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The Man Trying to Save the Philippine Tarsier from the Black Market

Plucked off trees and sent to market, the endangered primate faces a highly uncertain future.

Within the Philippines, the transformation story of the Tarsier Man is well known: Carlito Pizarras, once a local hunter, is now a champion for the conservation of one of the world's smallest primates—so much so that the Philippine tarsier's original Latin name, Tarsius syrichta, was changed to Carlito syrichta to honor his work. I traveled to the island of Bohol to interview Pizarras, who is now field supervisor of the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary, and find out what precipitated his change of heart.

"When I was ten years old, I would go out with an air rifle—my father is a taxidermist—but before I really knew about tarsiers, I loved to see them," Pizarras said. "When I was 12, I started taking care of tarsiers, because I knew the time would come when we wouldn't see them anymore. Since then the population has gone down, because of the destruction of their habitat and hunting. There are some foreigners collecting them for the skin as well as live ones. The population is declining; they are really endangered."

No larger than a hand, the Philippine tarsier is one of the oldest species continuously extant in the Philippines. Many decades of both legal and illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture, however, have reduced the population to dangerously low levels. In 2015, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the Philippine tarsier to its biannual report Primates in Peril: The world's 25 most endangered primates, stating that "many populations of Philippine tarsiers have already been locally extirpated, and of those that remain some surely are at imminent risk of extinction."

With deforestation taking place at a rate of 1.98 percent per annum in the Philippines, I spoke to Gregorio de la Rosa Jr. at the Haribon Foundation, an organization of the forefront of environmentalism in the country, about threats to the animal's habitat.

"Within the tarsier's range there are forest areas that are protected and managed by the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)," he said, "but these are understaffed and can't effectively stop illegal activities such as timber poaching and wildlife hunting."

In addition to being imperiled through the destruction of its habitat, tarsiers are also sold on the black market as pets. Captive animals have been reported to commit suicide.

"If you put a tarsier in a cage," Pizarras explained, "it will hit its head against the bars until it dies."

Pizarras with a tarsier in Bohol in 2005. Image: Jay Directo/Getty

Prior to meeting Pizarras, I'd visited Manila, a sprawling conurbation of 16 metropolises posing as one city, in search of the black market in animals. In the district of Makati, banks and heavily guarded malls meant only for the wealthy had swallowed up green spaces. A few miles away in downtown Ermita, emaciated women sent their children to beg from passers-by, raising them on streets that reeked of human excrement as snarling traffic discharged a veil of smog. In the infamous Cartimor Market, which is devoted to the animal trade, outlets seemed legitimate on the surface following a series of high-profile raids on traffickers in Manila. One didn't have to probe too hard, however, to discover this wasn't the case.

In a store where dogs clawed at the bars of their enclosures, a teenage boy who introduced himself as Apol was intent on selling me a Palawan flying squirrel (listed by the IUCN as near-threatened), which he yanked from his pocket.

"What you looking for?" he asked. "I have monitor lizards, snakes; I can get baby owls."

I told him I was in the market for a tarsier.

"Tarsier? No problem. It will take maybe ten days," he replied. "How many you want?"

With the starting price set at 9,000 Filipino pesos (roughly US$200), Apol took down my Facebook details with a promise he'd be in touch.

Stuffed tarsiers for sale in a tourist shop in Bohol in 2006. The Philippine government has since introduced legislation to try to curb the trade. Image: Joel Nito/Getty

The latest yearbook from the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that wildlife crime is worth up to $10 billion annually, "ranking it alongside human trafficking, arms and drug dealing in terms of profits." Slaughtered for sale as food, aphrodisiacs, 'medicinal purposes' or kept as status symbols by collectors, exotic animals have long been big business in the Philippines. One of only seventeen countries classified as megadiverse—home to the majority of Earth's species, a high proportion of which are endemic—the Philippines has seen wildlife trafficking forced into the shadows in recent years due to increased regulations.

Acting with little fear of impunity, however, traders now operate on forums and social media sites, often using simple code words to sell their wares. "Whereas two years ago, deals were frequently made in the back alleys of Manila, most are now made online, using the most rapidly growing scourge of wildlife protection—Facebook," Rafe Brown from the University of Kansas told PhilStar.

