TEMPO.CO, Belitung - The small creatures, measuring just 10-15 centimeters in height, perched on tree branches in the depths of Batu Mentas forest at the foot of Mount Tajam in Badau district, Belitung Island. Their huge eyes, disproportional to their bodies and capable of rotating 180 degrees, stun visitors. The animal is the tarsier, a primate of the Tarsiidae family.
Visitors to this ecotourism site must walk two kilometers from the main road into the forest for a glimpse of the nocturnal animals. So far 3,000 tourists, both domestic and foreign, visit the place each month.
Tarsiers can be found on some of large islands, namely Tangkoko in Sulawesi or Bohol in the Philippines. However, the species Tarsius Bancanus Saltator is endemic to Belitung. Though locals have long known of their presence, it was only in 2006 that scientists began conducting research on the animals.
By that time only around 3,000 tarsiers were left in the forest. Two years later, the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) registered the tarsier as an endangered animal.
The tarsier population has shrunk due to diminishing forest areas. Aggressive tin mining has robbed them of their habitat. Superstition has also played a role: locals believe they bring bad luck. If a hunter comes upon the creature, they think, he will end up going home empty handed. Locals shoot tarsiers down when they meet them in the forest.
Budi Setiawan, head of the Belitung Environment Care Group (KPLB), said locals had dubbed the tarsier 'ghost monkey' due to the its enormous eyes that turn red in the light at night.
"That scares people who come upon them in the forest after dark," the 37-year-old explained.
The old notion that tarsiers bring bad luck has also faded. "The fear has never been proven, so people stop believing it. They also stop shooting the animals after they realize that they can benefit from the creatures," said Rosiah, one of the locals. In fact, if people see tarsiers in their area, they quickly contact the KPLB to offer their services as a guide.
When someone catches a tarsier, they give it to the menagerie in exchange for Rp75,000.
"Due to the lack of data, it's difficult to establish tarsiers' mortality rate. But with the change in the public's mindset, the numbers are surely dropping," Budi said.
With all the benefits the ecotourism site has brought the locals, the government has gotten involved. Officials built new roads, pruned up the locals' plantation and helped promote the site.
Monthly revenues from the site hover around Rp30 million, excluding revenues from lodging, out of which 20 percent is used for conservation activities.
KPLB Coordinator for Community Empowerment Ade Afrilian still hopes to attract more visitors. He dreams of establishing a wildlife sanctuary. "We don't want the place to be just a tourist destination, but a safe haven for tarsiers," he said.
The complete version of this article is also available in the October 29 to November 4 edition of Tempo English magazine.
TEMPO ENGLISH EDITION