Tarsiers For Sale and then some!

The selling of tarsiers is still happening in the Philippines despite the numerous laws and administrative orders banning this practice. I chanced on a seller over at sulit.com.ph, a popular online market site, advertising the sale of a pair of tarsiers for PhP9,000.00/USD 205.20. Apparently, the seller has already sold three pairs of tarsiers as per his comment on the online ad he posted: “Sold 1 pair to LEI of Antipolo. Sold 2 Pairs to Keen of Forbes park. These people can afford to take care of these lovely pets. They showed me the place where they will keep and nest them.”

In the Philippines, Tarsius syrichta is considered as a “specially protected faunal species” through Proclamation 1030 released by the President Ramos administration in 1997. The proclamation prohibits the hunting, killing, wounding, taking away, or possession of tarsiers and the destruction of its habitat. It also encouraged the establishment of sanctuaries “to preserve and protect the species.” In 2001, the Republic Act No. 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act was passed to conserve the country’s remaining wildlife resources and their habitats, including the tarsiers. Several other ordinances were enacted at the provincial and town levels to stem the capture and live trade of tarsiers.

The apparent disconnect between state policies and the actual practice points at the need to rethink the conservation strategies for this primate. As I understand, the dominant conservation framework remains to be ecotourism, which is aimed at increasing revenues for the ‘community’ and, at the same time, conserving ‘nature.’ But with reports still coming about the sale of tarsiers, it would be worthwhile to investigate whether this framework has instead led to more species endangerment. Elsewhere, ecotourism has “accelerated the endangering of the survival of fragile and endemic species” (Honey, 2008)–most likely true also in the Philippines.

Alternatively, it would be interesting to investigate how ‘ecotourism’ is interpreted locally. A cursory visit to various tourist sites in the Philippines will show that ‘wildlife’ tourism is one of the country’s main tourist draw. In fact, some viewing stations display “wildlife” (with DENR permits) to encourage tourists to visit their place for a fee. In Albur, Bohol, for example, one of the tourist stops is a “mini-zoo” of various endemic and migratory animals. Thus, if the cages for birds, flying lemurs, grass owls, and macaques of this town are indications of what ecotourism is at the local level, then there is indeed an urgent need to understand more the dynamics of tourism, conservation, local community, and the environment.

Here are some photos from the viewing station in Albur, Bohol (photos courtesy of Lori Fields)

Juvenile long-tailed macaque (photo courtesy of Lori Fields)
Flying Lemur (photo courtesy of Lori Fields)

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Let me also share this section of our paper (with Carla Escabi–Time Travelling’s other “us“) on the early days of hunting for tarsiers in Corella, Bohol:

The 1980’s saw some changes in the hunting techniques of the Corellanos. Hunters developed a new set of hunting techniques for tarsiers. Dogs (ayam) were trained to hunt (pangayam) for tarsiers. The dogs pick up the scent of a tarsier and chase it. As a response, the tarsier climbs to the highest reaches of the branches. The hunter then follows the dogs’ barks and captures the tarsier with a net or with a piece of cloth, usually a shirt. Often the tarsier dies, especially if the plant that it is clinging to is within the reach of a dog. Yet the use of dogs for hunting tarsiers is not widespread in Corella. Neither have specialized traps been developed for tarsiers. Corellanos saw tarsier traps only when scientists came and used mesh nets to capture them. Interestingly, Dagosto et al. (2003: 249) solicited the help of “trained guides with hunting dogs” in their study of tarsiers in Mount Pangasugan on the island of Leyte.

Corella hunters pursue tarsiers using their “knowledge of the forest.” They notice that a tarsier is “near” through its smell and calls. One informant describes the tarsier’s smell as having a stench akin to that of a bat. Recounting his experience in catching tarsier, he relates:

One needs to approach a tarsier in a certain manner. I silently get closer to it, one step at a time. When the tarsier is not looking in my direction, I make one little step. Watching the tarsier from the sides of my eyes and keeping my head down helps, because the tarsier will not feel intimidated by this body position. Once I am near to where the tarsier is grasping, I try to read its movements. Knowing these is important, and especially how its body is positioned, because these will indicate to you the prospective twig or branch that it might jump to. You can grab the tarsier then and there or, if not, you can force it to jump to the prospective twig and then sway the twig so that the tarsier cannot reach it. Once it falls to the ground, it can easily be captured.

Another informant says:

If I find a tarsier infant, all I do is wait for the mother to come. The mother usually tries to make you follow her so that you will get her instead of the infant. And when you do follow her, you will lose sight of her as she heads for the bushes. I discovered that the mother usually comes back once the threat is gone. So one time I grabbed the infant and put it under my shirt to make it relax. It is the beating of the heart that calms it. Suddenly the mother jumped onto my back, searching for her baby. I took pity on them and just left them in the wild.

