RP tarsier: A new star in biodiversity world
Daneelyn A. Querijero
The Philippine STAR 04/24/2005
It can turn its head by 180 degrees on either direction, a feat that is seen only in horror movies. Its huge eyes stare out from a body that is no bigger than that of a rat. Possessing the characteristics of a rat, an owl, and a monkey, the Philippine tarsier (Tarsius syrichta) can look scary at first sight, but it’s as harmless and vulnerable as any house pet. Britain’s Prince Charles was so captivated by its cuteness and charm that he posed with one during a visit to Manila several years ago.
But the tarsier is as lonely as it looks in photographs. There are only about a thousand of them in the country, and conservationist are in a race to save them with help from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Despite its fight for survival, the tarsier has become the darling of the biodiversity world, its lovable image gracing posters around the world.This coming November, the tarsier is to step further into the limelight when it becomes the official mascot of the Philippines in the Southeast Asian Games.
"Like the Philippine eagle, the Philippine tarsier is a very special creature that deserves to survive," said Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Michael T. Defensor. "Conservation efforts have become more urgent particularly that we are trying to make the country a top eco-tourism destination."
Considered the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier weighs around 70-165 grams and is only about three-five inches in size. As it cannot move its eyes for lack of a tapetum (the protective tissue in the upper part of the eyes), nature has given it the gift of being able to corkscrew its head, a feat that does not fail to elicit exclamations of surprise from anyone who sees a tarsier for the first time.
A tarsier’s coming into the world is a lesson on how fragile and wondrous life is. A mother tarsier can give birth six months after mating. Only one young is born at a time, with its fur complete and with its eyes wide open. Its size also completely developed, the tarsier can already climb a tree two days after birth. Then after four more days, it can already jump around, another endearing physical feat.
The mating ritual between a male and a female tarsier is also not something we humans can call traditional. It is the male who gives out a warning signal that it is ready to mate and be with the lady tarsier of his choice. The ladies, on the other hand, upon hearing this signal, hurry to the male’s territory and leave their urine on the trees and branches. The male makes his choice by sniffing traces of urine that were left behind. After making his choice, he then gives out a signal, perhaps with a wag of its long tail, to summon the lady back to his territory.
This quirkily funny mating game is the big bonus to tourists who come all the way to see the tarsiers in their habitat: the forests of Anda, Loboc and Corella. Shy And Vulnerable
he tarsier is a nocturnal animal that can be found clinging to tree branches. It leads a solitary life, and is shy or nervous in the presence of humans. Indeed, tarsiers can hardly endure being stroked or cuddled. The consequence of petting is very serious, according to Carlito Pizarras, a Bohol resident and field supervisor of the Philippine Tarsier Foundation who has been caring for tarsiers since he was a boy.
"If you frequently hold it in your hands, it will be under such stress that it will grow stiff and eventually stop breathing," Pizarras said in an interview with a newspaper.
This means, a tarsier can just drop dead in front of over-eager visitors. No animal can be more freedom-loving than the tarsier, according to Pizarras. It hates living in captivity and will destroy itself rather than endure captors. "Just to get out , it will bang its head on the cage until it dies, I’ve witnessed this many times," he added.
With a wish for it to multiply and long endure, Prince Charles immediately sent his tarsier back to the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, Inc., which has since redoubled efforts to breed it. They found the biggest concentration of tarsiers in the wilds of Corella town in Bohol. Some can also be found in the islands of Samar, Leyte and Mindanao.
The Philippine tarsier has relatives elsewhere in the world. In fact, scientists date their existence to 45 million years back in the early Eocene period. This means the tarsier is one of the oldest land species continuously existing in the Philippines.
Once represented by different forms in Europe and North America, the tarsiers are found today only in Southeastern Asia, usually in the coastal forests and near creeks and rivers. Protected Species
The tarsiers are slowly disappearing becuase of the dwinding of the Philippine forest, which of course results in the destruction of their forest habitat. Slash and burn agriculture (kaingin) and illegal logging activities have greatly reduced the forest covers of Bohol, Mindanao, Samar and Leyte areas where tarsiers are known to thrive.
Unabated hunting of the animal for pets also contributed to its continued decline.
It is for these reasons that the tarsier has been declared as a protected species by the DENR through Administrative Order 38, which formally includes it among the national protected wildlife species. An existing memorandum of agreement between the DENR and the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, Inc. likewise ensues the establishment of a forest reserve on the island of Bohol which shall serve as the sanctuary for the Philippine tarsier.
The selected site to be set aside as sanctuary for the animals is located in Corella, only 10 kilometers northeast of Tagbilaran City. Existing in the area now is a spacious net enclosure where the "tarsier man," Carlito Pizarras, keeps them for feeding, breeding and display.
The tarsier’s protected status means people are prohibited by law from hunting, killing, wounding, or taking arbitrary possession of the animal. Even the conduct of activities that may be destructive to its habitats have also been banned. Anyone who wishes to keep a tarsier for educational or scientific reasons is required to get a certificate from the DENR. Needless to say, their sale in the open market or their export are strictly banned.
The Corella sanctuary is actually a man-made forest consisting of around 7.4 hectare. Within the sanctuary, tarsiers roam freely and visitors can only go to a spot where they can be seen but not touched. There are about 100 tarsiers in this sanctuary, and all of them have gotten used to a seven-foot high fence that circumscribes the territory. At night, tarsiers can be seen climbing out of the fence to forage for food further into the forest. They return again before daybreak, as if observing a curfew.
The DENR spearheads efforts to create sanctuaries for tarsiers wherever in the country they may be found. "The immense ecologic, aesthetic, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value it offers the country and the Filipino people cannot just go by unnoticed. The tarsier is part of our heritage," said Defensor.