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Heritage Snippets of Sarawak
By Hans Breuer
NEXT to orangutans and proboscis monkeys, no primate is as iconic to Borneo as Horsfield’s tarsier. The editors of the Lonely Planet travel guide series clearly shared this sentiment when they selected a photo of the kobold-like critter for the cover of the first edition of their Borneo issue. According to Hollywood lore, tarsiers were the inspiration for everyone’s favorite sage, Master Yoda from Star Wars, and for the mischievous creatures in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Gremlins’.
Tarsiers are among the most fascinating mammals in the region, but their nocturnal habits, notorious cautiousness, and lightning-fast movements make them hard to find and even harder to photograph. Very few of my Sarawakian friends, even those with a solid history of nature photography and scientific work, had ever seen a wild tarsier, and neither had I.
Since Day One in Borneo, the kera hantu—Malay for “ghost monkey”—had been on my must-see-before-dying list. My excitement was boundless when a friend informed me that a few mutual friends had spotted a tarsier in a nearby forest the previous night and invited me to tag along on their next excursion.
When I asked about the location, he said, “oh, just in your neighborhood.” My excitement turned into euphoria. This legendary creature lived in the forest just down the road?
The following Saturday night, six black-clad nature nerd commandos armed with heavy camera gear gathered at the predetermined meeting spot. One group searched to the western part of the forest; the other one went east. Fifteen minutes later my cellphone buzzed: “Get your butts over here, we found a tarsier. Better step on it; there’s no telling how much longer he’ll stay put.”
We ran through the forest as fast as the darkness and my double-wideness allowed. When we arrived at the location we had been given, there was nobody—we had misunderstood their directions. Three more frantic phone calls and more wild panting through the nocturnal humidity finally brought us to the object of our desire.
A tarsier is small enough to fit in your hand, but his hindlegs are formidable catapults. These primates possess the longest legs in the animal kingdom in relation to body size, and they can fling their owner fifteen horizontal feet in one shot, about thirty times their body length—the name “tarsier” is derived from its elongated “tarsus” or ankle bone.
Our friends had spotted the tarsier in a stand of saplings, and as soon as the flashlights hit him, the little mogwai had leapt deeper into the thicket, hurling himself from trunk to trunk. One of our group had followed the animal off-trail, a move severely restrained by the deep leaf litter, the density of the trees and bushes, and the insidious creepers tripping him up at every step.
At some point, the tarsier stopped his mad rocket trip and paused for a break, or maybe to take a better look at his giant, clumsy cousins. The moment I arrived, he swiveled his head in my direction at a sickening angle,
‘Exorcist style’, and stared at me as if he had never seen anything this big on two legs.
The sensation was mutual: I had never seen anything like him either. He looked like—what? The result of a “Star Trek” transporter failure? A visitor from outer space?
I settled for “an animal made from spare parts”. Paper-thin, transparent bat ears, a long spaghetti tail that ended in a toilet brush, and the giant, creepy-cute eyes of a Snapchat filter. These eyes are even more pronounced than in lorises. Each eye is bigger than the tarsier’s stomach, and larger and heavier than its brain. This leaves no space in the sockets for any muscles to move the eyeballs, a shortcoming compensated by the ability to rotate the head up to 180 degrees in both directions.
His long, bony fingers and toes recalled Madagascar’s aye-aye lemur, and I thought how perfect they were for catching insects (bonus crazy anatomy fact: a tarsier’s third finger is as long as its upper arm).
The creature’s otherworldliness goes further than its looks. Tarsiers are the only primates that are purely carnivorous. With their strong jaws and shark-toothed smiles, they prey on a large variety of invertebrates, crabs, bats, birds, frogs, and reptiles, including the venomous kind. They prefer to hunt from positions not higher than six feet from the ground, and on occasion jump to the forest floor to catch things which they chase bouncing on their hind legs like kangaroos.
My friends were already photographing the thing from all angles, but I was so mesmerized by the little night monkey that I had to be reminded to take out my own camera and start shooting if I wanted some souvenirs of the encounter.
For the best part of the next hour, the tarsier sat there, revolved his head like an owl, occasionally circled the tree with the help of his nimble toes and fingers, and scrutinized the six higher primates around him with his saucer eyes. Finally, he released a commentary in the form of a huge turd, and with one giant leap that was probably just a small step for him, he disappeared into the dark.
Like most living things in Borneo, tarsiers are playing on the losing side. Forest conversion, monocultures, pesticides, and even overhunting (in some parts of Southeast Asia certain “higher primates” actually eat tarsiers) are hitting them hard, and so is human ignorance. A 2015 article in Wired.com, titled “Absurd Creature of the Week”, quotes Myron Shekelle, one of the world’s foremost experts on tarsiers:
Perhaps the most ironic problem seems to be its villainization as an agricultural pest. “So, one of the things that I’ve done is try to work with [farmers] and explain: No, no, tarsiers are actually interesting. They’re the only primate that doesn’t eat any plant matter, none at all,” said Shekelle. “If you see them in your crops, they’re eating insects that eat the leaves on your crops, so they’re actually good.” His advice isn’t always heeded, though. “One very memorable time, after we did this and the people were like, ‘Yeah, yeah that’s very interesting,’ we came back the next day and the guy had cut down his own fruit tree that had the tarsier nest in it. Clearly he didn’t believe a word that we said.”
Hans Breuer is a German-born, lifelong nature nerd and has lived in tropical Asia for the last three decades. A translator and interpreter for Mandarin Chinese by trade, he kept a greenhouse filled with hundreds of Nepenthes (pitcher plants) on top of his garage in Taiwan. A conference on the genus in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, where he saw Nepenthes in the wild for the first time, triggered an obsession with the island’s legendary fauna and flora, and a subsequent relocation to Borneo was made in order to live among its natural wonders and enjoy and study them at his leisure. He has written a book on his experiences amongst the natural wonders of Borneo to be published in October 2022.