I’m willing to bet you’ve never seen anything as weird and wonderful as the tiny tarsier.
Some people pick travel destinations because of beaches, restaurants, mountains, the nightlife, the lack of nightlife…whatever. Each location for me has a different pull. But often, and I’ve said this over and over again, it’s a particular species of animal that is the main draw for me. This shouldn’t be very surprising, considering I’m a zoologist (a currently unemployed zoologist, but hey, that’s not what’s important right now so shush). For example, I was very excited to explore Australia because of the incredibly unique wildlife there.
So during my trip to the Philippines a couple of years ago, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the island of Bohol and see one of the tiniest primates in the world: the tarsier. These adorable (or hideous, depending on your point of view) creatures were the inspiration for E.T., with each giant eye approximately the same size as their brain. As nocturnal animals, they are extremely difficult to spot in the wild. It doesn’t help that every species of tarsier is under threat from habitat loss and the exotic pet trade, and are now only found on a few islands in South-East Asia. Bohol is by far the easiest place to see them, even if it’s not technically in the wild.
There are two tarsier sanctuaries in Bohol, though I’d never use that word to describe one of them. Every person I met in Bohol who mentioned wanting to see tarsiers may have gotten an earful on which sanctuary they should be visiting (whether they wanted it or not). The sanctuary located in Corella – the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary – is an official conservation project dedicated to the welfare and continued survival of the species. The “sanctuary” located in Loboc – Tarsier Conservation Area – while more convenient for tourists, is a for-profit tourist trap that has a reputation for mishandling their animals.
What many people don’t realise is that tarsiers are very shy, solitary creatures that become stressed very easily. And when they get stressed…they commit suicide by banging their heads against the ground. Yup.
Word has it that many of Loboc’s tarsiers get to this suicidal point, so the workers there simply capture more wild tarsiers to replace them. God, that makes me so mad.
While over in Corella, dedicated staff watch visitors like a hawk to make sure they remain quiet and a proper distance from the tarsiers that live in their large enclosure. This enclosure is designed to allow tarsiers in and out while protecting them from predators. YES.
It was a bit of an adventure getting to the sanctuary in Corella. Myself and T, a girl I met in the gorgeous Coco Farm Hostel on Panglao Island, decided to make the trip together, and hired a motorcycle for the day. A wobbly ride and one rain storm later, we finally arrived, utterly drenched, at the track to the visitor centre. The road was puddles of slippery mud. Trying to wheel through one of the deepest of these puddles turned out to be a mistake, as suddenly the bike was slipping sideways. Though we both managed to stay on our feet, the bruises running down the inside of our legs were very impressive by the next morning.
After washing the mud off ourselves, we payed the small entrance fee, wandered through the enclosure for about 15 minutes, saw four tarsiers (squee!), avoided an ocean of selfie sticks and emerged on the other side. While I wish the experience had lasted longer, the throbbing in my leg urged me home again.
I highly recommend visiting the Philippines Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary if you ever head over to Bohol. Who knows, in another ten years there might be none left to see, although the Philippine Tarsier Foundation is doing everything it can to prevent this from happening. And besides, when are you going to see another animal as unique and wonderfully weird as the tiny tarsier?
Just remember – head to Corella, NOT LOBOC!
While hiring a motorcycle is the easiest way to get to the sanctuary in Corella, it’s not a feasible option for everyone. Hop on a bus heading for Sikatuna, then walk 5-10 minutes down the track once you’re off the bus.
Ticket prices were 50 pesos in 2016 (US$1/€0.90), with all of the money going towards the conservation of the species.
You only really need about 30 minutes to have a look at the visitor centre and wander through the tarsier enclosure, but there is a 15km trail you can walk if you want to try your hand at spotting more tarsiers as well as the local bird life.
I stayed at the Bohol Coco Farm Hostel on Panglao Island, and I absolutely loved it. One of my favourite hostels in Asia, and one of the cheapest options on Panglao. Nice rooms, good food served in their restaurant using food grown on the premises, and situated in a lovely forested area. It’s a ten minute drive to famous Alona Beach or a 20 minute walk to the local beach.
Do you think more people need to be aware of the ethical practices of the tourist attractions they visit? Would you like to see the little tarsier?
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.