Our recent trip to the tarsier sanctuary on the island of Bohol was an excellent complement to our explorations of the underwater animal world. The Philippine tarsier, an endangered species that can only be found in the Southern Philippines, is one of the oldest and smallest primates in the world barely reaching the 16 cm (6 in.) mark. The only primates smaller than these shy creatures are pygmy tarsiers in Indonesia and mouse lemurs in Madagascar.
Yes, these guys are small. And precisely for this reason, tarsiers are quite difficult to see. Fortunately, we were able to observe several in their natural habitat within a fenced-in breeding reserve which also protects the animals from predators like feral cats. As our guide escorted us through the sanctuary, he mentioned that the nocturnal primates are not confined but climb over the fence at night to forage further afield. But, apparently, they always return before daybreak. Clearly, these little guys understand the purpose of the fence.
What is most noticeable about tarsiers is their eyes. As tiny as tarsiers are, their eyes are incredibly large. In fact, tarsier eyes, which are actually fixed to the skull, are the biggest eyes in proportion to body size of any mammal. In human terms, it would be like having eyeballs the size of grapefruits. But it is not just their eyes that are huge. Newborn tarsiers, although very small, are the biggest newborn primates relative to their mothers, weighing as much as 30 percent of the mother’s body weight. Can you imagine having a fifty-pound baby?
Our Tarsier Tips
If you want to observe tarsiers in their natural habitat, go to the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary between the towns of Corella and Sikatuna. Please avoid stopping off at places along the Loboc River on the way to the Chocolate Hills where tarsiers are illegally kept in cages. Sadly, traumatized tarsiers in captivity have been reported to kill themselves by banging their heads against their cages.
The tarsier sanctuary is a bit out of the way but worth the effort. For less than $1, a local guide walks you through a fenced-off area by the visitor center and points out tarsiers as you wind your way through the jungle. Afterwards, you can walk through the larger reserve in search of truly wild tarsiers and hit several view points along the hike.