Furry mascot of RP forest
lives on borrowed time
CORELLA, Bohol--A tiny, furry tree-climber with the owl-like
eyes pricked its ears and swiveled its head as a rustle on
the forest floor ended its midday slumber. Carlito Pizarras,
son of a taxidermist, had sneaked up so close he could smell
the tarsier on its shady perch. The midget mammal has been
around since the Eocene Age, but 45 million years of evolution
were hardly of any help against Bohol Island's most famous
Fortunately, Pizarras had given up his air gun, formaldehyde
and the other awful tools of his trade some time in the 1970s
and devoted the rest of his life to trying to save the exotic
mascot of the Philippines' receding tropical forests.
"I began to notice that I had to hike deeper into the
forest to find one, unlike in the 1960s when you could snatch
them (off) tree branches by the side of the road," the
50-year-old told Agence France-Presse at a tarsier reservation
The tarsier is found only in four islands in the central and
southern Philippines and on several islands of nearby Indonesia.
Incorrectly regarded by Filipinos as the world's smallest
"monkey," it is really a cousin of the lemur and
the tree shrew.
An adult male with gray or reddish fur grows to about 130
grams (0.29 pounds), about the size of a human fist, and with
its long, naked tail for balance it jumps like a frog across
low-hanging tree branches at night. It eats about a 10th of
its weight in moths, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and beetles.
Left in the wild, tarsiers can live up to 15 years.
Although technically it is not yet a part of the country's
endangered species list, the government believes without human
intervention it could disappear in a few years.
Hunting and trading in Tarsius syrichta, the species found
in the Philippines, was banned in the mid-1990s, when Pizarras
flew to Manila with two orphaned tarsier babies to meet Prince
Charles, who was in the country, and enlisted the heir to
the British throne's support to help save the species.
Scarce government funding however leaves the preservation
effort primarily in the hands of the private sector.
The Philippine Tarsier Foundation Inc., organized by local
businessmen on Bohol, an island of 1.2 million people, runs
an 8.4-hectare (20.7-acre) forest reservation, a sort of Noah's
ark where Pizarras and two other forest rangers live near
about 100 tarsiers.
Besides the human hunters, feral cats banished from nearby
communities are the main predators, though some large birds
are known to fancy them too.
Pizarras said the wardens had shot about 20 stray cats, which
tried to climb over the wire mesh fence.
The reservation is nestled within a larger protected forest
where about a thousand other tarsiers are believed to live,
temporarily reprieved with a permanent logging ban.
But the tarsiers pretty much have to fend for themselves
on the larger Mindanao, Samar and Leyte Islands.
Pizarras started hunting tarsiers when he was 12. He became
so adept at the task that he hunted by scent. He says the
animals gave off a musk through glands located on their breasts,
though most visitors at the reservation were clueless.
"We shot them out of the trees with air rifles,"
Pizarras said. "My team easily caught about 100 a month."
Stuffed tarsiers went for as little as 300 pesos (about five
For those who preferred live pets, catching them alive was
a relatively straightforward undertaking. Like June beetles,
"We shook the trees until they fell."
When tarsiers became scarce on Bohol, Pizarras began a captive
breeding program so he could raise animals he would stuff.
He sent 10 live tarsiers bred this way to the Chicago Zoo
in the United States in 1985.
In the wild, the territorial males attract four or five females
who mate only during the full moon after a week of courtship.
Each gives birth to a single young after a six-month pregnancy.
The young tarsiers are pretty much on their own after six
Raising tarsiers as pets is a cruel sport, said Pizarras,
who insists the stressed-out animals actually commit suicide
or otherwise will themselves to die inside their cages.
"They would smash their head on the bars in a bid to
escape until they crack their skulls," he said. He also
insists the animal had the capacity to simply stop breathing,
a more debatable proposition.
At the reservation, researchers fitting temporary radio collars
helped establish the animals' breeding and eating habits as
well as their territorial ranges.
With the environment department playing an oversight role,
the tarsier foundation has asked other Bohol towns with tarsier
populations to donate 20 hectares (49.4 acres) of forestland
"We plan to expand the program to Mindanao, Leyte, and
Samar," Pizarras said.