Philippine tarsiers now among most endangered primates

ITS being a mascot for Philippine tourism has helped raise awareness for its conservation, but such gain could not outweigh its joining the ranks of the world's 25 most endangered primates also from the same reason.

Its popularity with visitors to Bohol, where it is a tourism mascot, is one reason it has landed on the latest edition of "Primates in Peril: The world's 25 most endangered primates."

Both threatened by habitat loss, the tarsier and the Lavasoa Mountains dwarf lemur of Madagascar are the newest addition to the list released November 25 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

"Many populations of Philippine tarsiers have already been locally extirpated and of those that remain some surely are at imminent risk of extinction," according to the IUCN's "Primates in Peril: The World's 25 Most Endangered Primates 2014-2016."

Tarsiers are scattered over Samar, Leyte, Bohol and Mindanao and in an unknown number of smaller islands such as Dinagat and Basilan. Modern genetic tools reveal that Philippine tarsiers are a group of at least three evolutionary significant units, a population of organisms that is considered distinct for purposes of conservation.

Three tarsier subspecies have been described: T. syrichta syrichta from Leyte and Samar; T. s. carbonarius from Mindanao; and T. s. fraterculnus from Bohol.

While tarsiers are used as a mascot in Bohol, the regulation of this tourism practice is weak. Many tarsiers are on display at roadside attractions in conditions described by the report as "heartbreaking, especially as these are nocturnal animals on display during the daytime."

Given the difficulties of keeping tarsiers alive in captivity, it is assumed that mortality among these animals is high, and that replacements from the wild are found when they die, the report said.

"There is a burgeoning illegal trade in tarsiers as pets, which unfortunately, is probably promoted to some degree by the tarsiers' status as tourism mascots," it said, noting that while the use of tarsiers as tourism mascots is laudable, and proves their ability to promote tourism and thereby conservation, the industry in the Philippines is in desperate need of greater oversight.

"Unfortunately, owing to weak oversight, current practices are probably exacerbating the risk of extinction, and this needs correction," it said.

Another reason for the tarsier's inclusion on the list is forest destruction.

Noting that the Philippines has been described as a land of "mega deforestation," the report pointed out that "it remains unproven that non-forest habitats can sustain tarsier populations in perpetuity."

The Philippines has also been described as the region where "megadiversity meets mega deforestation," the report said, noting that the country ranks fourth on the list of the World's 10 Most Threatened Forest Hotspots, even ahead of Madagascar, a country that is infamous for its conservation crisis.

It said that as little as seven percent of the Philippines remain forested.

"This is particularly distressing since tarsiers may well be an obligate forest species, though this is unclear and is yet another question mark about Philippine tarsiers that must be resolved quickly," the report said. (An obligate species is limited to a certain habitat.)

Since deforestation has removed "nearly all" of the tarsier's original habitat in many places, the report continued, identifying the conservation priorities of the unique primate is urgent.

Global warming has also landed the tarsier on the list, as it reflects the need to understand how the increased frequency and intensity of typhoons will affect the extinction risk of tarsiers.

Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013 swept directly over critical tarsier habitat in Leyte and Samar.

The direct effect of the typhoon on tarsier conservation is still being studied, but it was "unquestionably devastating," IUCN said. (SciencePhilippines)


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