Philippine Tarsier on the Verge of Extinction

by Admin-Phmp

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Photos from Wikipedia

The natural forests of Bohol may be the most known habitat of the Philippine tarsier, but the world’s smallest primate can also be found in Davao Region. In fact, you can see them in the booming city of Tagum in Davao del Norte.

“While tarsiers in Tagum are not really endemic to this rapidly urbanizing hub, the local government here is keen in offering its green parks as an alternative sanctuary to these tiny animals,” wrote Louie Bryan M. Lapat in one of the issues Tagumpay Frontier.

On separate occasions, three tarsiers were released at the Tagum Botanical Park in barangay San Agustin. Actually, the park is a 31-hectare green space planted with local and foreign tropical trees. “While parts of the park are devoted for human activities, a large part of the park is still devoid of human intervention,” Lapat wrote.

“Because noise easily stresses tarsiers, the botanical park is a perfect place for them since it is peaceful and silent. It’s like an oasis from the hustle and bustle of this rapidly-changing urban center,” he added.

If you wonder why there is so much ado about tarsiers, it’s because, like the Philippine eagle, they are on the verge of extinction. In its report last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the Philippine tarsier as “one of the most endangered primates.”

“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 IUCN was one of the formidable list compilers along with the Bristol Zoological Society, International Primatological Society, and Conservation International. The next update will be released next year.

The findings “highlights the extent of the danger facing many of the world’s primates,” said leading primatologist Christoph Schwitzer in a press statement. “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.”

“Both listing mean that the species is not yet threatened with extinction but may become so if appropriate conservation measures and trade regulations are not carried out,” explained Dr. Wilfredo S. Pollisco, who was then director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). PAWB is now known as Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB).

In 1997, then-President Fidel V. Ramos signed Proclamation No. 1030, declaring the Philippine tarsier as “a specially protected faunal species of the Philippines.” As such, “the hunting, killing, wounding, taking away or possession of the Philippine tarsier” and activities that would destroy its habitats are strictly prohibited.

However, the law allows the possession of Philippine tarsier “for educational, scientific, or conservation-centered research purposes” upon the certification of the head of the environment department.

Contrary to what old biology textbooks claim, the Philippine tarsier is not “the smallest monkey in the world.” In fact, scientists don’t even consider it a monkey or ape at all. It is classified as primitive, of which monkeys and humans also belong.

“The Philippine tarsier is found in various habitats, particularly in dense patches of bushes, tall grasses, bamboos, and small trees in tropical rainforest,” informed Dr. Corazon Catibog-Sinha, then the PAWB assistant director when interviewed by this author. “It is also found in abandoned clearings with new growths of medium-height plants, both in the lowlands and at medium elevations.”

Known locally as maomag or mago, Philippine tarsier (Tarsius syrichta) can also be found in abandoned clearings with new growths of medium-height plants, both in the lowlands medium elevations.

In the past, they used to be common in coastal forests near rivers and creeks. They have also been sighted at the base of the tree trunks and bamboo roots but rarely in cavities at the treetops.

“The Philippine tarsier has attracted a lot of attention from scientists and collectors because of its interesting physical features and habits,” a booklet on Philippine wildlife noted.

The Philippine tarsier stands only about 5 inches tall (small enough to fit snugly in the human hand), but it has an eye measuring 17 millimeters – about 150 times bigger than the human eye.

Apart from its huge eyes, the tarsier’s other distinguishing characteristic is its ability to spot prey and 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.

To communicate with each other, Philippine tarsiers generally make chirping sounds similar to those made by locusts. They also occasionally make loud, shrill calls and soft bird-like noises.

One interesting fact about this primate is that they are considered nocturnal hunters (they normally sleep during the day and wake up at sundown). They are well-equipped for stalking insects, lizards, and small amphibians at night. Their main hunting tools are their huge eyes, each of which is bigger than their entire brain. 

“Tarsiers can consume as much as 17 hoppers or 5 lizards a day,” said Catibog-Sinha. One point of interest: tarsiers do not feed on dead animals.

The BMB shares the following information about the Philippine tarsier:

· The Philippine tarsier produces a strong smell during the breeding season. This is believed to be crucial for socialization and sexual communication. Estrus occurs at 24-day intervals, during which courtship and copulation take place.

· After copulation in captivity, tarsier females have been observed to develop vaginal plugs – something like a natural chastity belt.

· Tarsier pregnancy lasts for about six months, giving birth to only one offspring each year. A newborn tarsier can already cling to branches; less than a month after birth, the young start leaping; in two months or so, it is weaned from the mother.

· In captivity, tarsier mothers carry their young with their mouths when disturbed. Mothers park their young while they forage for good. No parental care has been observed in tarsier fathers.

· A tarsier’s lifespan in the wild may reach up to 24 years. In captivity, however, a tarsier’s life expectancy is little more than 12 years. Many tarsiers taken from the wild and placed in captivity survive only for two to five years.

· Some tarsiers captured and placed in enclosures have been reported to go wild, committing suicide by smashing their heads against objects.

Philippine tarsier is endemic to the country. It is found in the archipelago’s southeastern part, particularly the islands of Bohol, Samar, and Leyte. Its geographic range also includes Maripipi Island, Siargao Island, Basilan Island, and Dinagat Island.

In the 1960s, Philippine tarsiers used to abound in Bohol. One account said: “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.”

Those were in the past. Today, their number has dwindled rapidly. “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). 

“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,” it 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.

Philippine tarsiers also fell prey only to their natural enemies, such as civets and snakes. 

Efforts to conserve the species started in 1988 when a study on the tarsier habitat requirements was initiated in Bohol. This was followed by a project initiated by Region VII’s environment department in 1991 until 1992 under the Debt-for-Nature Swap program.

“The Philippine tarsier is difficult to maintain in captivity because of its peculiar food and habitat requirement,” the BMB publication states. “Captive tarsiers are normally short-lived and most young born to captive tarsiers do not live to maturity. Sensitive and delicate, they respond poorly to frequent touching and handling.”

Fossilized records of the Philippine tarsier forebears 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.

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