No small matter, this!

CONSERVATION

No small matter, this!

Crowd-puller: The Philippine government has officially allowed only five centres to house tarsiers for display.  Photo by the authorA trip to the Philippines is incomplete if one doesn’t visit the Bohol province and see tarsiers, an endangered species endemic to that country. Subdued efforts are on in the tropical country which has abundant natural wealth, to save tarsiers. They are the smallest primates left in the world.

It is said that 45 million years ago, tarsiers inhabited rainforests around the world. Today, these vulnerable primates are seen in the south-eastern parts of the archipelago. In the 1960s, the primates were a common sight. But now their numbers have dropped to such an extent that you have to go in search of private establishments where these tiny animals are kept in captivity. Besides Bohol, Miandano, Letye and Samar areas also have tarsiers (tarsius syrichta). The mammals can also be found in Indonesia. According to an estimate, the world has a mere 5,000 to 10,000 tarsiers of different types left.

The tarsier gets its name from its long ‘tarsus’ or ankle bone. It may not catch your attention even if it is just a yard away, because, it is a feather-light one. A tarsier weighs hardly 70 to 170 gms and is 3.5 to 6.5 inches in height. They are dark brown in colour with hair on their skin.

Govt plan to save tarsiers from 1988

Breeding these nocturnal animals in captivity is difficult though such efforts are going on in the islands of Philippines. They are at their best in their natural habitats. Shrinking space for agriculture, urbanisation and the craze to own them as pets has led to a situation where animal lovers have had to raise their voice against authorities concerned to conserve the primate.

The Philippines government began its efforts to conserve tarsiers in 1988. Though it was a welcome move, rules which have been put in place to restrict poaching or commercially exploiting the endangered species are far from satisfactory. It is sad to see images of these hapless cuddly animals clinging to barks of trees in souvenir shops at Bohol. Tarsiers may become so rare that one may have to be content with seeing tarsier souvenirs like T-shirts, key chains, pen holders etc. The government has officially allowed only five centres to house these tiny mammals for display to tourists. But in reality, there are several shops which have boldly kept the animals in cages to draw crowds. It is a common sight to see people thronging these shops to see the primates. Eventually they end up posing with the animals for photographs apart from buying souvenirs which have tarsiers as the theme. It is said that poachers even agree to sell a tarsier for as low as 100 pesos (slightly more than Rs 100).

Tarsier Foundation brings hope

Amidst all these negative developments, there is a ray of hope for animal lovers. The Philippine Tarsier Foundation Inc (PTFI) in Bohol is trying its best to conserve these animals. It has established a sanctuary for these little nocturnal mammals. The Foundation has been functioning from 1997 in the forest foothills of Corella town, which is in the interiors of Bohol, to protect the Philippine tarsiers. It is also into research and establishment of protected areas for wildlife in the province apart from promoting eco-tourism involving the locals. It is a foundation as well as an NGO supported by businessmen.

The Foundation has with difficulty pushed for reserving 167 ha timberland towards the primates’ conservation programme. But its efforts have been negated with the Department of Environment & Natural Resources (DENR) permitting three municipalities to develop the timberland as an eco-tourism destination, Joannie Mary Cabillo, Programme Manager, PTFI told Deccan Herald.

Joannie says, “There are plenty of tarsiers displayed in cages. At times, these mammals become so frustrated that they hurt themselves by banging their heads to the cage where they are captured. The animals are being exploited because of their fame and are being commercialised. It is easy for shop owners to purchase tarsiers. The DENR gives permits to private organisations or shops without checking whether proper facilities are made available for the animals, which are very sensitive in nature. Even the Department of Tourism is happy allowing establishments to display the animals to tourists,” she alleges.

So, what rules are in place to protect the endangered ones? As recently as December 7 this year, the DENR announced a project to protect the world’s smallest primates. It has announced the Adopt-a-Wildlife Species (AAWS) Programme under which the department will rope in private agencies to conserve the animals in Bohol, Samar and Leyte areas. The government has already enacted legislations to safeguard tarsiers. The rule book says poaching, killing and even wounding the animals are strictly prohibited. Even destruction of its habitat is punishable. Only with the permission of DENR can one possess tarsiers for educational and scientific purposes or research which supports conservation of these primates.

Rules, yes, but for whom?

But Joannie says the rules are good only on paper as there is nobody to implement the rules. If the DENR was doing its duty, then commercial establishments would not have displayed tarsiers in cages, as such an act is against the Presidential Proclamation, Philippines. “Officials of the DENR argue that permits have been given for tarsier farms. Breeding them is extremely difficult. There has been no such officially successful attempt as these animals are extremely sensitive to human touch and constant stress,” she points out. 

The Programme Manager says that establishments commercially exploiting the primates are growing in number while the DENR does not reveal statistics or information explaining the status. A ray of hope is the AAWS programme which allows for the adoption of tarsiers. The programme will be implemented in three phases for the next three years. The DENR has signed a memorandum of agreement with CEMEX Philippines Foundation and Conservation International for the protection of the tarsier.

*The striking feature of the tarsier is its large eyes fixed to its skull. Its eyes are said to be 150 times bigger than the human eye.

*It dilates its pupils in the dark to see objects but shrinks it to pinholes when it sees bright light. The tarsier can’t stand the flashlight of cameras.

*It can turn its head 180 degrees and jump for about three metres.

*It looks like a distant cousin of the monkey, but from one particular angle, it bears a resemblance to the owl.

*This singing mammal bites only when people irritate it beyond a particular threshold.
 
*Tarsiers are solitary animals and are insectivorous. They are shy by nature. They sleep during the day and are active during the night, thanks to their sharp vision. They dwell in dark groves and on the trunks of trees. 

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