Day trips from Manila

Tarsier, smallest primate

by Irene Butler

Day trips from Manila to Bohol are a popular choice with island-hoppers, which speak volumes since the Philippine archipelago is comprised of 7,107 islands! After a short flight from the country’s capital we arrive in Tagbilaran where gigantic earth mounds and the tiniest of primates await us.

Along with our driver/guide “Lino,” my husband Rick and I are soon breezing towards Bohol’s 40-metre mounds known as the Chocolate Hills. “Their brown colour, hence the name,” Lino says, “is the result of the hill’s scrub vegetation becoming sun-scorched during dry season.” There are 214 steps or a winding path up to a viewing deck; we choose the latter. Gazing out over the hills in every direction I am surprised at how they really do resemble endless rows of chocolate drops (it is said there are 1,268 if you care to count). Geologists believe they were formed from deposits of coral and limestone being pushed upward, then sculptured by centuries of erosion.  Legend has it they are the calcified tears of a broken hearted giant, while another tale pegs them as leavings of a giant carabao (water buffalo) with distressed bowels. Spunky young people jump while a friend snaps a picture at ground level, which gives the appearance of bounding across the hilltops in the photo. We try, but a jump six inches off the ground is not enough to create this illusion.

We drive on to the Tarsier Sanctuary to see the world’s smallest primate. Lino introduces us to Bernard, the Tarsier specialist, who leads us along a narrow root-tangled path to where a few of the elusive creatures perch in the jungle foliage. “The tarsiers are nocturnal,” Bernard whispers, “so each morning I go looking to find where they have ended up for their day’s sleep.” We learn that although the Philippine Tarsier (Tarsius Syrichta) are often referred to as monkeys, they are more closely related to the lemur, loris and tree shrew.

Bernard points to a leafy haven where a 10-cm tall tarsier grips a branch with its proportionately huge fore and hind limbs. Even more super-sized for this 120-gram brownish fur ball are its saucer eyes peering down at us.  We quietly walk along to another that has its back to us, but with its ultra-keen hearing twists its head a disconcerting 180 degrees to nonchalantly check us out with half-opened orbs.  A Tarsier’s tail is more than twice its body length. I can imagine this rat-like appendage acting like a fifth limb while leaping up to three-metres during its nightly hunts to satiate its ferocious appetite, consuming about eight crickets a night (or insect equivalent of beetles, termites, or perhaps an available lizard or frog).

Since the establishment of the Tarsier Foundation in 1996 this endangered species has been protected in a 167-hectare reserve. This fascinating animal has been around for a staggering 45 million years; since the early Eocene period! Encroaching humans thinking they were pests that ate rice crops, along with no knowledge of their habits or environmental needs brought them to near extinction. A slow reversal process is now in effect to protect these amazing alien-like living treasures.

Back to Tagbilaran by late afternoon, we still have time to absorb some of the town’s quaint atmosphere before snuggling up at a small hotel for a good night’s sleep and our next day’s flight back to Manila.

More about the Tarsiers:

Photo credit: Rick Butler

About the author:
Irene Butler is an award winning travel writer and author of “Trekking the Globe with Mostly Gentle Footsteps” now on Kindle. Her articles have appeared in national and international publications. She and her photographer husband Rick explore the world for six months of every year.


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