Davao City, 5 February 2010. “A large-eyed insect-eating monkey which, when fully grown, is smaller than a child’s fist.” That was how my high school biology textbook described Philippine tarsier, known as maomag among Boholanos or mago as those from Mindanao call it.
Philippine tarsier is endemic to the country. It is found in the southeastern part of the archipelago, particularly the islands of Bohol, Samar, and Leyte. Its geographic range also includes Maripipi Island, Siargao Island, Basilan Island, and Dinagat Island.
The first time I saw a tarsier was when I visited Bohol a couple of years ago. I thought the endangered species was found only in Bohol but I was wrong. When I visited Lake Sebu in South Cotabato, the natives there told me that tarsiers also abound in the town, particularly in forested areas.
When I went to Maitum, Sarangani, I was also surprised to know that tarsiers also inhabit the municipality, particularly in the remaining forest of Nanema watershed, where they have been part of the native’s agricultural practices. It has been said the tarsier gives them a signal whether to start planting or not. If the eyes are wide and bright, harvest will be abundant. If they are quite narrowed and smoky, the crops will be infested.
One belief passed down from ancient times among the natives is that tarsiers are pets belonging to spirits dwelling in giant fig trees, known as balete. If someone harms a tarsier they need to apologize to the spirits of the forest, or it’s thought they will encounter sickness or hardship in life.
Known in the science world as Tarsius syrichta, tarsier derived its name from its elongated tarsus or ankle bone. It is a tiny animal, measuring about 85 to 160 millimeters in height, which makes it difficult to spot. The mass for males is between 80 and 160 grams, usually lighter for females.
“The world’s smallest monkey” is an often-heard slogan. Actually, tarsier is not a monkey. In truth, its classification is somewhat problematic. Some scientists consider tarsiers to be a taxonomic suborder among the primates. But because they are closely related to lemurs, lorises, and bushbabies, tarsiers are classified by others with the prosimians to which these animals belong.
Philippine tarsiers usually have gray fur and a nearly hairless tail. Apart from its huge eyes (disproportionate to its head and body) and elongated “toes” with adhesive discs at the tips, the tarsier’s other distinguishing characteristic is its ability to spot prey as well as to navigate its way through the trees. Before it leaps from one branch to another, it will quickly turn its head to spot exactly where it will go and then make a speedy jump – backward – in that direction.
The Philippine tarsier’s ears resemble those of a bat while its facial features resemble a monkey’s. A tarsier locates its prey visually but also uses its heightened sense of hearing and sensitive sense of smell. They live exclusively on animal prey. Their diet includes primarily insects such as cockroaches and crickets, but may occasionally be extended with reptiles, birds, and bats. In captivity, it eats shrimp and fish in a bowl of water.
Like all species of tarsiers, the Philippine tarsier is nocturnal in habit. “It stays at the edges and right inside dense vegetation of different types, including inside patches of dipterocarp forests and secondary forests, preferably among dense bushes and low undergrowths,” the environmental group Haribon Foundation reports.
“Occasionally, tarsier stays even inside dense bushes that grow at the edges of cogonal grasslands in areas which have been cleared and abandoned to grass,” the Haribon adds. It also inhabits coastal forests.
In the 1960s, Philippine tarsiers used to abound, particularly in Bohol. There were so many that many tarsiers were run over by passing cars. People recalled that masses of tarsiers used to cross the roads at night, doing their slow hop-crawl on the ground.
Today, such is not the case anymore. They are on the verge of extinction. The dwindling of Philippine forests has posed a grave and significant threat to the survival of these animals because this results in the destruction of their natural habitat. Indiscriminate and illegal logging, cutting of trees for firewood, kaingin (slash-and-burn farming) and urbanization patterns have encroached on the habitats of the tarsier.
“(Philippine tarsiers) fell prey only to their natural enemies, such as civets and snakes. But habitat destruction, unabated hunting and illegal trade have reduced their population to near extinction,” said the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, Inc. (PTFI), a non-government organization spearheading a campaign to save the tarsiers.
On September 13, 1991, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources listed the Philippine tarsier as an endangered species, which means their populations are in danger of extinction and whose survival is unlikely if the causal factors continue operating. As such, the sale and trade of the species is strictly prohibited.
Fossilized records of the forebears of the Philippine tarsier date back to the Eocene period some 45 million years ago. The animal was only introduced to western biologists in the 18th century. And they may disappear from this part of the world soon.
“If no action is taken now, the Philippines tarsier can soon be added to the list of extinct species,” the PTFI said in a statement.
The PTFI has built a sanctuary just 14 kilometers away from Tagbilaran City, the capital of Bohol. It is a forested area of 134 hectares between the municipalities of Corella and Sikatuna.
“Please avoid visiting the tarsiers kept in cages along Loboc River,” the PTFI urged when visiting Bohol. “These shy animals have a miserable live, and normally don’t survive for long.”
Photograph courtesy of Roland Jumawan
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