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Philippine Daily Inquirer

May 31, 1999


The Philippine tarsier looks so cute and cuddly, many people would like to keep it as a pet.

In a cage, however, the tarsier has only a slim chance of surviving, according to Corazon Catibog-Sinha, Assistant Director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB), a line agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). "In captivity, the tarsier can be so extremely distressed it may die of psychological trauma," explains Dr. Catibog-Sinha. In the wilds, a tarsier is expected to live up to 24 years. In captivity, however, a tarsier's life expectancy is a little more than 12 years.

Many tarsiers seized from the wilds and placed in captivity survive only for two to five years. Some tarsiers captured and placed in enclosures have even been reported to commit suicide by smashing their heads against objects. Hunted down to be sold as pets in Metro Manila, the tarsier has become an endangered species. The dwindling number of tarsier in the country has also been traced to the rapid destruction of their known forest habitats. Most of the Philippine tarsiers are found in Bohol, Southern Philippines. In the 1960's tarsiers were a common sight on the highway that cuts through the forested hill of Corella town," recalls Mr. Carlito Pizarras. Mr. Pizarras earned the monicker "Tarsier Man" for being the only person who has successfully cared for and bred the Philippine tarsier in captivity. The hunter turned conservationist claims to have succeeded in breeding 20 tarsiers in captivity. "Today, only about 1,000 tarsiers can be found in the wilds of Corella, Bohol," says the gamekeeper of the Philippine Tarsier Foundation Inc. (PTFI). The foundation is based in Tagbilaran City, Bohol.

The most famous in his brood is tarsier "Datu Charles," which was symbolically presented by then Philippine First Lady Amelita Ramos to Prince Charles in 1997 when the heir to the British throne visited Manila.



To save the Philippine tarsier from extinction, the government has launched various initiatives. Efforts to conserve the species started in 1988 when a study on the tarsier habitat requirements was initiated in Corella, by the PAWB under the financial grant of the Wildlife Conservation International. This was followed by a Philippine Tarsier Project by DENR Region 7 in 1991-92 under the Debt-for-Nature Swap Project," says PAWB's Josefina L. de Leon.

Debt-for-nature swap, first proposed by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature in 1984, is a scheme in which conservation organizations acquired title to debt, either by direct donation from a bank, or by raising the cash to buy it, and then negotiate with the debtor countries to obtain debt repayment in local currency at a favorable conversion rate, or to secure conservation measures/activities. Recently, a memorandum of agreement was forged between the DENR and the PTFI establishing the Philippine Tarsier Conservation Program.

Among other things, the program aims to determine the population distribution and status of the Philippine tarsier in the wild; identify its remaining habitat, establish sanctuaries for the species; and develop a long-term conservation and management plan for the Philippine tarsier.



In the wilds, the Philippine tarsier is an interesting creature to watch, says Catibog-Sinha. "It has a pair of large membranous and papery ears which look like those of the bats... The ears which usually turn toward the direction of the sound can be twisted, crinkled or move in opposite directions when the tarsier is excited."

The high sensitivity of its sense of hearing is complemented by its acute sense of hearing is complemented by its acute sense of sight. Unique to the Philippine tarsiers is its eyes, which are almost twice as large as those of human beings.

"The eyes are directed forward with staring look," notes the PAWB official. The tarsier cannot glance from the corner of its eyes and therefore has to turn its head around as far as 180 degrees or a half circle in order to see the object. During the daytime or when exposed to bright light, the pupil of the eyes becomes so contracted that it appears as a fine horizontal line or a dot. At night, however, its pupil expands or dilates, filing up most of the iris.

Apart from its huge eyes, the tarsier's other distinguishing characteristics is its ability to turn its head nearly 360 degrees. It uses this 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. A nocturnal creature, the tarsier normally sleeps during the day and wakes up at sundown.

According to Catibog-Sinha, the tarsiers are extremely alert at night, especially when hunting for its prey. When disturbed or frightened, it curls up like a baby monkey. "However, it can bite intruders with its sharp teeth," the PAWB official warns. The hindlimbs of the tarsiers are very long as compared with the forelimbs. Anatomically, the fingers and toes are long and powerful and are adapted to the mode of movement of the tarsier. Some believe that the tarsier's name could have originated from its elongated tarsus or anklebones.

Carnivorous by nature, the tarsier feeds on insects (crickets, beetles, termites, grasshoppers, cockroaches, moths, locusts) including some vertebrates (lizards, small fishes, young birds, frogs), spiders and mice crabs. Its diet also consists of worms and worm larvae. "Tarsiers can consume as much as 17 hoppers or five lizards a day," says Catibog-Sinha. One point of interest is that tarsiers do not feed on dead animals.



The Philippine tarsier produces a strong smell during the breeding season, which begins in April or May. This is believed to be crucial for socialization and sexual communication. Estrus, the period of heat, occurs at 24-day intervals, during which courtship and copulation take place. After copulation in captivity, however, tarsier females have been observed to develop vaginal plugs something like a natural chastity belt.

The tarsier, whose pregnancy lasts for about six months, gives 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 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 food. No parental care has been observed in tarsier fathers.