Palawan: Indigenous People and Mining Corporations

Palawan is arguably the most beautiful island of the Philippines for its mountainous terrain, powder white sands, and endemic fauna and flora. Unlike the rest of the Philippine islands, Palawan broke off from the Asian plate and stayed isolated for tens of millions of years. Hence, Palawan’s endemic fauna are different from the rest of the Philippine islands.

This unique habitat however is under threat as mining corporations identified areas of the island as suitable for mining. This short video feature offers a glimpse of the threat of species and cultural endangerment happening on the island brought about by big mining corporations.

Animal Lores: Myths, Disasters, and Animals

The post on monkeys and hurricanes made me think about myths and calamities. So, here’s the continuation of that blog post:

In rural Philippines where I grew up, animals are one of the central conversation topics in any street corner. We would huddle and strain our necks to hear the stories adults tell each other of fantastic creatures that fly in the night or about the mythical sigbin that stole a squash from a neighbor’s garden. The sigbin is said to be kangaroo-like, about a foot long, and eats with its bottom raised up in the air. These creatures only come out at night and move very fast that the only evidence of its presence is a smashed up squash, bits and pieces of its yellow and orange flesh littered all over the garden floor. The sigbin, they say, also prefers the warmth of the hearth and, at times, eats charcoal to sustain itself. In fact, if these adults were to be believed, the sigbin, when caught and tamed, is faster than anything else in the world because it can transport the owner in a blink of an eye. As a kid, it wasn’t much of a stretch  to think that Aladdin’s magic carpet was hewn from the fleece of the sigbin.

There were other mythic animals that inhabited our imagination. Going on long treks on the hills of my town, I sometimes find myself lost in the thick of the forest. Of course, there was always a ready explanation as to why the once familiar footpaths were leading nowhere and the gigantic trees, signposts to finding the way back home, were not the same or were just not there anymore. Shouting for help was useless because the only answer that one got was an eerie silence, so eerie that even the cicadas were hushed up. Then, I realized that the supernaturals were playing tricks again, putting roads where there was none, confusing me in the middle of a labyrinthine forest. We call this lamat, a condition of being lost, even in once familiar paths.

For the Tagalogs, the tikbalang, a centaur-like creature, is blamed for the lamat. Unlike a similar character in Western mythology, the Filipino tikbalang is an inversion of the centaur. They are represented as having the head and torso of the horse while its lower body is human–a bipedal bronco. According to Reynaldo Ileto in his seminal work, Pasyon and Revolution, the tikbalang is the “king of the San Mateo mountains…and a brother of Marya of Mount Makiling” (a goddess popular in Filipino folklore).

It is not surprising then that disaster events are often interpreted in mythic terms. Harold Olofson, one of the giants of Visayan anthropology, noted how animals have been incorporated in religious rituals of a small island community in Central Visayas. The animals occupy a central place in the fiesta celebration of St. Vincent Ferrer, the island’s patron saint. To avert disasters, the residents dress cats and dogs as humans. The inversion doesn’t stop there: women and men switch clothes and coconut trees are planted on the sea. It was “sacrilegious” that the designated parish priest once banned the celebration on religious grounds. The island residents however blamed him when disaster struck the island once again, forcing the parish priest to retract the sanction and allow the celebration of the binaliw. Olofson believes that this binaliw ritual exhibits a syncretic fusion of a prehispanic principle or belief in a thunder-god and the Spanish-introduced saint, San Vicente Ferrer.

The belief in the supernatural character of animals is widespread in the Visayas area. According to William Henry Scott‘s retelling of 16th century Visayas, the presence of animals, especially birds, was used to divine the success of a hunt or harvest. Until the present, some rural villagers in Eastern Visayas fear the Philippine coucal because it forewarns them of a bad day. A cryptic and nocturnal bird species, kikik, is also believed to be a harbinger of the witch’s coming.

