Actually, the title is a bit of a cheat, because tarsiers are not monkeys, though they are primates and they’re not even the world’s smallest primates. But that is how they are often described in the tourist adverts.
The Philippine Tarsier (Tarsius syrichta) is endemic to a number of Philippine islands, but can most readily be seen in Bohol. Even here it is an endangered species. They are tiny creatures with huge eyes (the largest eye-to-body size ratio of any mammal) which are used to great advantage during its nocturnal hunt for insects. The tarsier’s eyes are fixed in their sockets; to compensate they have the ability to turn their head nearly 180 degrees.
Along with the Chocolate Hills, the tarsier is the most ubiquitous symbol of Bohol, appearing on posters, T-shirts and in a thousand variations in tourist memorabilia. Tarsiers are easy enough to see; along the Loboc River there are small ‘zoos’ displaying captive tarsiers in cages. However, we were determined not to visit these caged animals, but to see them in their natural environment.
Thanks to the Lonely Planet travel guide, we had heard about the sanctuary run by the Philippine Tarsier Foundation near the town of Corella. This is a private sector initiative that administers a 7.4 hectare area of forest as the tarsier sanctuary, within which there is a 1 hectare area that it is totally fenced off.
The tarsier sanctuary is a little way off the main road. When we reached there a guide offered to show us around the enclosed part of the sanctuary. As there had recently been a rain shower, the tracks in the sanctuary were a little muddy, however it was not too difficult to get around. We saw three tarsiers – the guide told us that there were ten in all in the enclosed part of the sanctuary – and it was exciting trying to spot them in their natural habitat.
I asked the guide about the caged tarsiers. Apparently the owners of these cages operate within a grey area of the law. He explained how the practice was damaging to the species; tarsiers are solitary, territorial, nocturnal creatures and very quickly become stressed in captivity. Furthermore their delicate bones are easily broken due to human handling. In the wild tarsiers will live for 15-20 years; in captivity they will rarely last for more than a year, and of course, the owners of the cages will try to replace them with fresh animals taken from the wild, a practice that is obviously destructive to this endangered species.
I really enjoyed seeing the tarsiers in the sanctuary – and it was much more satisfying seeing them from afar in their natural forest habitat than close up in a cage. If you ever get the chance to visit Bohol, refuse to see the caged tarsiers and ask for the Tarsier Foundation at Corella instead.