Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo by Paolo R. Lim
“The worst thing that can happen – will happen – is not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government,” pointed out Dr. Peter Raven in an article he wrote for Harvard Magazine. “As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”
Biodiversity – coined from biological diversity – is most often thought of as the variety of organisms on earth. Yet it also includes two other factors: ecological diversity (the variety of ecosystems and ecological communities) and genetic diversity (the range of genetic differences found within and between species).
“All three aspects are crucial for the success and development of life on earth,” explains People and the Planet, a group raising environmental concerns based in London. “Since environmental conditions at every level are constantly changing, only diversity can ensure that some individuals and species will be able to adapt to the changes.”
Species declines and extinctions have always been a natural part of that process, but there is something disturbingly different about the current extinction patterns. “Like the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, humanity now finds itself in the midst of a mass extinction: a global evolutionary convulsion with few parallels in the entire history of life,” wrote John Tuxill and Chris Bright, authors of Losing Strand in the Web of Life. “But unlike the dinosaurs, we are not simply the contemporaries of a mass extinction – we are the reason for it.”
Now, another wildlife species have been added to a list that is facing extinction that includes the Philippine eagle and tamaraw. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has included the Philippine tarsier as one of the most endangered primates, in its latest report.
“Many populations of Philippine tarsiers have already been locally extirpated and of those that remain some surely are at imminent risk of extinction,” said the report entitled Primates in Peril: The World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates 2014-2016.
The formidable list is compiled not only by IUCN but also by Bristol Zoological Society, International Primatological Society, and Conservation International. It is updated every two years.
The findings “highlights the extent of the danger facing many of the world’s primates,” said leading primatologist Christoph Schwitzer in a press statement that was quoted by Agence France Presse. “We hope it will focus people’s attention on these lesser known primate species, some of which most people will probably have never heard of.”
In 1966, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals classified the Philippine tarsier under the “near-threatened category.” The UN Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed the Philippine tarsier under Appendix II, which means the trade of the species and subspecies “is strictly regulated.”
“A large-eyed insect-eating monkey which, when fully grown, is smaller than a child’s fist.” That was how a high school biology textbook described the 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.
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, the 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. “Tarsiers face a number of threats, most notably habitat loss or degradation, with many tarsiers losing more than half of their original habitat,” says the Endangered Species International (ESI).
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 25.7 percent or about 7,665,000 hectares of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares is forested. Of this, only 11.2 percent (861,000) hectares) is classified as a primary forest.
Between 1990 and 2010, the Philippines lost an average of 54,750 hectares or 0.83 percent per year. “Most of the (Philippines’) once rich forests are gone,” said the FAO publication Sustainable Forest Management. “Forest recovery, through natural and artificial means, never coped with the destruction rate.”
“In some areas much of the forest has been converted to agricultural use and this does not benefit tarsiers. Forests are often destroyed for palm or coffee plantations, mining, logged for timber or turned into grazing land,” ESI adds.
Most tarsiers can still live in secondary forests and in some degraded and cultivated areas but need access to enough sleeping sites to survive. “Degraded areas can support fewer individuals and may not offer enough seclusion from humans,” ESI pointed out.
Tarsiers are also threatened by hunting or capture for the pet trade. “(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.
During the time of the presidency of Fidel V. Ramos, the Philippine tarsier was declared as “a specially protected faunal species of the Philippines.” Presidential Proclamation No. 1030 prohibits “the hunting, killing, wounding, taking away or possession of the Philippine tarsier” and activities that would destroy its habitats.
“Protection of biodiversity should be one of the top priorities of any meaningful strategy to safeguard the world’s biological heritage,” suggests John C. Ryan, author of Life Support: Conserving Biological Diversity.