This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Search for Rare Primates

We have been to Bunaken and Tomohon, so there is one more excursion that we want to make in Northern Sulawesi that is to see the tarsiers at Tangkoko Nature Reserve. Tarsiers are the world's smallest primate and quite rare. They can only be found in the wild in North Sulawesi, Indonesia and the Philippines. A one hour bus ride and twenty-five minutes in the back of a pickup truck gets us to our hotel which is just a short walk from the area.

Tarsiers are nocturnal animals, so the typical way to see them is to go with a guide (foreigners must have a guide though we do see a birdwatching couple without a guide) at 4PM and walk to the "Tourist Tree" before sunset. This hollowed out banyan tree has three tarsiers who always come out at sunset to hunt and greet the primate papparazzi with popping flashes.

A tarsier home
These little jungle critters (adult 10-15 cm) are definitely the big draw to Tangkoko, but since it is a jungle there are plenty of other exotic animals to see like hornbills, pythons, kus-kus (sloth like creature) and black macaques. The best way to see these animals is to hire your guide again and go out in the morning. However, Mika and I do not want to hire a guide twice so we devise a plan to leave very early in the morning to catch the tarsiers on their way back home and then see the other animals after dawn. Mika does some wheeling and dealing and finds a guide that does not speak great English, but says he will show us everything for the price of just the evening Tarsier tour. I am not quite sure when (or if) we will ever learn that you-get-what-you-pay-for when hiring a discount guide in Indonesia.

We have a lot to see, so we head out at 4:00 AM where our first stop will be at the tarsier tree. As we walk in the pitch black jungle with flashlights our guide is searching trees for pythons and tarantulas. Unfortunately we do not find anything except a few mice frozen in the flashlight.

We arrive at the tarsier tree and wait. There are no other tourists here to compete for the tarsiers' attention. As we sit fruit drops around us from bats eating in the tree tops and we hear the squeaking of the tarsiers as they approach their home.

My best tarsier shot
The guide walks around the tree and points out our first tarsier. They are exactly as envisioned - small, furry and cute. It is still quite dark and our cameras are not equipped for low light wildlife photography, so after a few weak attempts we just enjoy watching them climb around the tree and listening to them communicate in their high-pitched squeaks until they decide to go in their hole and go to bed. It is a fantastic visit with these unique creatures and I am excited for what the rest of the morning will bring.

Mika's best tarsier shot
Hornbills are a large bird that live high in the trees. Their call can be heard from afar. If we do find one, I am not sure if it can be seen without binoculars. Meanwhile, the black macaque monkeys live in large groups and are followed by researchers everyday. They should not be too hard to find. Our guide is even calling researchers to ask where they are exactly. The problem is that now the monkeys are on the move. Also, I do not believe that our guide knows the trails very well. Several times he tells us to wait at some random spot in the jungle and goes off to find something, always unsuccessfully. After four hours of trekking I am ready to quit. Spider webs are sticking to my face like cotton candy to a fat boy's fingers at a carnival. I am quite sure the guide is also ready to quit, but Mika is determined to get what we paid for. After 6 1/2 hrs. of wandering in the jungle, we return to our hotel hungry, drenched in sweat, exhausted and having never caught up to the monkeys or a hornbill. Our lovely pre-dawn visit with the tarsiers feels like it happened ten years ago.

Calling the hornbills
Luckily, the very experienced guide from our hotel takes pity on us. He kindly invites us to join him and his Dutch tourist the next morning at no charge. He has spoken with the researchers and knows exactly where the black macaques will be when they wake up. We head out at 5 AM, walk for about 40 minutes and find the monkeys right as they are waking up and heading down to find breakfast and start the day.

This is a group of eighty monkeys and one of three tracked by researchers. The Sulawesi Black Crested Macaque is only found in Northern Sulawesi and is critically endangered. Their population has been reduced by about 90% since the 1980's due to hunting. The meat is considered a delicacy and eaten for special occasions like Christmas* dinner while small ones are captured to become pets. Forest degradation from logging and slash and burn farming means that the monkey groups are competing for less and less resources. In Tangkoko Nature Reserve, researchers follow three separate groups of the black macaque from dawn to dusk to study and protect this monkey. The ones still living outside of the reserve are probably doomed.

We spend about an hour with the family of monkeys watching them forage, groom, play, fight and fornicate in their natural environment. With some jungle hiking now under our belts, we return to Manado and buy our airplane tickets for Kalimantan - Indonesian Borneo - to search out larger primates, orangutans.

Get a room!
* All of the eating of strange animals in this part of Sulawesi, Indonesia (rats, bats, dogs and monkeys) is done by the Christian community. Because of Halal laws, Muslims tend to avoid chowing down on peculiar mammals.


  1. Those crazy Christians will eat anything!

  2. I am actually glad to see them eating strange things (though not endangered species) and the sacrifices and retaining things like dancing and music in Java. It means that centuries of Islamic and Christian missionaries have not completely erase the indigenous culture.

    Thanks for the comment!