Tarsier hunting in Corella in the 1980’s came about as a response to three factors: a) external demand for live tarsiers, b) external demand for tarsiers for taxidermy (embalsamu), and c) the practice of keeping tarsiers to show to or lure tourists. Tarsiers have become visible in the money market as a commodity. Spielmann and Eder (1994: 318), writing about the hunter-gatherers, made sense when they said:

…if hunter-gatherers are intensifying hunting to participate in an exchange system, the organization of the hunt and/or species targeted for the hunt will probably change from the pre-trade situation. The ethnographic record contains numerous references to differences in hunter-gatherer hunting techniques and technology that are attributed to the demands of exchange [emphases ours].

The live tarsier trade for export in the Philippines started on October 17, 1850 with Amsterdam as the receiving destination. Fitch-Snyder (2003: 278-282) recorded that a total of 130 tarsiers from 1850 to 1986 were exported from the Philippines (see her table on p. 279) with the United States, Europe, and Japan as top importers. Thirty-nine percent were exported from August 1981 to November 21, 1986. Most of these tarsiers ended up in universities, zoos, and museums. Although the number of tarsiers that reached a target destination was relatively low, this may not represent the actual quantity of tarsiers exported. According to Cowlishaw and Dunbar (2000: 263-264), “There is a substantial additional loss associated with mortality during capture, storage, and transport, and this may ultimately be the greatest source of population loss.”

Our fieldwork in Corella supports Fitch-Snyder’s data that there was an increase in captured tarsiers in the 1980’s. In this period, Corella hunters specialized in tarsiers because of the orders of buyers from Tagbilaran, the provincial capital of Bohol, who in turn were commissioned by middlemen from outside the province. Petshop owners as far away as Manila bought Bohol tarsiers. Hunters were informed that some tarsiers were going to Cebu. Nong Lito participated in the capture of 15 live tarsiers for a certain Louis Weaver, travelling on the inaugural flight of an airline company bound for Chicago (around 1985). They were intended, he was told, for Chicago zoos and universities elsewhere in the United States. Patricia Wright, a primatologist, also “obtained and imported…tarsiers for breeding and for research purposes after surveying the Philippine Island of Bohol in 1985” (Fitch-Snyder 2003: 281).

A hunter recalled that hunting of tarsiers was profitable at that time for a single tarsier could fetch P50-P200 and orders sometimes reached more than 50 tarsiers. One of my informants remarked that the tarsier trade was so lucrative in contrast to farming that many hunters ceased to farm their lands and devoted their time instead to hunting tarsiers. “With farming, you have to wait for four months (referring to the harvest) before you can get your money. With tarsier hunting, you get your monetary rewards immediately,” he said. Thus for some Corellanos, the 1980’s heralded a shift to the commercial hunting of tarsiers.

But hunting Tarsius syrichta for the market also happened prior to the 1980’s. The earliest record of supplying tarsiers for buyers outside of Bohol is in 1930 when Professor Hegner from Johns Hopkins University obtained an anatomical specimen from the province (Fulton 1939). Back then, early tarsier researchers were confronted with the difficulty of locating tarsiers. Recording his exasperation, Fulton (1939: 566-567) remarked:

…nearly a week was wasted on trips through the inland jungles in search of a specimen…Nearly every native of whom we inquired had either seen a ‘maomag’ a few days earlier or knew of someone who had seen one. One day the trail seemed hot and a report came through that a native in a neighboring town was keeping one as a pet, but when we arrived we found only a dead and partly ant-eaten specimen…Others were reported at distant ends of the island, but we seemed always to arrive just after the animal had escaped, or after the neighbor’s dog had eaten it; and after many a frantic chase through the jungle of this incredibly hot and humid island, I was obliged eventually to fly back to Manila without having seen a living Tarsius.

Fulton eventually was able to procure some 30 tarsiers through a local hunter, Jorge Lumantao of Tagbilaran. In Corella, Cañete (2003: 187) records that “the collection of live tarsiers originated when Japanese sailors on vessels making stopovers at Bohol…began exchanging transistor radios for live tarsiers with the locals.”

Taking tarsiers from the wild also occurred on neighboring islands. In Samar, for example, Cabrera (1923:91) noted that “natives sometimes carried tarsiers for sale.” Cook, a retired U.S. army captain, found it easy to procure tarsiers in Davao. He bought 15 tarsiers for $1.20 each from the locals. He said that the tarsiers were “captured in daytime, but only one was caught in a tree. This was a half grown specimen, seen in a small tree just after dawn, and secured by cutting down the tree. One was seen on the tip of a stalk of tibgao, a tall and strong grass, and caught while making a flying leap. Others were captured in vines, hemp plantings, and in underbrush…” (Cook 1939:173).

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3 thoughts on “Tarsiers For Sale and then some!

  1. Penalties: imprisonment of one (1) year and one (1) day to two (2) years and/or a fine of Twenty thousand pesos (P20,000.00) to Two hundred thousand pesos (P200,000.00) if inflicted or undertaken against other threatened species

  2. in the brackets it states Tame/not suicidal! When are people going to understand that not all animals are suitable as pets, and that cats and dogs have had thousands of years living in captivity, tarsiers, lorises and the like just should not be kept by humans if we continue to hunt them in the wild they will eventually go instinct

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