Milada Řeháková and the tiny Philippine tarsier
By Iván García-Nisa @wuthersundfor and Barbara Sansone @BarbaraSansone
Each primate species has its own threats and heroes, and the tiny Philippine tarsier (Tarsius [Carlito] syrichta) it’s not an exception. In this case, the main threats, shared by almost all the species of the order, are the loss of habitat and illegal pet trade. To unveil what is being doing to protect it and how, we have interviewed Milada Řeháková, the young team leader of the Tarsius Project. Born in Praga, in recent years she spends most of her time in the Bohol Island, in Phillipines, where she and her colleagues are developing educational and in-situ conservation programs in cooperation with the Bohol Habitat Conservation Centre.
You are a zoologist, but in the last years, it seems you have focused your work in the study of primates. What led you to start working with this order of mammals? What was your main motivation? Did you find any troubles at the beginning?
I have been always interested mainly in mammals and it happened partly by chance that I started to study monkeys for my master theses. At the age of 20 I went to India as it was my child dream to study animals in their natural habitat. It was my first time in Asia, I have spent there 8 months in very basic conditions in a small village walking to the research site every early morning. Besides some troubles with diseases and some locals, I really loved this experience and got friends there. I have returned several times to that place.
We have read you spent 15 months in India studying play behaviour of Hanuman langurs (Semnopithecus entellus). How did this experience start up? What can you tell us about the conclusions you arrived at?
This was for my master studies as I mentioned above. I came back for my doctoral studies as well. I have studied play behaviour which is very interesting phenomena, e.g. we don’t know the exact function of this behaviour yet. This was what I was trying to find out describing the play repertoire and looking at various play patterns, their characteristic and occurrence. I was also interested in play signals and play partner choice. I and my colleagues have found out that play is not simply training of the future adult behaviour but consists of very variable play patterns and several play patterns can serve different function.
Now, you are the team leader of The Tarsius Project. Why did you decide to study this tiny species? How was your first contact with a tarsier?
My first contact was in 2007 when I visited Philippines with my friend and I was looking for conservation projects that I could join. I visited Bohol and has decided to start my own project – the Tarsius project.
Researchers working with nocturnal animals always complain about how hard it is to study these sort of species. Would you mind to sum up some of the difficulties you and your team have had to deal with?
Yes, it is hard. The Philippine tarsier is one of the least known and studied primates of the world and now I know the reason. The animal is very tiny, nocturnal, cryptic, doesn’t have shiny eyes, doesn’t call regularly. Then add a very demanding terrain of limestone karst, dense vegetation, muddy slopes, cliffs plus tropical humidity, lot of rain, mosquitoes, ants and some poisonous snakes. But I must say I loved the time spent in the field on radio-tracking.
One of the goals of The Tarsius Project is the creation of a breeding centre for the establishment of a viable captive population of tarsiers. What is the current state of development of the facilities? What kind of first studies you have in mind when it is finished? Is it possible to consider this breeding centre to be a source of individuals for a future reinforcement of wild tarsier populations?
This part we do together with Bohol Habitat Conservation Centre that is our local partner. The centre has already purchased a lot where the centre will be situated and building of the enclosure has started. The enclosure will be naturally planted, covered with nylon net and we will be able to divide it into several compartments as needed. But before we get tarsiers we need to ensure enough food for them.
Our idea is to feed them a rich variety of local insects and this is what we are currently working on – to breed enough insects for the tarsiers. Also an office building is building on site. The accommodation for foreign workers or researchers is already there. Once we get tarsiers we will need to specify all the factors that lead to their successful well-being and breeding (and create the husbandry guidelines for this species), e.g. we will study food preferences or social interactions between animals, etc.
We are starting this centre as a first captive centre in the Philippines that aims to breed tarsiers (I don´t count the tourist spots displaying tarsiers in the past). Also there is currently no zoo keeping Philippine tarsiers anywhere in the world. In case we will be successful I hope our centre will serve as a source of animals staying in captivity (in the Philippines there will always be demand for animals for tourists displays or perhaps one day tarsiers will appear again in zoos in Europe especially if we know how to keep them successfully) and yes, of course, our centre can serve as a backup and animals could be released back to the wild as needed.
