Lament for the Littlest Fellow in Bohol

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.

A Tarsier at Kanipaan Kingdom in Bohol

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.

Mom Comforting a Tarsier
Tormented Tarsier

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?

Peek-a-Mom

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.

Bilar Man-Made Forest

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.

A Nosy Butterfly at Simply Butterflies Conservation Center

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.

“Spread your wings and prepare to fly….”
Grabbed by the Lapel: Mom at Simply Butterfly

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.

Mom with Butterfly Wings at Simply Butterfly in Bohol
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41 thoughts on “Lament for the Littlest Fellow in Bohol

    1. Honga. I know that a trip to Bohol ain’t complete without a photo of a tarsier, but it’s just inhumane. Even celebrities complain about the paparazzi. How much more for a tarsier? It’s a matter of life and death for them.

  1. AJ, this Tarsier looks like Gollum from LOTR and I couldn’t but help think of the novel when I saw the forest and read the name Bohol. The eyes are a bit scary though. I wonder how you found the animal “cute.” Well, perceptions and vision are not similar for everyone. To sum up, this line carried the essence of this post: “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.”

    Joy always and a great Sunday to you.

    1. That’s a spot-on perspective, Mrs. Sus! I do dig its Gollumesque-ness. I would’ve thought of LOTR if I were into it, but I’m more Team Narnia. 🙂

      It’s really cute, believe you me. I chose the first photo, though, for its similarities with a “gremlin”. It does look sinister when it squints its big eyes like that. Most times, it just looks cuddly and helpless.

      Cheerio Mrs. Sus!

      1. Hahaha right. And if you’re as old as I am, you’d probably think it looks like Yoda too. 😀 I think their creators used the same template. They may all have been patterned after the tarsier! 🙂

  2. “…they are made to stay awake during their sleep hours, much like Filipino call center agents on graveyard shift.” — lol so Tarsier pala ako. hahaha.

    butterfly effect — classic shot mo yan AJ, that even if you seem serious, you have a ‘kalog’ side din pala. haha

    1. You a tarsier? Hmmmm keri, wink wink.

      Oh, you ain’t seen my kalog side yet. Actually, that’s all you might see when you meet me. Serioso lang ako when I write. 😀

    1. Nelieta, so you are Hostel Tinktinkie! You own it? Is it in BA, Argentina? Anyway, Iguazu is in my bucket list. I just hope I’d see it way before I kick the bucket.

      I really didn’t know butterflies would do that. I had always thought they were always out of reach. Oh, and it was a bit ticklish to have ’em sit on the nose. 🙂

      1. Hi AJ, yes I am the owner. No our hostel is in the heart of Argentina in the Cordoba province. We didn´t want something in the big city and wanted to be close to nature. We are 780kms from BsAs. Iguazu is one amazing place to visit..it has to go in your bucket list! The butterflies there are amazing. i also thought they were quite timid but not the ones there. They are gorgeous!

    2. Yet one more reason to visit Argentina (as if I needed another one, haha)! I saw the photo of your B&B. So lovely and rustic, just the way I like it.

  3. Poor Tarsiers in captivity! They are so darling with their huge eyes. I’m happy to read that a habitat has been built for them. I love the butterfly photos of you and your Mom. Yours especially lol. Another excellent post from you. 😀

    1. Yes, it’s good that the government has realized the need to protect them. Tarsiers have lived millions of years, but they’ve almost been wiped out in recent decades due to habitat loss and human handling.

      Glad you enjoyed the butterfly photos. 🙂

  4. haha manager i love this post! tawa ako ng tawa sa una.. tapos biglang nalungkot because of the death and the poem…. tapos nakakatuwa nanaman yung mga pics mo… panalo nanaman si mommy may wings!

    1. Hahaha soweeeee Nehha! You mean tarsier? Marmoset is a different species. But both are small enough to cup in your hand. And as I’ve posted in comments here, the tarsier or a similar species may have inspired filmmakers to pattern their otherworldly characters on them, e.g. Yoda, gremlins, Gollum, Dobby, etc. 🙂

  5. talagang may ganung trivia e no. hahah! Grabe for the love of tarsier talaga. Wish ko lang may abutan pang tarsier ang mga susunod na salinlahi (salinlahi? hahah!) Nainggit ako wala akong butterfly. hindi ko naisama sa itinerary. Fail. Gusto ko yung last shot. Ang cute ng mom mo. hihihi! game na game sa pichuran.

  6. Some tourists are just so ignorant of concern for wildlife and will do anything to get that ‘great’ photo. The downside of cheap digital cameras. Now everybody has to snap everything!
    Good post AJ.

    1. Actually they were brandishing bulky and expensive DSLRs with long lenses. Almost everyone has them now, even though some don’t know fig about photography. 😀

  7. This post just about brought me to tears. I actually was just talking to a fellow American tourist in Costa Rica who had been to Bohol and said the same thing about the shameful over exposure of this fragile little fellow to tourists. I love the comparison to night shift Filipino workers. Great post. Hope posts like this prompt authorities to seek more protection for the sake of humanity.

    1. Felt the same, Ted, when I saw them in that enclosure. They’re very shy and elusive animals in the wild. There lies the quandary – no one would see them other than in captivity. But then again, they could be put in a dimly-lit environment, perhaps, and only a controlled number of tourist should be allowed in at one time.

  8. Wow, I didn’t know such a toughie-looking creature (yes, I’m kind of scared of it—the eyes!) can be very fragile (that raindrops can kill it).

    I always love reading your posts. I’m learning new things every time.

    PS. Haha! That photo with a butterfly perching on your nose is just hilarious. Let me guess, your mom took that. 🙂

    1. Oh yes, very fragile indeed. It’s a wonder how the species has survived for millions of years!

      PS: She could’ve, but it was my sister who took it. 🙂

    1. Sowee naman, may hawig eh. Actually more like Gizmo, the cute and furry gremlin before it multiplied into those little monsters. 🙂 Honga, kawawa lang the few who are captured and exploited as tourist attractions.

  9. Hey AJ,

    Just found your blog from Eileen’s. Doing a little backreading here hehe.

    Love the focus on the plight of the tarsiers. I just came back from a weekend trip to bohol and told the driver of the car that we rented that I did not want to see any roadside tarsier centers. The poor critters always look sad and underfed there. No way am I giving my money to support places like that.

    The good news is there is now a conservation center that has collected most of the tarsiers that were illegally captured. According to our guide, there are 113 total over several hectares of land and only 10 are available for visitors to view. The tarsiers aren’t caged and are free to move about. There are paths for us humans and “viewing” is from a safe distance.

    Hopefully, they get to collect most of the other tarsiers still out there.

    And oh, butterflies on the nose, that just might be the new it accesory! Haha

    1. Hi Yols! That little update put a smile on my face. I heard about that conservation center after my Bohol trip so I never got the chance to see it for myself. Zoos and cages are getting obsolete, thank goodness. Safari-type enclosures are the way to go in other countries now and it’s good that Bohol is moving forward along with the rest of the world with this. So sorry (mainly to the tarsiers) that I actually supported this inhumane treatment.

      Thanks for checking my site out. I’ll be lurking back at ya! 🙂

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