Animal Instincts: Protecting the Philippine Tarsier

June 29, 2015 Nellie Huang

The air is thick with humidity and the sweltering heat is overwhelming. We follow the jungle trail and snake our way through the dense tropical foliage, pushing past thick molave leaves as we venture farther.

“Shhh…” Our 18-year-old park ranger, Ijie, stops us in our tracks, points at a branch hanging above our heads and hushes us to keep quiet. There they are – two furry critters hugging the branch tightly with their frog-like web feet, staring curiously at us with their saucer-wide eyes. The palm-sized primate is like a cross between an African bush baby and a grey mouse lemur.

My partner and I are awed into silence, struck by how close the creatures are and how ridiculously cute they are. Ijie giggles and whispers, “Their eyes are actually bigger than their brains.”

Bohol’s natural heritage

We are in search of the mawmag or Philippine tarsier, a rare creature found almost exclusively on Bohol island in the Central Visayas of the Philippines. Measuring only about 85 to 160mm (3.35 to 6.30 in) in height, it’s one of the world’s smallest primates. Due to hunting and loss of natural habitat, the tarsier is now facing the danger of extinction.

The Philippine tarsier is one of the world’s smallest primates.

To conserve and protect the rare endemic animal, local businessmen in Bohol established the Philippine Tarsier Foundation Incorporated or PTFI in 1996. By bringing tourism to the province of Bohol in an ecologically friendly manner, the non-profit foundation hopes to protect the Philippine tarsier and prevent it from extinction.

As part of the initiative, the foundation runs an 8.4-hectare sanctuary, nestled within a larger protected forest where about a thousand Philippine tarsiers live, protected by a permanent logging ban.

Here, researchers fit short-term radio collars to help establish the animals' breeding and eating habits as well as their territorial ranges. Besides data collection, the sanctuary also works on a captive breeding program and rehabilitation program to reintroduce tarsiers back into the wild.

Only one hectare of the sanctuary is opened to visitors; the rest of it is left for the tarsiers to roam freely. By visiting the Tarsier Sanctuary, travellers can help fund research projects and other conservation work at the Philippine Tarsier Research and Development Center.

Getting to know the tarsier

That morning, Ijie leads us through the visitor area, her eyes scouring the tree branches overhead for signs of the animal. Just five minutes into our walk and she has already spotted two of the resident tarsiers hiding beneath a leaf.

No touching, no flash photography and no shaking of trees – these are the three rules visitors have to adhere to in the tarsier sanctuary.

The creature has webbed feet that help it jump from tree to tree.

The creature has webbed feet that help it jump from tree to tree.

“Tarsiers are nocturnal animals, we try not to interfere with their sleep,” explains Ijie. While in the sanctuary, the park rangers make sure to keep the noise level and any other possible disturbances to a minimum.

“The Philippine tarsier is a very territorial animal that prefers to live in isolation. Unlike other primates, the tarsier loves its personal space. Each tarsier likes to have one hectare of territory; that’s why tarsiers are so difficult to find.”

Meeting the tarsier man

At the sanctuary, we meet Mr Carlito Pizarras, well known among the islanders as “Tarsier Man.” Pizarras may be a celebrity of sorts, but he’s humble and down-to-earth, spotting a bright smile everywhere he goes.

The Bohol native is a pioneer tarsier conservationist and has contributed largely to the conservation projects at PTFI for the past few decades. Now the field manager at the sanctuary, he monitors the animals on a daily basis and ensures that the tarsier population is kept healthy.

Pizarras used to hunt tarsiers for his father, who worked as a taxidermist. Of all the animals his father stuffed and sold, tarsiers were the bestsellers. When he was 12, he decided to take care of one. He started to learn more about the tarsiers’ eating and mating habits as he watched them in the wild. Thus began his relationship with the tarsiers.

Bohol is the 10th biggest island province in the Philippines.

Bohol is the 10th biggest island province in the Philippines.

As the years passed, he noticed the tarsier population dropping due to hunting and the slash-and-burn farming practice. He decided to breed them in hopes of reviving the population.

“Many told me that it’s hard to breed tarsiers so I took it as a challenge,” says Carlito.

Breeding tarsiers is extremely difficult as the female gives birth to only one young after six months of gestation. Those taken in captivity seldom survive or reach full maturity.

In spite of these difficulties, he was able to breed dozens of the tarsier. As soon as they matured, he released them into the forest.

Since then, he has dedicated his life to protecting this Philippine tarsier. After 30 years working with the animal, his efforts are paying off. Bohol is experiencing not only an increase in awareness of animal conservation, but also a vibrant tourism industry.

Fishing boats in Bohol.

Fishing boats in Bohol.

The future is looking bright for this national treasure and it’s highly possible the tarsier will continue to live on for many years ahead. All thanks to one man’s efforts.

Getting There

G Adventures runs a number of departures in the Philippines encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.

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