Western Tarsier

Name: Western Tarsier / Horsfield’s Tarsier

Scientific name: Tarsius bancanus

Distribution: Sumatra, Borneo

One of the most difficult animals to spot in Lok Kawi Wildlife Park is the Western Tarsier. Located at a corner of the small primates enclosure, the two Western tarsiers are usually hiding at the back of the cage, and with its small size and brownish fur colour, it blends in perfectly with the tree branches. However, it is worth the effort to try to find it because in the wild, it is even more difficult to spot. I have only seen a wild tarsier once, in Gunung Mulu National Park, on the way back in the dark from Deer Cave back to the Park Headquarters.

At first glance, the Western Tarsier looks like a reject alien from Steven Spielberg’s ET movie or a ghost, especially when it rotates its head 180 degrees to look at you from the back. In fact, the Malay name for this monkey is kera hantu, or ghost monkey. The Dusun people of Sabah, however, have another name for it – tondirukut which is derived from rukut-rukut, a word meaning “mixture”. According to a Dusun story, when God created life, he had some left over parts from the other animals, and not wanting to waste, the tarsier was created from these parts. That is why the tarsier has the eyes of an owl, the ears of a bat, the tail of a monkey and the limbs of a frog.

Its huge eyes, which do not reflect light, (and hence will not show up that easily on a night drive) are its most interesting feature. The eyes weigh more than their brain, and if our eyes were the same in proportion to the Western Tarsier’s size, our eyes would be as big as apples. Besides helping it to see well at night (since it is a nocturnal animal), the eyes serve to scare off predators. Upon detecting a predator, a tarsier closes its eyes until the predator is almost directly on top of it, at which point, it opens its huge eyes and bares its sharp teeth. I can imagine even the fiercest predator running away in shock at this sight.

Its large bat-like ears also helps the tarsier in detecting prey. Insects make up a large part of the tarsiers’ diet, although they are also carnivorous and will eat lizards, snakes and bats. Like a blind kung fu master, the tarsier closes its eyes and then pounces on its prey.

Thanks to its long hind legs, the tarsier can leap up to 2 metres. During a jump, it twists its body like an Olympic platform diver doing a turn and stretches out its long fingers to grasp a branch. Its long tail is used for support and balance.

Unfortunately, the tarsier’s ET-like looks and furry body makes it a popular choice for a wildlife pet. Please take note that a tarsier requires live food, and if not properly taken care of, they will often injure and kill themselves due to stress.

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