National Geographic : 1948 Sep
Seeking Mindanao's Strangest Creatures BY CIIARLES HEIZER WIIARTON TO CAPTURE wild jungle animals was a dream I had carried through two years of Army service in the Pacific. Then, discharged in Manila in the fall of 1946, I got my chance to "go south." John N. Hamlet, biologist on leave from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, was in the city, preparing to depart for the south ern Philippine Islands for special zoological research. "Come along and help me on this problem," Hamlet suggested. I eagerly accepted the opportunity. A few months in Davao, Mindanao, con vinced me that I was in the midst of animals and birds so little known as to be zoological rarities, mostly unseen in American zoos. Pop eyed tarsiers; hairy-tailed tree shrews; flying lemurs, Nature's most efficient gliders; huge monkey-eating eagles-a multitude of peculiar and rare forms of life existed practically under my nose. Fascinated, I resolved to bring some back to America alive. Home of Curious Animals Geologically, Mindanao is an interesting island.* Some geologists think land bridges once connected it with Borneo and Celebes (map, page 393). At one time it was prob ably five islands instead of one. Through the centuries, geological changes here and in other parts of the Philippines allowed certain curious forms of life to develop independently. Some of the strangest live on Mindanao, especially on Mount Apo, highest mountain in the Philippines. Many zoologists have traveled the Pacific islands without once having glimpsed such curious animals as tarsiers and flying lemurs. Often it was pure luck which led me to lo cate certain animals and birds. Some, like the spectacular monkey-eating eagle, were really rare; others, like the tarsier, were common, once their home had been located. My first job was to acquire initial speci mens of these and other supposedly rare ani mals and to determine their natural foods. I could then learn to feed and cage other speci mens in some central, sheltered location. The next step would be to find substitute foods and to develop feeding methods which would be successful in the United States. Only in the case of the flying lemur did my system ultimately fail, and, except for my unfortunate arrival in Oakland, California, on the Fourth of July, with all stores closed, even this strange animal might have survived to delight scientists and zoo-goers. The commanding officer of the only United States Army unit in the Davao area helped me set up headquarters in a deserted ware house. This provided adequate light, yet protected the cages from pouring rainstorms and the inborn curiosity of the Filipino. The only, and often unreliable, way to get into the wilder areas was by small motor launch. The most cooperative, but not the smoothest riding, of these was the Columbian, a converted naval boat belonging to the Columbian Rope Company, which was en gaged in transporting abaca fiber (Manila hemp) and copra along the rugged coast. Friendly Christian Filipinos on this "hemp run" would battle any surf to get their cargo through. Sometimes I carried my animals to Davao on this trim little launch, though often I was marooned for a week or so and kept busy cramming food down voracious throats while waiting for the boat to appear. Occa sionally I went through sieges of fever, during which I regretted my isolation in the impene trable mountain wilderness. For months after, in nightmarish dreams, I would see again a seminaked nut-brown cargo boy, waist-deep in foaming surf. On his head he precariously balanced a fragile cage full of tarsiers while waiting for a lull in the pounding waves to dash to the surf boat and deposit his precious load. Large Staring Eyes in Tiny Face The tarsier (Tarsius carbonarius) was my chief quarry. Only two, so far as I know, had been seen alive in the United States. The animal is a small, primitive primate, exceed ingly specialized. It developed from the same stock that has given rise to the monkeys and higher primates.t This is one of the very early types of mam mals which have come down to us relatively unchanged. Bones of tarsiers have been found in southern California rocks of the Eocene period of some 50 million years ago, and also in Wyoming. Today, on Mindanao, tarsiers appear to thrive best in second- or third growth thickets along the coast and in valleys. * See "Mindanao, on the Road to Tokyo," by Fred erick Simpich, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, No vember, 1944. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, by William M. Mann: "Monkey Folk," May, 1938, and "Man's Closest Counterparts," August, 1940.