Further north, the Tinguians of Abra Province put birds in a different light. The Tinguians do not start the planting season unless a particular bird appears before the sky. For modernist economists, stories such as these are dismissed as mere superstition, stumbling block in the road towards progress. Closer inspection however reveals that this bird is migratory, signaling the onset of the monsoon season. Anthropologists remarked that the Tinguian‘s agricultural cycle is more attuned to the nuances of their local environment than modern agricultural practices.

The representation of animals in the local belief systems comes in handy in disaster situations. In the place I grew up in, villagers admonish children to be extra watchful for sudden changes in animal behavior, say for example the early roosting of the chicken or the complete silence of the forest, because these forebode a disastrous event. In other cases, like the 2006 Guinsaugon mudslide and the many earthquakes in the Philippines, eyewitnesses remember the unusual behavior exhibited by the animals before the event. Lita C. Malicdem, in a comment on animals and earthquakes in the Philippines, said that, “I had observed my dogs howling at no cause and the fowls in the poultry cackling and making uneasy noises. I would learn later that there was an earthquake. It was so weak that it wasn’t felt by us humans, but the animals did.”

Anthropologists have also documented similar incidents elsewhere. After noticing unusual behavioral changes in the birds, dolphins and lizards, tribes in the Nicobar and Andaman islands headed to higher ground and were saved from the devastation. Similarly in 1975, Chinese officials, using animal cues, “ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city with one million people, just days before a 7.3-magnitude quake. Only a small portion of the population was hurt or killed. If the city had not been evacuated, it is estimated that the number of fatalities and injuries could have exceeded 150,000.” The 2004 tsunami that hit India and Sri Lanka is the oft-cited incident of animals fleeing the disaster before it struck. According to a National Geographic report, before the tsunami hit land, “elephants screamed and ran for higher ground, dogs refused to go outdoors, flamingos abandoned their low-lying breeding areas, and zoo animals rushed into their shelters and could not be enticed to come back out.”

The stories here therefore point at the importance of local environmental knowledges. Disaster stories are part of a complex  belief system that elaborates the people’s relationship with their natural world. To end this blogpost, let me quote the World Commission for Environment and Development:

Tribal and indigenous peoples’…lifestyles can offer modern societies many lessons in the management of resources in complex forest, mountain, and dryland ecosystems…These communities are the repositories of vast accumulations of traditional knowledge and experience that link humanity with its ancient origins. Their disappearance is a loss for the larger society, which could learn a great deal from their traditional skills in sustainably managing very complex ecological systems.


Harold Olofson (2002). St. Vincent and the thunder-god: Narratives of play and Apocalypse in relation to a Central Visayan island fiesta Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society

Fikret Berkes (1999). Sacred ecology: traditional ecological knowledge and resource management Nature

William Henry Scott (1994). Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture and Society Ateneo de Manila University Press

Reynaldo Clemena Ileto (1982). Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910 Ateneo de Manila University Press

Interesting Philippine Tarsier Facts

1.          Scientists are in agreement that the tarsier lineage may have been in existence at least 40 million years ago during the Middle Eocene. This is based on a 40 million year old material from Fissures A & C at Shanghuang of Jiangsu Province, China. A fossil tarsier, Tarsius eocaenus, possesses a dentition similar to the teeth of modern Tarsius. Another fossil tarsier, Xanthorysis tabrumi, was also found in a Late Middle Eocene Heti formation, Yuanqu Basin, Shanxi Province, China. The next oldest fossil tarsiid is the Afrotarsius chatrathi from an early Oligocene sediments of Quarry M of the Jebel Qatrani Formation of the Fayum Province of Egypt. A. chatrathi exhibits a fused tibiofibula which indicates a mode of leaping locomotion the same as that of modern tarsiers. An early Miocene form was also found on northwestern Thailand, the Tarsius thailandicus (Simons 2003; Jablonski 2003).

