In the southern islands of the Philippines lives a curious creature that holds the distinction of being one of the smallest primates in the world. It’s also unbelievably adorable.
Bug-Eyed Teddy Bears in Trees
The island of Bohol sits just east of Cebu, one of the Philippines’ largest cities, and yet stepping into the island you would think it was much more remote. From Cebu City, it’s a two hour ferry ride to reach Tagbilaran City, Bohol’s modest capital.
Like many who come to this quiet island, I’m here for one main purpose: to seek out one of the smallest primate’s in the world, the Philippine Tarsier.
They sleep with their bony fingers wrapped around tree branches, occasionally waking with half opened eyes. While at night they are capable of jumping from tree to tree, in the day they simply turn their heads like sloths, unable to move their eyes in their sockets, but able to turn their necks an impressive 180 degrees.
It’s easy to see why people fall in love with these dopey looking little creatures. Like tiny, bug-eyed teddy bears clinging to the trees. But before rushing out to watch them snooze, you should know the history of the tarsier in the Philippines.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting the Philippine Tarsier
The story of the Philippine tarsier is a sad one. When it was discovered that tourists had an interest in seeing the small creatures (who are about the size of your two fists together) locals immediately went to work capturing them and displaying them in cages. Uninformed tourists would (and still do) get the chance to pick up the animal and take photos with it. Doing so caused a great deal of stress for these nocturnal critters. Flash cameras agitated the situation even further as they have large, sensitive eyes: excellent for seeing the dark, but uncomfortable in the daytime.
As a result of poor treatment, many tarsiers were observed banging their heads against trees or the sides of their cages. They had become depressed, stressed, and terrified. Because the skull of the tarsier is quite thin, this had the effect of the animal committing suicide.
The situation has been improving incrementally, but as a traveler, one needs to be informed. I had intended to visit the Philippine Tarsier Foundation in Corella, though in the end, my driver ended up taking me to the Loboc Tarsier conservation area. Whether this was a miscommunication or not, I’m not entirely certain, but I decided to give it a shot.
In all fairness, there was adequate signage warning about noise and flash photography, and none of the tarsiers were caged. The staff, however, didn’t make enough of an effort to enforce these rules when a few loud mouthed children strutted through the conservation area.
From later research I found out that the sanctuary in Loboc wasn’t the best, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. I would strongly recommend sticking with the reserve in Corella, which has be the best reputation.
No matter how tempted you are, do not give any attention to anyone outside of a reserve who offers photos with a tarsier. Aside from being illegal, this is the process that has harmed these beautiful creatures for the past few decades.
As long as locals make money from side-of-the-road operations they will keep abusing tarsiers, even if it is inadvertent. Give these incredible creatures the respect they deserve.