Speaking to Motherboard, Jan Vertefeuille, a senior director at WWF, expanded on the issue of wildlife crime. "Many consumers continue to buy illegal exotic pets and unsustainable wildlife products," she said. "As long as there is demand, there will be a black market, so reaching individual consumers is key. Local communities are often victims of wildlife crime, which fosters corruption and lawlessness and can flood poaching hotspots with weapons. It also steals from some of the poorest people on the planet by robbing them of their natural resources."

Dr. Myron Shekelle, a world expert on tarsiers and co-author of the IUCN report, offered a different perspective. "People and communities, of course, sometimes benefit financially from illegal activities, such as wildlife trafficking," he told Motherboard. "That said, there is an often observed phenomenon of hunters [becoming conservationists]," he added, citing Pizarras as a prime example.

In 1997, a presidential edict was passed prohibiting the "hunting, killing, wounding, taking away or possession of the Philippine tarsier" and activities that would destroy its habitats. Shortly after a ban on the caging of tarsiers along the Loboc River on Bohol, in 2011 the Philippine Tarsier Foundation had estimated there were only a few hundred tarsiers left in the wild on the island. I asked Pizarras whether he thought the situation had improved since then.

"A little," he said. "At this location, when we started in 1996 there were less than ten, now I estimate we have more than a hundred. The population is slowly increasing because of preservation in this area. The sanctuary now has natural [reproduction], but before I [bred them in captivity]. I made a big enclosure with plants and trees and put in four females with one male. I would breed a lot and release the babies into the wild.

"Here we have 8.4 hectares which the foundation owns, only one of which is open to the public. We have another 167 hectares from the government, but that's only for eco-management. It's difficult to do anything with that space as we have to ask permission and often the authorities don't allow us to do anything there. There are still problems, though, like the place at Loboc which claims to be a conservation area, but it's not. They're still dying there. They have a small space; at night they keep them in cages and during the day they're on display just for moneymaking."

I'd visited the so-called "Tarsier Conservation Area" in Loboc, where the staff had denied that their animals were caged at night. In fact, they'd taken affront at the suggestion, claiming that as their tarsiers were domesticated, they didn't travel far. This sounded a lot like the definition of a zoo.

"They're putting them in cages," Pizarras scoffed, "because the tarsier can travel one-and-a-half kilometers every night. We can prove that. When we started the foundation, we put tracking devices on them to trace the distance they could travel.

Tourists at a tarsier breeding center in Bohol. Image: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

"In our area, the people know this is a sanctuary… but outsiders will come and get two or three and sell them. It's difficult to stop people cutting the trees and capturing tarsiers," he continued. "I try to make them understand that the species is really endangered. They're only in this place, so we have to protect them, but even here in Bohol, [very] few people are concerned about wildlife."

A noisy tour party moving along a muddy trail towards the entrance of the sanctuary disrupted Pizarras' train of thought. Concerned that the hullabaloo would disturb the animals, his face reddened as he shushed at the crowd.

"This is my problem every day," he explained, indicating the group. "They give me a headache. We have to control them. It's not easy. The tarsier is very sensitive."

As the main attraction on Bohol, it seemed the fame of the Philippine tarsier had become part of the threat to its survival. In both the sanctuary and at Loboc, guides pointed out creatures for tourists to take snapshots of. But while the foliage was thick at the sanctuary and visitors made to keep their distance, in Loboc the trees had been stripped bare for ease of viewing, the light hurting the nocturnal animal's eyes. With government funding scarce, the sanctuary has to strike an ecotourism balancing act that left Pizarras both hopeful and frustrated in equal measure.

Wondering what the future holds for the Philippine tarsier, I asked de la Rosa Jr. at the Haribon Foundation what could be done to help save the species.

"[We need to] empower and expand the capacities of communities and the local government," he said, "including deputizing forest guards to catch these smugglers and maintain and restore the remaining forest."

Shortly after leaving Bohol, I was messaged several times by Apol, who informed me that tarsiers were now available for purchase at Cartimor Market. Despite Motherboard's repeated attempts to contact the DENR in Manila, no response was forthcoming.