2.          Primatologists posit that Tarsius syrichta is perhaps the most recent among the modern tarsiers. Dagosto et al (2003:246) argue that given the geologic history of the Philippine Islands and the amount and placement of emergent land during the Cenozoic, dispersal of tarsiers to the Philippines is very unlikely to have occurred before the late Miocene, and may have been much later.  In the Philippine context, islands inhabited by tarsiers today were located farther east and south of mainland Asia during the early Cenozoic, with no evidence of land bridges connecting these islands to the mainland. Dagosto et al (2003) believe that tarsiers originated from mainland China and later on dispersed overwater to Sulawesi and the Philippines. The Philippine tarsiers may have migrated from Borneo through the Sulu archipelago, arriving sometime in the late Miocene to mid-Pleistocene.

3.          Tarsiers have been an enigma for scientists because they share characteristics with prosimians as well as with anthropoids. For example, when in estrus, females have red swollen vulvas like Old World Monkeys, give birth to one large infant, but on the other hand, they have multiple (four to six) nipples, similar to lemurs and lorises.  After a six-month gestation, newborn infants can weigh up to 25-30 percent of the mother’s weight; males provide little paternal care, unlike other primate species that have large infants.  Females “park” their infants on branches, while they forage nearby (Wright et al. 2003).  Tarsiers can turn their head 180 degrees in both directions (Ankel-Simons 2000), they have very long legs, their tarsal bones are elongated (hence their name) and their tibia and fibula are fused (Wright et al. 2003).

Field Researchers at Work (photo courtesy of Dennis Bait-it)

4.          Behavioral and ecological data on tarsiers in the wild is rather difficult to obtain due to their nocturnal activity, small size, lack of tapetum lucidum, fast locomotion, and social organization (Gursky and Nekaris 2003).  The increasing use of radio telemetry has facilitated the collection of data on these nocturnal and “cryptic” prosimians (Gursky 1998a).  According to Gursky and Nekaris (2003), there is a new group of scientists who think it is important to document species-level differences among nocturnal prosimians so that broader correlations concerning ecology and behavior can be discerned.

5.           Although there is a debate concerning the number of tarsier species, most researchers agree that tarsiers are represented and formally recognized by five speciesTarsius bancanus, the Bornean tarsier; T. dianae, Dian’s tarsier; T. pumilus, the pygmy tarsier; T. spectrum, the spectral tarsier; and T. syrichta, the Philippine tarsier (Dagosto et al. 2003; Gursky 2002; Neri-Arboleda et al. 2002; Dixson 1998).  These species are grouped into two distinct phenotypic groups: the Philippine-Western group, from the Philippines and Borneo; and the Eastern group, from Sulawesi (Brandon-Jones et al. 2004).  Tarsiers have a limited geographical distribution in a few Southeast Asian islands (Neri-Arboleda et al. 2002).  Tarsius bancanus is found in Borneo and some parts of Sumatra.  T. dianae, T. pumilis, and T. spectrum are found in Sulawesi.  Dian’s tarsier is restricted to Sulawesi’s central lowlands, the pygmy tarsier to the central part of the island, and the spectral tarsier to the northeastern part of the island (Neri-Arboleda et al. 2002).  The Philippine tarsier is restricted to the Philippine islands of Bohol, Leyte, Samar, Maripipi, Biliran, Dinagat, Siargao, and Mindanao (Neri-Arboleda et al. 2002).

6.          According to Neri-Arboleda et al. (2002), there are several field studies of T. bancanus, T. spectrum, and T. dianae, but very few of the behavior and ecology of T. pumilus and T. syrichta (see also Dagosto 1998; Dagosto et al. 2003; and Wright 2003b).  There is not sufficient data to precisely determine the social organization of the Philippine tarsiers (Dagosto et al. 2001).  Because they have not been well studied in the wild and there are limited published observations regarding their ecology and behavior, T. syrichta is currently classified as “data deficient” by the IUCN-Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN website 2004).  Neri-Arboleda et al (2002) suggest that because of this lack of information on the Philippine tarsier, its status as “data deficient” should be maintained until further studies are done.

