Tarsier – The Littlest Alien

Discover why the ancient alien-like primate, the Philippine tarsier, is surrounded by spiritual myths and has aroused suspicion and fear for centuries.

Produced by NHNZ

In the depths of a Philippine rainforest, a tiny alien-like creature with long elongated fingers clings to a tree. Swivelling its head in almost a full circle, it scans the darkness for unsuspecting prey using huge lustrous eyes and strangely mobile ears.

This is the story of the Philippine tarsier⎯the oldest and most mysterious primate in the world.

Small enough to nestle in the palm of a hand, with massive, appealing eyes set in a tiny head, these beguiling creatures have aroused suspicion and fear among humans for centuries. This is largely because of their strange features⎯reminiscent of fantasised extra-terrestrial creatures⎯mysterious lives and the spiritual myths surrounding them.

One belief passed down from ancient times is that they are pets belonging to spirits dwelling in giant fig trees, known as belete trees. If someone harms a tarsier they need to apologise to the spirits of the forest, or it’s thought they will encounter sickness or hardship in life.

For the past 45 million years tarsiers have inhabited rainforests around the world, but now they only exist on a few islands in the Philippines, Borneo and Indonesia.

This fascinating journey ventures into the undiscovered lives of the tarsiers living on the southern Philippine island of Bohol. Once protected by the humid rainforests and mist-shrouded hills, these mysterious primates struggle to survive as their home is cleared for crop growing.

Mystery and myths also surround the island of Bohol, making it an appropriate home for the tarsier. Scattered over the island are over a thousand dome-shaped mounds known as the ‘chocolate hills’. These hills are believed to be the discarded weapons from a fight between two giants or, more romantically, teardrops from a giant unlucky in love.

Philippine tarsiers are now facing increasing danger as dwindling forests force them closer to the ultimate predator⎯man. Hunting tarsiers to sell as pets was until recently, a thriving industry.

As a young boy, Carlito Pizarras went with his father, a local hunter and taxidermist, on trips into the forest. Carlito was interested in all the forest animals, but tarsiers held a special fascination because they were so different from all the other animals.

He dreamed of demystifying the lives of these miniature primates and, despite jeers from other people and being known as ‘monkey boy’, dedicated his life to studying and protecting them.

Today Carlito probably knows more about Philippine tarsiers than anyone else in the world and his work has awakened pride within the community and a determination to save this small island icon. With the help of funding from local businessmen he has set up the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, a centre aimed at educating people and safeguarding the animals in reclaimed forestry areas.

These tiny vulnerable creatures also attracted veterinary scientist Irene Arboleda who was eager to learn more about them and carried out the first comprehensive scientific study.

With the expert help of Carlito and the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, she had to begin right at the beginning–determining the area of forest each tarsier needs in order to survive.

Carlito’s local knowledge and Irene’s scientific expertise has enabled each of the tarsiers to be weighed, measured and tagged with a tracking collar. Their movements have been tracked each night using radio devices and the data used to build a picture of the area they cover.

The findings show that both male and female tarsiers are solitary animals but cross each other’s paths under the cover of nightfall as they hunt for prey. They travel up to one and a half kilometres across the forest and the optimal area is more than six hectares.

It was also discovered that male tarsiers will mate with up to three females, but each female will only mate once with one male each year⎯and they like to mate at full moon.

After three hundred years of knowing very little about tarsiers, the local people are increasingly interested to learn more about them.

Carlito’s hard work means his dream of understanding the Philippine tarsier has come true but he now prays they will still exist in the lives of his grandchildren in years to come.

This engrossing film unravels the mystery of these alien-like, otherworldly creatures, and takes viewers into the depths of the Philippine forests to witness tarsiers in their natural habitat.

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