The Bohol Provincial government has passed an ordinance that prohibits the viewing of tarsiers outside of its natural habitat, which is a welcome development for many tarsier conservationists. For decades, tarsiers have been used as objects of display to lure tourists into commercial establishments, particularly in the municipality of Loboc. This has led to a spate of tarsier hunting (though illegal) to supply the demand of the tourist industry.
Writing about her observations on the discrepancy between tarsier biology and cultural perception, Carla Escabi wrote in her masters thesis (2006):
The gap between Tarsius syrichta and the Boholano tarsiers is glaring. For example, while the Tarsius syrichta belongs to the Primate Order, the Boholano tarsiers are “the smallest monkey in the world” or, alternatively, “the oldest mammal in the world.” While Tarsius syrichta is nocturnal, Lobocanon practices encourage the tarsiers to be active during the day; while Tarsius syrichta only gives birth to one infant, their tarsiers give birth to twins. The nature of tarsier biology and ecology found in academic textbooks is far different from the tarsiers that I encounter everyday in the stories of Loboc and Corella residents. The divergence could be attributed more to the particular location of the tarsiers in the matrix of human relationships that they are embedded in than the ecological space that they belong to. Cultures can no longer be treated as “discrete systems of meaning” (Milton 1993: 5) because cultural meanings are always in the process of being created.
Ecotourism mediates these perceptions by putting tarsiers as central to the touristic experience. For example, the emergence of the tarsiers into the mass consciousness is primarily due to the tourist industry when they chose the tarsiers as its “star” animal. “Star” animals according to the ecotourism literature are charismatic species that can “connect” with the consumers. The tourist industry—big business, mass media, and government—helped in a big way through a campaign that put the tarsiers in the tourism spotlight. From an inconsequential species, which is relatively inaccessible to the majority of the population due to the nature of its behavior, the tarsiers became a magnet for tourist dollars.
How were they marketed? Consider this picture on the right. They are considered “cute” and “cuddly” animals. They are seen as diurnal and living in social groups, as Escabi noted. And yes, they go along well with camera-bearing tourists! Sometimes I wish tarsiers were “marketed” as “ferocious” animals, quite like the great white sharks or the Siberian tigers. With great whites, divers know that they are intruding into an alien territory and any silliness could mean a lost limb or worse. I know it is a long stretch to compare the tarsiers to the great whites but, who knows, a shift in advertising may mean a lot to the survival of this IUCN Redlist species.
Thus, the provincial ordinance is a necessary first step to discourage the abuse and exploitation of the tarsiers. Fines and penalties (P5000/$109.517 or 6 months imprisonment for each violation) however can only do so much. If we are to seriously conserve the tarsiers, we have to rethink the tarsiers’ relationship with tourism and invest more in conservation and research. In this manner, ecotourism plans will adjust to the behavior and ecology of the tarsiers and not force the tarsiers into an anthropocentric tourism program. As one of the least studied primates in the field of animal ecology, the scientific information from this species will be very valuable in understanding not only this primate but also our shared evolutionary history.
Aure, B. and Escabi, C. (2005). TARSIER TALK: TARSIERS, HUNTERS, AND ECOTOURISM IN CORELLA, BOHOL
Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society
This is the video trailer documenting Dr. Irene Arboleda and Carlito Pizzaras’ work with the Philippine tarsiers.