7.          A nocturnal habit makes possible the exploitation of uniquely nocturnal food resources and avoidance of diurnal predators. Modern tarsiers lack a tapetum lucidum but have a well-developed fovea in the center of an all-rod retina, where visual acuity is concentrated and visual image is intensified because of the dense arrangement of visual receptor cells (Jablonski 2003). Their dentition, which is almost similar in structure to that of the fossil tarsiers, favors a strictly insectivorous or carnivorous diet. In the wild, tarsiers prefer large bodied coleopterans and arthropods. The molars of the tarsiers are suited to breaking the exoskeletons of insects and the skeletons of small vertebrates, efficiently consuming the fats, protein, and carbohydrate-rich tissues of their prey by digestion.  Energy expenditure for the tarsiers is minimized by its low basal metabolic rates (which is 65% for the Philippine tarsiers) and low body temperature. Although this has not been studied yet, I also suspect that energy expenditure is minimized by daytime torpor, also observed among spectral tarsiers (Dagosto 2003; Gursky 2003).



Wright, P.C., Simons, E.L., and Gursky, S. 2003. Tarsiers: Past, Present and Future. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Neri-Arboleda, I., Stott, P. and Arboleda, N.P. 2002. Home Ranges, Spatial Movements and Habitat Associations of the Philippine Tarsier (Tarsius syrichta) in Corella, Bohol. J. Zool., London 257:387-402.

Gursky, S. 1998. Conservation Status of the Spectral Tarsier Tarsius spectrum: Population Density and Home Range Size. Folia Primatologica 69: 191-203.

Gursky, S. 2002. The behavioral ecology of the spectral tarsier, Tarsius spectrum. Evolutionary Anthropology 11: 226-234.

Gursky, S. and Nekaris, K.A.I. 2003. An introduction to mating, birthing, and rearing systems of nocturnal prosimians. Folia primatologica. 74: 241-245.

Beard, K. C. 1998. A new genus of Tarsiidae Mammalia: Primates from the middle eocene of Shanxi Province, China, with notes on the historical biogeography of tarsiers. Bulletin of Carnegie Museum of Natural History 34:260-277.

Tarsier-viewing in the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary, Corella, Bohol

Survival International’s Greenwashing Award

Survival International’s version of black humor for April Fool’s:

And the Greenwashing Award goes to……

Yaguarete Porá S.A. for ‘dressing up the wholesale destruction of a huge area of the Indians’ forest as a noble gesture for conservation.’

Yaguarete owns 78,549 hectares of forest that is part of the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode tribe’s ancestral territory. After satellite photos were published around the world revealing that it has destroyed thousands of hectares of the tribe’s forest, the company issued a press release announcing it intends to create a ‘nature reserve’ on its land

To read the rest of the story, click here.

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Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration in the Camotes Sea

Map of Service Contract

Below is a short video on a fishing community’s resistance against the resumption of NorAsian Energy’s offshore oil and gas exploration in the Camotes Sea. A news report indicates that the survey will “cover a total of 100 line kilometers in Borbon waters or at a distance of at least 2 kilometers from the town’s shoreline.” The approved service contract extends to neighboring areas as well (see map), particularly in Cebu, Leyte, and Bohol (current survey coverage is at 900-line kilometers).

Environmentalists and fisherfolk groups fear that the seismic survey will adversely impact the marine environment and the livelihood of coastal residents. According to the Central Visayas Fisherfolk Development Center, Inc. (FiDEC) and the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty:

seismic surveys involve the use of a ship with an airgun and hydrophones connected to a cable that is dragged underwater. The sonic boom from an airgun array is 255 decibels (dB), way over the human threshold of 80 dB and that of animals which is even lower. Seismic blasting is expected to damage the reproductive organs, burst air bladders, and cause physiological stress in marine organisms. It can also cause behavioral modifications and reduce or eliminate available habitat, alter fish distribution by tens of kilometers, and damage planktonic eggs and larvae.