A main threat for tarsiers is the extraction of wild individuals by capturers for pet trade and as tourist attraction. In 2010 you and your team conducted a survey of the captive tarsiers on the main tourist route on Bohol Island and found out their conditions were very stressful and some of them were sick and dying. Thanks to that work, the authorities recognized the seriousness of the situation and the tarsiers were transferred into a bigger and naturalised enclosure in 2011. What can you tell us about the welfare and the behaviour of the tarsiers transferred? What sort of results are you obtaining from monitoring these animals living in the new facilities? Have the number of poachers decreased since then or are you still coping with them?
This was a great success. The new centre is owned by the same people and despite the enclosure is huge and naturally planted and the animals are not disturbed by guides and visitors as in the past, unfortunately, the owners do not want to share detailed information. We do not have exact information about poaching so I cannot answer this question. But I hope that as the number of tarsiers being displayed for tourist decreased in the new enclosure (more than ten times) there is less demand for tarsiers being caught from the wild as replacement.
As important as research, in a conservation project it is essential to carry out some educational activities. How well is the education programme being accomplished? How well is it being received by locals? What are the differences among the activities performed in Bohol and the educational work carried out in Czech Republic?
We had a very good experience in cooperation with Philippine Science High School from Argau, Cebu. They have sent us students for two weeks internship two following years. We led couple of presentations at Bohol Island State University. Other than that we have no positive experiences with local schools. It is sad that they were not very much interested in inviting us for lecture etc. However, we have an exhibition hall with displays focusing especially on tarsiers and other local wildlife that was set up as a part of the Tarsius project in the already mentioned Bohol Habitat Conservation Centre. In Czech Republic we do not have our own exhibit place so we carry out presentations at schools, zoos or festivals.
One of the aims of your education efforts is to train local workers and some former hunters for them to become conservationists that will be involved in tarsier conservation. How can a previous hunter become a member of the team?
We have one hunter in our team. This cooperation started in 2010 when we were looking for hunters for catching animals for our research and radio-collaring them. We have asked around and found this guy who has stayed with us since that time. He works in the daily routine of the conservation centre and also is the main spotter on the guided Night Safaris, another activity organized by our team.
In 2010, you and your team experienced a terrible event when two tarsiers (a mother and her baby) were caught and offered for sale. This incident is widely described in your website, but ¿how many similar experiences have occurred since then? Can you explain the rarest event you have lived through?
Luckily not many. It happened two or three times before this event that tarsiers were offered for sale to my colleagues at the conservation centre and I am not aware that any tarsiers were offered after this. But it does not mean that there is no poaching. Rather the poachers and middlemen know that we work for conservation and can report them to authorities.
A couple of years ago, you and your team revealed a wonderful new: the rediscovery of the Dinagat bushy-tailed cloud rat (Crateromys australis), which was only known by the holotype collected in 1975 by Dioscoro S. Rabor until then. May you explain how did it happen? What did you feel when you made the discovery? How did you proceed after such finding?
It was in January 2012, me and my husband went to Dinagat, looking for tarsiers and also for the Dinagat bushy-tailed cloud rat. I knew that one of my colleagues, zoologist William Oliver and his team were interested in finding this animal and we wanted to get some more information from locals about its possible occurrence. One day, while we were in the forest waiting for tarsiers, the cloud rat came. It was simply breathtaking moment to watch the animal that zoologists are looking for since 37 years, especially when for the first time we saw it we couldn’t get the picture and waited for another week for the cloud rat to come.
To conclude this interview, we would like to know what path is the project taking and what sort of research is on the way? Can you tell us something curious about tarsier’s behaviour or their lifestyle?
We have published some data from our research already, e.g. about their acoustic communication. We have described different call types and also found out that the most prominent and common call type, loud call, differs among individuals. We prepare following publications about tarsier home-ranges but let’s wait until it is published.
Lastly, could you give some advices or suggestions for those who are starting to work on this field. Would you recommend any book about primates?
Primates are very fascinating animals, our closest relatives, despite some species are well studied since decades some of them are still waiting for researchers to reveal the details of their lives. But almost all species deserve our attention when it comes to conservation. Therefore I would like to see many more young people interested in this field. I will not recommend any specific book as there are many of them and many scientific papers being published every year so it depends on anyone’s interest what to choose.
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