THINK ON THESE | Philippine tarsier: The world’s smallest primate

Forty-two years ago, Steven Spielberg released the movie entitled E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial which became a worldwide phenomenon. Also directed by Spielberg based on the screenplay written by Melissa Mathison, it tells the story of Elliott, a boy who befriends an extraterrestrial who was left behind on our planet.

I was totally mesmerized watching the film, especially the “alien.” But looking closer, it looks familiar to most Filipinos. I am not sure if Spielberg once came to the Philippines, but the profile of the extraterrestrial is somewhat similar to the Philippine tarsier.

Perhaps Spielberg might have been inspired by Bohol’s trademark with its huge eyes, long tail, and hands and feet.

The Philippine tarsier, known in the science world as Tarsius syrichta, is locally called mawumag in Cebuano and other Visayan languages. It is a species known to exist only in the Philippines.

Tarsiers are found in the southeastern part of the archipelago. Aside from Bohol, they can also be seen on the islands of Samar and Leyte. However, there are some sightings of the animal in Mindanao.

When some extension workers of the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center told me a long, long time ago that they had seen tarsiers in the hinterland of the town of Senator Ninoy Aquino in Sultan Kudarat, I did not believe them. “I want proof,” I told them. “Show me a picture of those tarsiers.”

But when I visited Maitum in Sarangani Province a few months after that, I saw a picture of a tarsier being displayed in the municipal hall.

Some years back, a Philippine tarsier was seen in a farm near a school in barangay Megkawayan in Calinan District in Davao City. There were also large tarsier colonies reported in barangay Bobon in Mati City, Davao Oriental. Some sightings were also reported in the cities of Tagum and Panabo, both in Davao del Norte.

If you are wondering why there is so much ado about tarsiers it’s because, like the Philippine eagle, they are on the verge of extinction. 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 compilers of the formidable list along with the Bristol Zoological Society, International Primatological Society and Conservation International.

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 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). The 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 tarsiers “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 a primate, 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.”

The Philippine tarsier can also be found in abandoned clearings with new growths of medium-height plants, both in the lowlands and at medium elevations.

In the past, they used to be common in coastal forest near rivers and creeks. They have also been sighted at the base of the tree trunks and roots of bamboo but rarely in cavities at the tree tops. They prefer the jungle canopy and leap from limb to limb.

“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 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.

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.

The Philippine tarsiers are carnivores. They mainly devour insects but also eat spiders, lizards, birds, and other small vertebrates. “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.

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.

“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.”

Soon, they may disappear from this part of the world. “If no action is taken now, the Philippines tarsier can soon be added to the list of extinct species,” said the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, Inc., a non-government organization spearheading a campaign to save the tarsiers.

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