To commemorate the Philippine Tarsier Foundation’s anniversary last April 17, I submitted an article to FilAm Star, a newspaper based in San Francisco.
Below is a copy of the full article with the permission of the editor Jun M. Ilagan.
Along the trails of a forest sanctuary in Bohol, Philippines, 59-year-old Carlito Pizarras dug another hole in the ground to plant one of his tree seedlings. “Soon there will be more food for insects. More insects means more food for the tarsiers,” he remarked, his face beaming with joy and satisfaction. He had personally selected the trees as field supervisor of the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, a non-stock, non-profit organization that supports the conservation of the Philippine Tarsier and its habitat.
Yesterday, 17th of April, the Philippine Tarsier Foundation had just celebrated its 18th anniversary, a significant day when it was officially registered with the Security and Exchange Commission.
It is just fitting to pay tribute to our fellow Filipino, Carlito Pizarras, who was the source of inspiration for setting up this reservation.
So, how did it all start? Carlito’s story goes way back to his early teens. At 12, he already had a reputation for being an expert at capturing tarsiers, one of the smallest primates, prized for their cuteness. He gave the tarsiers to his father, a taxidermist who sold them for pets or stuffed animals to augment their family income. Among all the animals his father stuffed and sold to tourists, the tarsier was the bestseller. With its eyes like saucers, bat-like ears, furry hair, it resembles a lovable alien. Anybody could have thought George Lucas had the tarsier in mind when he created the character Yoda, the Jedi master in the Star Wars movies. Other endearing features are its size and weight. Barely 5 inches tall and weighing only 4-5 ounces, it can fit in one’s palm like a quarter-pound hamburger. And it doesn’t stop there. This miniature cousin of monkeys has more remarkable traits – swivels its head 180 degree, hops like a kangaroo, leaps like a frog, and jumps backwards with precision.
One day, Carlito couldn’t resist having his own pet tarsier. Since he didn’t know how he could keep this creature alive, he searched for information at the town library. The only book he found said that tarsiers ate charcoal. He fed his pet an ample supply of charcoal, but it soon died. After losing two more pet tarsiers to the charcoal diet, he decided to hike into the forest at night and closely observe their eating habits.
After weeks of observation, Carlito found out what tarsiers really ate. It was actually the insects buried inside the charcoal. He fed his next pet a rich diet of crickets, beetles, and other small insects. However, day after day, the tarsier became feeble and eventually died.
“It took me almost a year to realize that they can’t be kept as pets,” Carlito concedes. He painfully discovered that tarsiers were very sensitive, fragile creatures. They were extremely shy and easily agitated. Solitary by nature, they dislike being stroked or cuddled. If kept in a cage, they become suicidal. Some want to get out so badly that they bang their soft skulls on their cages.
Despite his escalating concern for the tarsiers, Carlito kept hunting tarsiers for his father until he was in his 20s. He was keenly aware that he could no longer easily snatch them at the side of the roads. The tarsiers were becoming so scarce that he had to search deeper and deeper into the forest to spot them.
Carlito thought that other than habitat destruction and predatory house cats, hunters like him and his father were the contributors to their dwindling numbers. He knew he was partly to blame so he made a life-changing decision to give up his air rifle, formaldehyde, and other hunting tools.
“My father was angry when I told him that I didn’t want to kill tarsiers anymore,” Carlito says. “I was concerned about my children not being able to see them.”
Carlito devoted his time to becoming an advocate of tarsier conservation. He planted crops on flat land to show others that they didn’t have to cut or burn the forested slopes to create space for farming. He also repaired people’s air guns only if they promised to stop hunting tarsiers. Even before the existence of wildlife protection laws, he invented them to warn neighbors from trapping tarsiers.
Carlito worked on his farm all day and tended tarsiers at night. At his backyard he built a cage measuring 20 meters by 20 meters with trees inside to simulate their natural habitat. Over time, he learned how to successfully keep them alive and to enable them to breed despite their abhorrence to captivity. When the young ones matured, he released them into the wild.
“I wasn’t able to keep a tarsier pet, but I bred dozens of tarsiers in captivity,” he says. Initially, he earned the derogatory title of “Tarsier Man” for creeping in the forest every night. Rumors were afloat in the village that he was part monkey. But soon enough, he did not mind being called this honorable nickname.
Researchers from faraway countries visited the Philippines to learn more about tarsiers. Inspired by “The Tarsier Man”, a group of businessmen, with the support of the government, started Bohol’s Philippine Tarsier Foundation in 1996.
As field supervisor of the foundation, Carlito looks after the tarsiers. “They’re free to leap from tree to tree in an 8.4-hectare net enclosure,” he says. He starts his day checking that all of the tarsiers are home safe. At night, they hop over the fence to hunt for food and before daybreak, they come back to the safety of the enclosure. However, some do not come back. “They are territorial creatures, but if they get disturbed during the day, they choose not to come back anymore,” he says.
He makes sure visitors do not touch or feed the tarsiers, make loud noises, or use flash cameras. “Tarsiers are naturally wild. They may bite whenever they feel threatened.” he warns.
At night, Carlito patrols the area to safeguard the tarsiers from stray cats. “I also hunt for insects to take back to the reservation,” he adds. He further explains that hunting at night ensuresthat he catches fresh insects that have not been contaminated by pesticides.
His more than 40 years of devotion to the tarsiers has made him a world-renowned expert. Aside from his incredible skill of breeding tarsiers in captivity, he has developed the knack for hunting by scent and summoning the tarsiers with his high-pitch whistle. He is so adept at hunting for his wards that he even knows what time of the month the insects mate and give birth to new offsprings. His native knowledge and special bond with the tarsiers have been featured in National Geographic television, nature films such as “The Little Alien”, Reader’s Digest magazine and other international publications.
One of his most memorable experiences was in 1997, when Carlito was invited to make a symbolic presentation of a pair of tarsiers to Britain’s Prince Charles at the Presidential palace. He said he was very honored to be recognized as a conservationist like the Royal Highness, but the recognition he holds more valuable was when the Philippine tarsier was officially named after him. Now he is immortalized in the archives of scientific literature.
Though long ago Carlito was one of the tarsier’s fiercest enemies, he is currently the staunchest protector of these near threatened species. “I hope businessmen will stop putting them in cages for the tourists. Tarsiers are freedom-loving animals that should be treated with gentleness and love,” he says.