Tarsiers are the world’s smallest primate – and 20 years ago they were dangerously close to extinction. But numbers are rising in Bohol, in the Philippines. Mike MacEacheran went to meet these curious creatures and the man dedicated to saving them.
The rainforest is so serene, the only sound is the crinkle of leaves underfoot. Over my head, dusky shafts of sunlight pierce the canopy, while branches laden with mosses and pungent tropical fruits hang low.
Eventually, as the sky grows darker, I finally see what I have been looking for all afternoon: a tarsier, the world’s smallest primate, dozing amongst a bushel of leaves.
“Shhh, don’t wake him,” my guide Carlito Pizarras whispers as we tiptoe nearer. Up close, the saucer-eyed critter is no bigger than a dormouse, its skull the same size as a shrivelled plum. It has velvety beige fur, gangly fingers and webbed toes, and for a moment looks straight at us before rolling its eyes and continuing to snooze.
To play peek-a-boo with a tarsier in the dense, tangled-up tropical forests of Bohol is arguably madness. The numbers of this critically endangered primate have fallen to such worryingly low levels in the Philippines, environmentalists think their days may be numbered. Bohol’s prize primates were once sold as pets and caged as tourists attractions, while today they continue to be under threat from slash-and-burn farming.
But Carlito – or Mr Tarsiers as he is also known in the Boholano community of Corella – has spent half a century fighting the decline. And it’s an approach that seems to be working.
“I first started taking care of them back in 1966 when I was 12,” Carlito tells me, as we delve into the undergrowth at the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary. “No one was doing anything to protect them.”
More than 50 years later, the NGO-affiliated sanctuary is home to more than 100 of the primates, and the 64-year-old is on a mission to double the number before he retires. Considering there were less than ten in the refuge only two decades ago, it’s a remarkable comeback.
What complicates matters for the centre’s caretakers is it’s almost impossible to know exactly how many tarsiers there are. So small are they, that every week the sanctuary’s volunteers complete an animal audit, often a near-impossible task when looking for a shy pipsqueak that doesn’t want to be found.
The tell-tale signs, I learn, aren’t crashing branches, shaking trees or monkey-like calls. Instead, the nocturnal primates rest during daylight hours, rarely moving, while remaining camouflaged by the bush. To find one, conservationists trust an unorthodox technique: they track them by the smell of their urine.
Not that Carlito minds. “These creatures have given me so much that I owe it to them to do as much as I can,” he tells me, as we retrace our steps back to the visitor centre.
“Rarely do people want to listen, but we’re saving more and seeing the results. It’s a rally call to save the natural world – and ultimately that’s got to be worth it.”