FiDEC further added that the impact of the continued exploration activities will result in an estimated 20% cut in the domestic fish production in the Philippines for the next 10 to 20 years. In the 2007 Japan Petroleum Exploration Co., Ltd. (Japex) seismic survey, Vince Cinches of FiDEC reported a significant drop in fish catch, from the normal yield of six to 11 kilos to zero to 2.5 kilos after the survey.

The campaigners call for the cancellation of the service contracts. The Borbon Alliance of Fisherfolk Association (BAFA) urged the public to take heed because “the protection of the seas is not only an issue for coastal fishers.” Marine scientists regard this area as one of the least studied environments in the region. The Camotes Sea is also one of the places where cetaceans, whale sharks, and other large marine animals frequent.

WATCH THIS video below. It gives a nice background on the oil and gas exploration from the perspective of the coastal fishers.

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Tarsiers: Tourist Mascots No More?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe 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.


Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society

This is the video trailer documenting Dr. Irene Arboleda and Carlito Pizzaras’ work with the Philippine tarsiers.

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Ethnoprimatology in Sulawesi: Macaques in Farms and Folklore

Ethnoprimatology is a relatively new field that looks into the interaction between humans and nonhuman primates. Les Sponsel (2008) describes the ethnoprimatological approach as emphasizing on the “behavioral and ecological interactions between populations of human and nonhuman primate species inhabiting the same ecosystems. It serves an integrative function at the interface of anthropology and biology on the one hand, and the interface of biological and cultural anthropology on the other.”

Erin Riley and Nancy Priston’s  paper on the Indonesian macaques is a great addition to the growing literature on ethnoprimatology, an approach introduced by Les Sponsel and later on expounded and refined by Agustin Fuentes and other primatologists. The authors investigated the cultural location of the macaques in Indonesian cosmology as well as the human-macaque resource use overlap in Central and South Sulawesi and in the island of Buton using ethnographic and ecological methods.

They ascertained the impact of macaques on cash crops, specifically cacao (an important Indonesian export), by comparing the crop loss data caused by the macaques, squirrels (Prosciurillus sp.), and rats (Taeromys sp.). Semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions were also conducted on elders, farmers, and plantation owners regarding local perceptions and folklore related to macaques.

Their research suggested that “although humans and Sulawesi macaques exhibit considerable overlap in their uses of cultivated resources, the current level of resulting conflict is relatively low.” This is because macaques figure prominently in ecological and religious narratives for many of the ethnic groups in the island. The authors posited that “Tonkean macaques are seen as kin and guardians of adat (traditional law); noted as biologically similar, and hence of human origin; and are recognized as key members of their shared ecological environments.” The consumption of macaques is considered as haram among Muslim residents while Balinese Hindu were more likely to kill monkeys opportunistically. Some farmers in Sulawesi also view monkeys as beneficial because they help harvest without damaging the seeds.

Moreover, Riley and Priston said that  cacao crop damage due to macaques is much lesser than that of the rats. They however cautioned that macaque crop raiding may intensify in the future and will pose conservation management problems. The shift from traditional agriculture to cash crop production will intensify human-macaque conflicts, because “macaques raid cacao regardless of levels of forest fruit availability and that frequency of guarding by farmers had no effect on crop raiding levels.”

Riley and Priston’s research pointed at the importance of using anthropology’s holistic approach in primatological studies and conservation management. Culturally-sensitive studies, such as this, help thwart conservation plans that often do not involve local communities. Conservation agents can learn more by integrating indigenous knowledges into their plans. Ethnographic studies are rife with examples indicating that inscribed in the local culture is an ecological knowledge useful for conservation.


Riley, E., & Priston, N. (2010). Macaques in farms and folklore: exploring the human-nonhuman primate interface in Sulawesi, Indonesia American Journal of Primatology DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20798

Sponsel, Les. 2008. Ethnoprimatology from the Amazon to Thailand and Beyond: Engaging the Inspiration of Kenneth A. R. Kennedy in Pursuing the Four Field Approach. Paper for annual convention of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco, CA, November 19-23, 2008


Special thanks to Raymond Ho of Prancing Papio for generously sending me this paper.