Hi John, by incident, the last few days I also ended up with Julius and after a long afternoon and similar morning, he also found me two Tarsiers!! He is really good, not only finding them on sight, but also on smell as they mark there territory with urine.
    Besides the species that you reported, I also saw Philippine Pygmy Squirrel (2) in bird flocks and overflying Large Flying Foxes in Rajah Sikatuna, and Oriental House Rat at the Butterfly garden (which is highly recommended).
    Regards, Meryn (we saw the Snow Leopard together)

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