The Philippines: The Tarsier Man

I could have spent hours watching them, despite the fact they barely moved in the midday heat

By Andy Jarosz
Published 20 May 2019, 12:07 BST
Photograph by Sameena Jarosz

The Philippine tarsier, found mainly on the island of Bohol in the southern Philippines, is a shy creature with dinner-plate eyes and pointed ears that was surely designed to have as cute an appearance as any animal could possess. In fact, it’s hard to believe that the tarsier was not the main inspiration for the diminutive Star Wars jedi, Yoda, such is the resemblance between the two.

Tarsiers are the world’s second smallest primate, measuring no more than six inches in height and weighing around 100g. What makes these nocturnal creatures so irresistible to humans is their giant eyes, which appear far too big for their tiny bodies. The tarsier’s eyes are fixed within their skulls, a limitation that is compensated for by an adaptation that allows the tarsier to rotate its head 180 degrees to find its prey (and its predators).

For a long time, the most popular way to see tarsiers was by stopping at one of the many makeshift ‘facilities’ along the island’s roadsides. Having captured the animals from the treetops in nets before imprisoning them in tiny cages, the owners could guarantee perfect photo opportunities. The animals would be paraded for visitors to admire, and in many cases hold, while posing for a snap.

Locals talk of tarsiers committing suicide in captivity. While this is perhaps a crude attempt to provide a human parallel to these primates’ actions, it’s a fact that many captive tarsiers have died in a state of extreme stress as a result of banging their soft skulls against their cages and sustaining self-inflicted fatal injuries.

Things have only improved slightly in recent years, since the Tarsier Conservation Area opened in Loboc. It offers a permanent home for the animals that were once kept in the roadside cages. At first glance, I thought the tarsiers’ lives must have improved greatly in the new facility, with no more petting from crowds of tourists and a lot more space for them to enjoy. But within minutes I could see obvious problems for the star attractions. A constant stream of visitors jostled around each tarsier-inhabited tree, their cameras held to within inches of the helpless creatures. They may be nocturnal animals, but with all the noise and commotion — despite the ‘Silence Please’ signs — there was little chance of sleep.

One of the primary hunting tools of a tarsier is its incredible sense of hearing. So acute is the tarsier’s ability to detect sound that it has to abandon its search for food during heavy rain as the sound of the falling raindrops drowns out the noise made by the movement of its prey. It’s hard to imagine how stressed the tarsiers were during my visit, when the deafening high-pitched shrill of a chainsaw filled the air the whole time. I wondered whether they were cutting more ‘Silence Please’ signs; the phrase Conservation Area had never felt more inappropriate.

One man trying to make a difference to the welfare of Philippine tarsiers is Carlito Pizarras, commonly known as The Tarsier Man. To call his interest in the animals a lifetime obsession would not be an overstatement. He told me that when he was 12 he started keeping tarsiers as pets but soon developed a passion for their conservation. For many years, he devoted his life to studying the tarsiers’ diet, hunting habits and breeding, becoming a renowned expert. His work was recognised by the scientific community in 2010 when the Philippine tarsier was officially grouped under the genus ‘Carlito’.

Carlito was appointed as the field manager at the Tarsier Foundation when it was set up near the town of Corella. He spends his days observing the resident tarsiers and ensuring they get enough insects to keep them happy. The Tarsier Foundation is open to visitors and is clearly set up with the welfare of the tarsier as the primary concern. Photo opportunities may be limited (this is nature after all and the tarsiers are free to come and go) and perhaps this explains why Carlito’s facility struggles to attract anywhere near the visitor numbers of the Tarsier Conservation Area, where the animals are pretty much guaranteed to be in the same picture-friendly spot each day.

Local guides and hotel staff on Bohol tend to send their guests to the Conservation Area rather than the Tarsier Foundation. Mention the Foundation and they’ll insist there’s no difference between the facilities. I’m glad I took the time to visit both places and see for myself the stark contrast in the way in which the tarsiers are cared for. Supporting an organisation that is working hard to protect these adorable creatures is surely more important than snapping the perfect photo.

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