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Mount Magawang, Philippines - A stout black tamaraw bull warily leads a grey cow and two calves on to a meadow, sniffing the late afternoon air to check for the presence of hunters.
Emerging to graze only at dawn and dusk, the dwarf water buffalo, the largest indigenous mammal in the Philippines, is living on borrowed time.
First documented in 1888, the tamaraw stands about one metre high at the shoulder and weighs 300kg.
It lives for about 25 years and has a ferocious streak - it has been known to attack people with its V-shaped horns.
By the 1960s only about 300 had been counted in the wild making it rarer than the black rhinoceros of Africa, China's panda and the tiger.
Tamaraw exist mostly within a 16 000-hectare section of a 97 000-hectare national park around Mount Iglit on the central island of Mindoro.
"Since there are less than 500 of them, by definition they are still on the critically endangered list," said Rodel Boyles, head of the government's Tamaraw Conservation Programme.
The World Conservation Union cites habitat loss from cattle ranching and farming, hunting and diseases as major threats to the animal's survival. A century ago about 10 000 were thought to be roaming the entire island.
The conservation programme is run on a shoestring annual budget of 3,69 million pesos (about R543 000), barely even enough to fund and outfit Boyles' staff of 30, including a handful of anti-poacher patrols.
The park also shelters deer, wild hogs and other rare birds endemic to Mindoro, including the imperial pigeon, scops owl, black-hooded coucal, scarlet-collared flowerpecker and bleeding-heart pigeon, as well as the rare Jade vine.
As the count began here from a vantage point atop Mount Magawang, two suspected big game hunters brazenly cut across the pasture below and headed for the gap at Iyam River, disturbing a tamaraw herd which bolted toward a creek hidden beneath tall reeds.
Enforcement of the law is lax and Boyles recalls an incident two years ago when Mindoro police released two poachers and then cooked and ate the meat they had seized.
The Mangyan, mountain-dwelling people who still wear loin cloths and hunt with spears are allowed to hunt tamaraw in a designated area outside the park.
Boyles said there were encouraging signs that within the park the tamaraw, a cousin of the ubiquitous carabao or water buffalo that is the Philippines' main draft animal, has earned a measure of respite from man, its only known predator.
Tamaraw numbers had risen to 263 in the past year, and Boyles said initial numbers from this year's count are even more encouraging. Twenty-three animals were counted in the morning and 34 in the afternoon from Magawang, one of 18 observation points in the park.
Boyles said this section of the park's carrying capacity appeared to be nearing its limit and tamaraw sightings had been reported by residents in nearby Rizal town, where there are government proposals to expand the protected area of the park on land now occupied by ranchers.
When the dry season sets in March these days, mountainsides at the tamaraw park are set on fire in a controlled burning programme to entice the herds to come out of hiding and browse on the new shoots several weeks later starting on Earth Day on April 22, when a five-day annual tamaraw count is held.
This year, 25 guests were invited to the tamaraw range, an ardous seven-hour hike up a mountain trail from the village of Poypoy, a settlement of the indigenous Mangyan tribe whose menfolk once hunted the animal for meat but who now form part of the park's security force against poachers.
They included several Western eco-tourists on a tour organised by Britain's Scientific Exploration Society.
Hermione Morrison, a retired British doctor and volunteer conservationist from Cornwall, paid 2 500 pounds (around R34 500) to join the tamaraw count.
"I would rather do a holiday like this, with a purpose," she said.