Puppies are cute. Kittens are cute. Baby elephants are cute. Veals are cute. But most of these animals loose their extreme cuteness once they grow up. The tarsier with its huuuuge eyes, on the other hand, stays cute its whole life. This little primate lives primarily in South-East Asia and also calls the Philippines its home. We were lucky enough to be able to visit these endangered, light- and sound-shy animals in their sanctuary on Bohol Island, the 10th biggest island of the Philippines.
Tarsiers look a bit like gremlins… Shouldn’t you feed them after midnight ?
Even though they aren´t monkeys, they are the smallest primates alive. They can turn their head 180 degres (yeah, very much like in the Exorcist…). They are only about 10 centimeters high if you don´t count their long tails. These actually help them keep their balance when they jump from tree to tree. The form of the tail differs from one individual to another : scientists actually use them to tell them apart. These night-active animals are really fragile and can´t stand noise, light or the mere touch of humans. If you were to just hold a tarsier in your hands, you might break its tiny bones. They have been kept as pets by local people for many decades, which lead, among other factors, to them being on the way to extinction. Loss of habitat and hunting house cats are two other factors that threaten the very existence of these insanely cute animals. Tarsiers die really quickly when held captive. Some even report that they try to harm/kill themselves when in captivity because they suffer so much. Tourists are asked to report any sighting of tarsiers being kept in captivity to local authorities.
So where can you visit these elusive animals ?
The sanctuary we visited on Bohol Island claims to have been instrumental in educating the local population about the importance of letting the tarsiers live in liberty. After paying your ticket, you get directed into the main area of the sanctuary by the staff, a fenced-off part of the forest. You are only allowed to whisper when going through the sanctuary. Taking pictures with your flash on is also prohibited. One staff member is standing next to each tarsier in sight and makes sure you don´t disturb them in any way. This allows you to actually see them because, well, they are REALLY tiny and easy to overlook.
The day we went, we were lucky enough to see three tarsiers and I think we took about 35 000 pictures of them (flash & sound off, of course) ! After marveling at those cuties, you are then led into a small room. There, informative boards tell you all you need to know about them : what they eat, how they mate, etc., etc. It´s not the most interesting part of the visit, to be honest. However, it is nicely arranged and you can buy little souvenirs. All the info we learned there can be found online but connecting it to the animals you just saw yawn just makes it better.
Edit : because you can never be enough prepared !
As I was researching online some of the infos regarding the sanctuary, I’ve found reviews complaining that you should avoid the Loboc Conservation Area. They claim that the tarsiers you see are actually kept in cages during the night and placed at strategic points close to the walking path. Thinking back on this visit, it DID seem strange that we were able to see three animals that are supposed to be very elusive… in broad daylight !
After researching some more, I found out that there are actually TWO conservation sanctuaries on Bohol. One of them is being run by the official Philippines Tarsier Foundation and it wasn’t the one we visited. We went to the one where the animals are kept in dubious conditions, even if we didn’t realize it. I will however publish this text the way I first wrote it out of transparency. I also hope it makes people aware that it is really easy to get fooled. For my part, I learned my lesson : it’s not because a place claims to be ethical that it really is. Also, I should always, always, always check online first !