Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo by Paolo R. Lim
Filipinos should refrain from taking wildlife species from their natural habitat as they are “very sensitive and will not live long.” Such was the statement issued by Ramon J.P. Paje, then the secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), in light of the sudden death of the tarsier that was rescued from the Manila Golf and Country Club in Makati City in 2013.
Dr. Theresa Mundita Lim, who was then the director of DENR’s Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, said the tarsier had died of pneumonia and heart failure based on a necropsy report.
“We have very interesting wildlife species, such as the tarsier. Most of the time, we are tempted to buy them and take them as pets. But these are very different from domesticated animals like dogs and cats. They are very sensitive and highly vulnerable to stress and diseases,” Paje said.
The Philippine tarsier, which reportedly served as the model of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster, E.T., is endemic to the country. Tarsier 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 primate’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. One point of interest: tarsiers do not feed on dead animals.
Like all species of tarsiers, the Philippine tarsier is a nocturnal inhabit. “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.
The DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (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.
Like the Philippine eagle, the Philippine tarsiers are on the verge of extinction. In fact, the Switzerland-based 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 IUCN report entitled Primates in Peril: The World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates.
The said report “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 listings 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,” said the 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.
According to ecologists, 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.
The unabated hunting of the species by humans for house pets or for trade has contributed to its decline as well. Hunting tarsiers to sell as pets was a thriving industry until recently. Because of its adorable and benign appearance, many have been lured to keep the Philippines tarsier as pets. This demand fuels the capture and illegal trade of the animal, further diminishing its remaining number.
“(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.
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.
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.