Loboc and Bilar, Bohol, the Philippines
April 2, 2011
What’s a cross between a marmoset (a furry monkey so tiny it can fit in the cup of your hand) and a gremlin (that 80’s movie critter with huge protruding eyes, long bony fingers, pointy ears, and upturned lips)? Throw in a good measure of Yoda and you’ve got the cute mascot of the province of Bohol – the tarsier.
The tarsier, endemic to Bohol and its neighboring islands in the Philippines, is among the smallest primates in the world. It is known to do a Linda Blair in The Exorcist – a 360-degree head rotation, minus the vomit. Like a gremlin, it is nocturnal and highly sensitive to light. Exposure to the noontime sun can be fatal. But unlike a gremlin that multiplies asexually when wet, the tarsier is very fragile. Exposed in the open during a thunderstorm without any leaf cover, the tarsier can die from pellets of raindrops.
Given such vulnerability, human contact is potentially traumatic, at the very least, to tarsiers. My family and I witnessed their wide-eyed suffering, for a fee, at a roadside stop in Loboc called Kanipaan Kingdom: The House of Tarsier and Rare Animals. Showcased in the middle of the hut were several tarsiers grasping the branches of a small tree within a screen enclosure. A sign advising tourists to use non-flash photography went largely unheeded. The lone attendant could barely monitor an unruly group of camera-toting Filipino and foreign tourists who were stubbornly snapping away at the hapless creatures. The tarsiers with their prominent eyes looked shellshocked at every explosion of light.
A bit of humanity could ease the stress that these tarsiers are subjected to. As it is, they are made to stay awake during their sleep hours, much like Filipino call center agents on graveyard shift. Perhaps visitors allowed in the enclosure should be minimized to a manageable number at a time. Although that may create long lines and lead to less business, it would be a more respectful and ethical way to treat these living icons of Bohol.
A week or so before writing this post, the country mourned the passing of Philippine National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo. A portion of her poem, Lament for the Littlest Fellow, reminded me of the tarsiers in the cage.
The littlest fellow was a marmoset.
He held the bars and blinked his old man’s eyes.
You said he knew us and took my arm and set
My fingers around the bars with coaxing mimicries
Of squeak and twitter. “Now he thinks you are
Another marmoset in a cage.”
So who is the littler fellow – the tarsier or its tormentor?
In all fairness to Bohol, there are efforts to protect the tarsiers and their forest habitat. A sterling showcase of environmental conservation in the province is the Bilar man-made forest, which merited another stop. According to our van rental driver, the towering trees were planted by boy scouts many decades ago. A similar reforestation project by the government was conducted in Capitol Hills, Cebu.
However, I noticed the presence of a dominant species in this forest. The uniformly spaced and slender trunks of mahogany trees appeared to be the antithesis of the free-for-all vegetation growth of a natural rainforest. These foreign trees would’ve somehow disrupted the ecological balance of indigenous flora and fauna.
These brushes with nature in Bohol could be summed up by the feeling of having a butterfly land on my nose.
Still in the town of Bilar, we stopped by a butterfly sanctuary called Simply Butterflies Conservation Center. Michael, our knowledgeable guide, led us through an info-loading, rapid-fire lesson on the life cycle of butterflies. It was difficult to focus on the lesson while the subject was actually fluttering about.
The tour culminated with a surreal surprise from a butterfly whisperer of sorts. The man practically flicked a butterfly, one with an unbelievably large wing span, to perch (or pose) on our noses long enough for a photo-op. It was uncommon to have a tantalizingly elusive creature right under, actually on top of, your nose. The experience was equal parts organic and orchestrated, much like the feeling of seeing a tarsier in a cage and being in a man-made mahogany forest.