Filip Wojciechowski moved to the island of Bohol in the Philippines in 2014 to study one of the country’s most elusive nocturnal primates, the Philippine tarsier. But he hadn’t reckoned on getting so close to one quite as soon as he did. Shortly after arriving, he was approached by a villager who offered to sell him one of the small brown mammals as a pet.
Philippine tarsiers (Carlito syrichta) are the poster child of the country’s burgeoning ecotourism industry. Glossy images of the diminutive, wide-eyed primates bombard international tourists and locals alike in airports, hotel lobbies and guidebooks. They even appear on T-shirts, and promotional materials entice visitors to tarsier-themed tourist venues. Although the species occurs on at least nine Philippine islands, Bohol is the archipelago’s epicenter of tarsier tourism.
Wojciechowski’s experience with the village trader and the level of hype around the species led him to suspect tourism and the pet trade could be major threats to Philippine tarsiers. “They trigger a lot of compassion and interest … they’re very cute,” says Wojciechowski, a doctoral candidate at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. “So this is a big trigger for people to have them [as pets], because they’re cute and because they’re famous.”
Despite their local notoriety, little is known about the Philippine tarsier’s taxonomy or population size, and their conservation status has been subject to frequent revisions; in recent years the IUCN has flipped between “endangered”, “data deficient” and “least concern,” to its current status of “near threatened.” Tarsiers are wily nocturnal insect hunters with eyes that are so enormous they cannot move in their sockets — a limitation they circumvent by swiveling their necks through an extraordinary 180 degrees. Their ability to evaporate seamlessly into the forest can make them a frustrating subject to study in the field.
With a strong desire to learn more about Philippine tarsiers, but aware of the difficulties in studying tarsiers in the wild, Wojciechowski turned to the local people of Bohol. Teaming up with local researchers, he interviewed 325 people from five villages in Bilar, Bohol, about their perception of tarsiers, what they identify as threats to the species, and whether tarsiers should be protected.
The results, published in May in the Journal for Nature Conservation, suggest that tarsiers are scarce in Bohol’s forests; nine out of 10 of the villagers had never seen a tarsier in the wild in their neighborhood. However, most locals view them as a positive asset and feel that they warrant formal protection, mostly due to the tourist dollars they attract.
For Wojciechowski, the greatest concern was finding that more than half of interviewees reported having seen or heard about tarsiers being captured for sale to tourism venues or for the local pet trade. Captive tarsier welfare at Bohol’s tourism venues is typically poor, according to Wojciechowski. “At the tourist facilities, the tarsiers stay in the same spot, they don’t move. There is definitely something wrong about this, this is not how the tarsier [naturally] behaves.”
Furthermore, tarsiers do not breed well in captivity, so there is a perpetual need to capture animals from the wild to supply tourist venues. Besides the meager sum of money a tarsier fetches, very little tourism income actually trickles down to local people, says Wojciechowski.
The research findings present a conundrum: while the tarsiers’ value as tourist attractions is behind local people’s positive perception of the animals, it is also the primary driver of their capture and trade. “It is therefore crucial to decrease the demand for the captive viewing of these primates and the desire to own them as pets — both very difficult to achieve,” the study says.
Capture for tourism and the pet trade is a problem the Philippine tarsier shares with other iconic primates, including slow lorises, which are sometimes exploited as photo props in leisure venues. Including the opinions of local people is crucial to designing effective conservation approaches, says Anna Nekaris, a primate conservationist at Oxford Brookes University who also runs a loris conservation project.
“It is very possible that once we start to ask local people about these animals, we uncover that they are more rare or common than we thought,” says Nekaris, who was not involved in the tarsier study. “We may find that they have uses in traditional beliefs that could become threatening to their conservation; and we may also find aspects that could protect them.”
The battle to protect lesser-known species like tarsiers and lorises would benefit from a shift in focus by authorities, media and scientists from popular crowd-pleasers like tigers, chimpanzees, rhinos and elephants.
“The main problem is that authorities do not perceive it to be important when smaller ‘handheld’ … non-charismatic species are traded,” Nekaris says. “The more this system is perpetuated, the more authorities won’t enforce laws that protect other species, ranging from tropical hardwood to seahorses to birds; and when we get to mammals, it is the small brown nocturnal ones that suffer the most.”
Raising awareness is a crucial first step to turning the tables in favor of smaller primates. “Education can be incredibly important in mitigating threats to primates like lorises and tarsiers,” Nekaris says. Encouraging communities that coexist with the species to cease hunting or capturing them as pets can boost populations. “They can still persist in edge habitat if just left alone,” she says.
Wojciechowski agrees that education is the key. He says he hopes to initiate education programs in Bohol that focus on changing local people’s perceptions of tarsiers as assets of the tourism industry toward more ecological values, such as their role in pest control and boosting crop harvests. This will diminish the pressure from tourism venues and the pet trade, he says, and the shutdown of the global tourism industry due to the pandemic may have already started this shift in people’s minds.
Julie Otadoy, a biologist at the University of San Carlos, Cebu, and co-author of the study, says there is scope for research, education and tourism on Bohol to be more inclusive of local people and the valuable knowledge they hold. She says she sees potential in involving local forest resource harvesters, with their knowledge of the forest and its wildlife, in ecotourism ventures that focus on tours of the tarsiers’ natural forest habitat. The researchers hope that by encouraging such ventures, tourist demand for captive tarsier venues will diminish.
Classes and other educational programs targeting younger people are likely to be more effective. “Younger generations are highly open-minded and responsive to new facts and information,” Otadoy says. “We live in a time where the current generation is outspoken about different issues and topics … and the conservation of the Philippine tarsier is no exception.”
“If even one person from a class will switch their behavior and not catch tarsiers, then we already have one tarsier more in nature,” Wojciechowski says. “So I think it is worth doing it.”
This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published in Mongabay on 21 June 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: The Philippine tarsier in its natural forest habitat / Credit: Deb Dowd via Unsplash.