A Visit to the Philippine Tarsier

IJsselstein, Saturday, 24 April 2004 02:20:18

With its huge eyes, long tail, and hands and feet that must have inspired Steven Spielberg when he created E.T., the Philippine tarsier is almost Bohol's trademark. Still, few people have had the opportunity to have a close encounter with it.

The reason is twofold. Because it is a shy nocturnal animal that leads a mostly hidden life, it sleeps at daytime near the trunks of trees and shrubs deep in the impenetrable bushes and forests. They only become active at night, and even then, with their much better sight, and amazing ability to maneuver around trees are very well able to avoid us noisy humans well before we become aware of it's presence, so even when they were still present in abundance, the worlds of the tarsier and humans were mostly separated. But today, due to the quickly growing population, which causes more and more forests to be converted to farmland, housing areas and roads, the place where the tarsier can life it's secluded life is disappearing.

The tarsier is often claimed to be the world's smallest monkey -- however, this claim is somewhat dubious, since, although they are primates, technically, the tarsier is not a monkey. According to biology, it belongs to its own suborder under the primates, the prosimii or haplorrhini, while monkeys and apes belong to another suborder, that of the anthropods. Furthermore, even smaller primates have recently been in discovered on Madagascar: the adult pygmy mouse lemur weighs about 30 grams. But don't let this disillusion you, the Philippine tarsier is still a very special animal, well worth a day trip while you're on Bohol, and for some it is even the reason for their trip, and with an average 130 grams for an adult Philippine tarsier, it is still one of the smallest primates...

Although the species is believed to be about 45 million years old, and is perhaps one of the oldest land species to continuously live in the Philippines, it was only introduced to western biologists in the 18th century. The missionary J.G. Camel gave a description of the animal to J. Petiver, who published it in 1705, and named it the Cercopithecus luzonis minimus. Linneaus later renamed it to Simia syrichta, and later to the scientific name it still carries today: Tarsius syrichta. On Bohol, this little creature is known under a lot of names, often different from town to town, some of these local names are "mamag", "mago", "magau", "maomag", "malmag", and "magatilok-iok".

Although Bohol is best known for its tarsiers, the Philippine tarsier can also be found on the islands of Samar, Leyte, and on Mindanao. Because they have been separated for a long time, the tarsiers from these Islands and Bohol have some slight differences. Relatives of the Philippine tarsier can be found in Borneo, Sumatra, and Sulawesi. Among them are the Bornean tarsier (Tarsius bancanus) of Borneo and Sumatra, the spectral tarsier (Tarsius spectrum), the lesser spectral tarsier or pygmy tarsier (Tarsius pumilus), and Dian's tarsier (Tarsius dianae) of Sulawesi, Indonesia. The pygmy tarsier, by the way, is considerably smaller than the Philippine tarsier.

The Tarsier normally lives in and around the base of tree trunks and at the roots of plants such as bamboo. At daytime, they hide in hollows close to the ground. They hunt at night, exclusively for animal prey. Their diet consists mostly of insects such as cockroaches and crickets, but if they have a chance to catch a small lizard, bird or bat, they won't hesitate to do so. Some locals believe that tarsiers live on charcoal, since they are sometimes found 'eating' charcoal in fireplaces, and unfortunately, this misconception has cost many a captured tarsier its life. They do lick from charcoal, mainly to obtain their ration of salts.

To communicate with each other, the tarsier produces a number of different calls; sometimes a long piercing single note, and sometimes a soft sweet, bird-like thrill. When several individuals are talking with each other they can produce a noise that somewhat resembles the chirping of locusts. Male tarsiers have epigastric glands, which they use for scent marking.

To protect the tarsier, in 1996, the Philippine Tarsier Foundation was founded, and has since acquired a sanctuary of about 167 hectares in the municipalities of Corella and Sikatuna in Bohol, and constructed a research and development center, where visitors are also welcome to meet the tarsier. Just 10 kilometers from Tagbilaran, and well indicated with signs, it is easy to find as well.

