August 13, 2007

Inside Bohol's Tarsier Sanctuary
Tagbilaran (Bohol), Philippines

A visit with the smallest primates on earth.

Even before arriving in the island group, something I'd been really looking forward to seeing in the Philippines was the curiously small micro-primates called tarsiers. These nocturnal animals are found in southern reaches of this region of the world, and sport eyes that are 150 times better than humans, relative to body size—each bigger than their entire brain.

With the ability to jump upwards of five meters (16 feet), tarsiers use their rather long, rat-like tails to stay balanced. Strange, elongated feet and toes (reminiscent of E.T.) provide the creature a good grip on jungle surfaces.

Named after the tarsius bone (because of its lengthy leg bones), other physical oddities include the ability to move their ears independently of each other, rotate their head 180 degrees, and grow between 8cm and 16cm (three–six inches) in length (excluding the tail).

Getting to Bohol's Tarsier Visitors Center on a Sunday was a bit interesting. Naturally, Tatiana and I had no idea what the day of the week it was—completely loosing track of the days: One of the benefits of travel, where every day is like a Saturday—and upon reflection only realized it later this evening.

From Dao, the jeepney terminal in Tagbilaran, buses marked for Sikatuna depart (when full of enough waiting people and livestock) along a route that passes the turnoff to the Tarsier Centre.

We, however, discovered well into our 30-minute journey that our transport, though marked for Sikatuna, was indeed not going to this destination.

A series of linguistically challenging moments ensued, as I tried to ascertain where were we bound for, and why we weren't traveling past the sanctuary. I have discovered the hard way that English is clearly not as prevalent in this country as I'd been lead to believe.

A short time later the bus turned left down an anonymous path, enclosed by a canopy of dense jungle. Standing on the corner of the road to Sikatuna next to a closed vegetable trading market, we turned to see a trio of motorbikes and drivers idling in the shade—taxi transport.

We hired one of the young Filipinos to take us to the sanctuary for P$40—squeezing the driver, a four-month pregnant Tatiana, and myself onto the bike at the same time. The motorbike trip took less than 10 minutes, but the money spent was worth the time saved. I instructed the driver to wait for us as we entered the grounds; we'd been the first tourists he'd seen all day.

A mandatory "donation" of P$20/person is collected at the end of a short (but very satisfying), 20-minute guided walk, through a small patch of gated forest beside the centre. A captive breeding program takes place on the grounds, and several mature tarsiers find themselves in the sanctuary—occasionally being woken up mid-day by ogling tourists (like ourselves).

On our motorbike ride back from the visitor center it was decided that we'd hire the fellow to take us all the way back to the Dao terminal. The bus ride out cost P$30, our transport back from the centre was costing P$40, and since we had absolutely no idea if or when another bus was going to pass by that afternoon, we just assumed keep things simple by getting back into town by motorbike.

I nudged Tatiana to woo the driver to lower his fee (had it been a woman this would have been my job), and for the reasonable price of P$80—a mere 10 pesos more than waiting for a bus—we found ourselves speeding back into town, smiles on our wind-blown faces.

Note: Comments are open to everyone. To reduce spam and reward regular contributors, only submissions from first-time commenters and/or those containing hyperlinks are moderated, and will appear after approval. Hateful or off-topic remarks are subject to pruning. Your e-mail address will never be publicly disclosed or abused.