Philippine tarsier hunting in Bohol island

Say cheese: Tarsiers at the conservation centre. Photo: special arrangement  

“Shhhh…no camera…no light…no action!” Carlito Pizarras, the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary field supervisor, whispered, putting a finger on his mouth. Our group of four and a couple of Japanese tourists were alerted. “They are very, very sensitive, so no touching either, please.” We came nearer to the tree where three Philippine tarsiers, in a row, were clinging tightly to the branch. (‘Tarsier’ or ‘tarsius’ is derived from the animal’s very long ankle bones.) “Looks more like an owl or a mouse than a monkey, doesn’t it?” commented one of the Japanese tourists.

Caressing this cute creature seemed very inviting, but then, keeping in mind the delicate nature-and-conservation-dependent status of one of the oldest and smallest-known primates in the world, I had to resist the temptation. The three tarsiers were no larger than a man’s fist. But the size of the tarsier’s eyes was enormous for its body. To find more tarsiers and facts about them in this mini colony along the Tarsier Trail, the group scattered. The Tarsier Trail is a pathway that meanders through the gently rolling terrain of the interior towns of Corella, Sikatuna and Loboc of Bohol. Over a distance of roughly 15 km, it traverses the natural habitat of the Philippine tarsier, offering numerous vantage points from which to catch a glimpse of it in the wild.

“Raising tarsiers as pets is a cruel sport,” continued Carlito. “The stressed-out animals actually commit suicide, or otherwise or will themselves to die inside their cages. They smash their heads on the bars in a bid to escape, until they crack their skulls. The tarsier can simply stop breathing to die quickly.” Carlito said that he has witnessed this many times. “If you frequently hold it in your hands, it will be under such stress that it will grow stiff and eventually stop breathing. Its brain is extremely delicate, weighing just four grams.” No wonder, touching the “ultra-sensitive” tarsier was a no-no in the sanctuary. The creatures seem to have a good memory, too. “Whenever there are guests, their big marble-like eyes stay wide open. If it’s just me around, they give me a brief look and go back to sleep,” Carlito said with a chuckle. Even the camera flash can kill them. Therefore, visitors are advised not to use a flash on the tarsiers.

Although the Philippine tarsier has not been categorised as “vulnerable”, “endangered” or “critically endangered”, according to environmentalists, it could qualify for one of those categories within five years, if the present disastrous environmental situation continues. The Visayas (a group of islands in the central part of the Philippines, between Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south) have lost their lowland forests completely, except for two tiny reserves on Bohol Island where the tarsiers are kept in a sanctuary. Even the most protected forests suffer from poaching and hunting. Although the tarsier is extremely difficult to find in the wild, it became a victim of the illegal pet trade where it was caught and sold as pets and stuffed items. The tarsier population also declined because of the loss of its natural habitat, besides falling prey to feral cats.

At present categorised as a “lower-risk, conservation-dependent” species by the Philippine Government, the Philippine tarsier needed human intervention to survive. The Philippine Tarsier Foundation Incorporated (PTFI), which started the conservation movement, was founded in 1996. The Foundation also runs a Tarsier Research and Development Centre, about 14 km outside the provincial capital, Tagbilaran City, which serves as a visitor information centre. Here, visitors can get up close and personal with the estimated 100 tarsiers that are kept in a spacious net enclosure for feeding, breeding and display.

As an extra labour of love for his wards, Pizarras and his team bring in insect eggs that they find outside the sanctuary for hatching. The Foundation has also encouraged the formation of ‘Friends of Tarsier’, an association of local professionals, religious and civic leaders, media practitioners, businessmen, government executives and workers, and students committed to tarsier conservation efforts.

In addition, plans to expand and replicate the programme in other areas with Philippine Tarsier populations, such as Mindanao, Leyte, and Samar, are also envisioned.

Hopefully, with these dedicated efforts, the tarsiers will continue to survive as they have, for 45 million years.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 3:30:31 AM |

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