I already had been in Bohol several times, but unfortunately never had been able to meet the tarsiers -- we actually had been at the sanctuary a few years ago, only to find it closed, but during this trip, we were determined to go and see them. An opportunity came sooner than we expected, on Joshua's second birthday. That day we got up early, as, in Cabanugan, Lyn's barangay in the inland of Bohol, you have only a few buses a day, and thus little choice to choose when to leave, as we wanted prepare the birthday party we had planned that night in Tagbilaran. But before the bus could arrive, a jeepney passed by -- a rare sight in this part of the island -- with on board a former schoolmate of Lyn, her German husband and their daughter. They offered us a ride. We gladly accepted the luxury of a mostly empty jeepney above a crowded bus and hopped onboard.

During the trip, we started talking about our route, and since we would be passing Corella, we mentioned the tarsier reservation. To our big surprise, neither the German, who had been on the island seven times, nor even his Boholano wife had ever heard about the tarsier! Since neither of us was in a hurry, we decided to have a little detour, and give the tarsiers a surprise visit. The tarsier reservation is a few kilometers from the town of Corella, an we reached the place without much trouble.

At the entrance, we met with Mr. Carlito "Lito" Pizarras, the "Tarsier Man" himself, who has a life-long relationship with the tarsier, and, although he started himself, as a young man, with catching and stuffing tarsiers to sell them to tourists, he soon noticed the decline of their numbers and decided to stop hunting, and start protecting them, long before others even thought about it, and stood at the root of the foundation and the sanctuary.

He led us to the neatly constructed visitor's and information center of the sanctuary. Here you can find, besides the obligatory souvenir shop which sells tarsier t-shirts, toys, etc., some literature, pictures, a scale model of the sanctuary, and a partial skeleton of a tarsier. Especially the skull is interesting, since it has to accommodate the two relatively huge eyes, which one by one are bigger than it's brain.

From here we walked to a special enclosure, an area of some 7000 square meters separated from the surrounding forest by means of a tall fence. In this area about ten tarsiers are kept for rehabilitation. The animals kept here were kept in captivity before, and hence are somewhat more accustomed to humans than their fully free comrades outside the enclosure. We walked up a small path into the bushes, and within a few minutes, Lito already pointed us at a couple of tarsiers, sitting in a branch just over our heads, and looking at us just as curiously as we were looking at them. Although we could reach them within half a meter, they were surprisingly calm, and allowed us to take a good look at them, and take a few photographs before jumping away. Some fifty meters further on, we again encountered a couple of tarsiers, this time clung to the trunk of a tree. It was again looking at us without a single movement, except for a turn of its head, to look in another direction -- and to be able to look who is at its back, it can turn its head an amazing 180 degrees! Then, suddenly, apparently without any difficulty, it jumped to another trunk, several meters away, clung to it, and sat still again.

We stayed at the enclosure for about an hour, and in that short time, the tarsiers were able to conquer a special place in our hearts. After our visit to Corella, we continued our trip to Tagbilaran city, and that evening celebrated Joshua's birthday in a great way. The tarsiers also were very fascinating for Joshua, and since that day, the word 'tarsier' has become a frequently used part of his vocabulary. Let us work hard and hope that we can safe the tarsier, and that he can come back to Bohol one day with his children to meet the tarsier.

How to meet the tarsier yourself

If you want to visit the tarsier, please go to the Tarsier sanctuary in Corella. Although tarsiers are also on display at some other places in Bohol, notably in Loboc, as part of the trip to the floating restaurants on the Loboc River, only here you can see the tarsier in its (almost) natural habitat. The tarsier sanctuary is also the only place holding the tarsiers legally.

The address is:

The Philippine Tarsier Foundation,
Km. 14 Canapnapan Corella, Bohol 6300 Philippines
Tel: (0912) 5163375
Mobile: (0918) 6021326
Email: tarsier@mozcom.com

Contact persons:
Office Manager: Danny Nazareno
President: Rev. Fr. Florante Camacho

They also run a well-designed web site on http://www.philippinetarsier.org/

If you want to see the tarsier really in the wild you'll need a lot of luck and patience. They can still be found in the forests surrounding Corella, as well as near Antequera (of native basket fame), and as we have heard, in the forests of the Anda peninsula in the North-East of the island.

If you are looking for a nice tarsier background for your computer screen, have a look at http://www.bohol.ph/background.php.

Another website featuring some pictures of tarsiers is http://www.tarsieruk.homestead.com/Home.html.

Jeroen Hellingman