On the far tip of the Minahasa Peninsula—the finger of land that protrudes north from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and curves east into the Celebes Sea—rises the 1,110-metre tall volcanic cone of Tangkoko alongside the higher twin peak of Duasaudara, the two brothers. From the edge of the coarse black sand beach to the cloud-covered peaks, dense tropical forest covers these volcanic slopes to form the Tangkoko Batuangas Nature Reserve in the province of Sulawesi Utara, about 60 km east or a couple of hours drive from the city of Manado. Here, in the dark, humid forests of Tangkoko, lives an animal unique to Sulawesi, one of the smallest and rarest primates in the world.

Small as kittens and nocturnal by habit, they are difficult to see at any time of day or night in the dense forest. Still, if you are a tourist, like us, who has travelled to Tangkoko especially to see these animals—even if you are there just for a day—local guides will take you on a trail for a ‘sure fire’ sighting.

Strange beings emerge  from the shadows. From the hollows, from the dark recesses of the fig’s stranglehold, from within loop and tangle of roots, large, lustrous eyes glint and ears unfurl like flags: tarsiers.

Our guide, a local from adjoining Batu Putih village, leads us on an unhurried walk from the park entrance along a narrow road that extends a short distance into the reserve. From the thin strip of littoral forest along the black beach, a flock of parrots screeches past overhead into the forest on higher ground ahead. A few minutes later, we step off the road into the forest, from bright sun into abrupt, cool shade. We walk slowly along a foot trail winding through a forest that our eyes and senses are only just getting accustomed to.

Sooner than we expected, we come to a halt on the path. “There they are,” says our guide, pointing to a tree just a few metres ahead.

We don’t see them at first. The path circles around the tree, a strangler fig, an impressive but not excessively large tree whose trunk of corded roots promises hidden secrets. The root-trunk has formed open tangles as if the threads of a rope have unspooled or the rope itself was haphazardly tied over a pole that has vanished leaving frozen coils. As our eyes settle to low rainforest light, strange beings emerge like dryads from the shadows. From the hollows, from the dark recesses of the fig’s stranglehold, from within loop and tangle of roots, large, lustrous eyes glint and ears unfurl like flags: tarsiers.

Small enough to fit in a coffee mug, with soft brown fur and little pink noses, these are undeniably among the most attractive animals we have ever seen. The tree holds a small family group of six tarsiers, including two slightly smaller juveniles, all settled down to roost for the day. Each sits separately in a cosy nook but for a pair huddled against each other, with a sub-adult thrusting an inquisitive face between them to look at us. Their tails hang like spindly bottlebrushes and delicate limbs end in long, thin, pad-tipped fingers and toes, the latter emerging from the elongated feet that give tarsiers their generic name of Tarsius.

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Tangkoko's black sands provide a contrast to the lush, tropical greenery. Photo by Divya Muddappa and author

The spectral tarsier—as the species used to be called—was recently elevated by primatologists into a separate species, based on distinctive difference in appearance and calls from other tarsiers elsewhere in Sulawesi and the Philippines. Now called Gursky’s spectral tarsier (Tarsius spectrumgurskyae), after the primatologist Sharon Gursky who conducted pioneering research on these animals in Tangkoko, it occurs only in Sulawesi Utara, the northern province. Global conservation concerns arising from this tiny distribution range are somewhat offset by the local abundance of the species in forests like Tangkoko. In the late 1990s, Gursky estimated that about 56 family groups or 156 individual tarsiers were found in every square kilometre in the reserve.
The rainforest gleams green over dark wet earth. Jade, parrot, lime, dark olive, to light greens—even white in the young leaves flushing on some trees—the hues are set alight by the crimson flush of tall Garuga trees.
The tarsiers live in pairs or small groups, hunting insects like grasshoppers and moths by night and resting in trees like the strangler fig by day. If one does not know their roost trees, they are more often heard than seen. By dawn and dusk, their high-pitched whistles and chirps sound as duets or family choruses, serving to announce group territories, bring group members together, and reinforce familial bonds. Gursky discovered that their calls even extend into ultrasonic frequencies. With urine and secretions of various glands, tarsiers mark the edges of their small home ranges.

Using scent and sound, they define and defend their small, one-to-four-hectare territories in the forest. They occupy a sensory world that we can appraise but never fully inhabit ourselves.

At the strangler fig, we speak in hushed tones. Still, it is hard to not exclaim at the tarsiers’ every action—the way their tails twitch or their curled-up ears flag out to listen to our sounds, how gently their lambent eyes close in sleep or flick open in curiosity, how exquisitely their slender fingers curl around twigs or they turn their heads like owls do. When one takes a bounding leap, none of us can suppress a gasp of astonishment or the subsequent disappointment as the tarsier vanishes into the hollow innards of the strangler fig.

Suddenly, a crackling noise awakens the sleepy tarsiers. Someone has picked up a plastic water bottle lying on the ground and is trying to crush it into their bag to carry it back rather than leave it lying in the forest as trash. The bottle has perforations and the crackling clearly arouses the tarsiers.

“Tourists sometimes feed the tarsiers here at night,” says our guide. “They bring live grasshoppers in these bottles to hand to the tarsiers or to place as bait on a twig to entice a tarsier to jump for it. They take the photos they want and toss the bottle before they leave. Tarsiers have learnt to associate the sound with the feeding—that’s why they are alert now.”

A sunbeam pierces the leafy understorey, lights up a lilac-cheeked kingfisher like a forest jewel. Suddenly, a loud rush of air overhead announces the flight of a pair of knobbed hornbills, a fig-loving species found only in Sulawesi and a few nearby islands.
Mounting our cameras on tripods, to avoid using the flash, we had been trying to photograph the tarsiers, who had seemed to pay little heed to us. But now, the clicks of our camera shutters, too, seemed suddenly intrusive.

After our tryst with the tarsiers, it takes an effort to quieten ourselves to the long silences of the forest, to try to attain the deep restfulness of the beings evident behind the tarsier’s eyes. We pack our cameras and sit quietly awhile some distance from the roost tree, thinking of tarsiers.

***

When it is so fulfilling to watch the tarsiers at their roost tree without bait or artifice by day, why do tourists and guides feel a need to provoke an animal into such an artificial activity? Is there something lacking in the delight of watching tarsiers leave their roost tree naturally by night: a male bounding away into the darkness or a female delicately carrying her infant in her mouth to park the baby on a tree while she quests for insect prey? Does one experience any less wonder and surprise at seeing tarsiers in unstaged encounters along trails? Or should focusing tourist attention at specific habituated tarsier families and trees be taken as a form of triage that frees other wild tarsiers from being disturbed?

Yet there must be more to Tangkoko than packaged encounters with particular, peculiar animals. As we step back onto the forest trail, a short walk reveals more of the forest’s hidden, yet endless, vitality.

Washed by last night’s downpour, the rainforest gleams green over dark wet earth. Jade, parrot, lime, dark olive, to light greens—even white in the young leaves flushing on some trees—the hues are set alight by the crimson flush of tall Garuga trees. From the dark earth, covered with scattered dry leaves and a sprinkling of herbs, rise shrubby evergreens, lush but not dense and easy to walk through. Here and there erupt giant flange-like buttresses of great trees, emergents spreading their crowns over the rest of the forest canopy. The trunks of the great trees stand like intricately marked columns: smooth and pale in the stately fig, Ficus variegata, a blotched mosaic in the enormous Dracontomelum dao, and sandy and pock-marked with breathing lenticels in the lanky, seven-leaved Alstonia scholaris. The forest understorey flushes with palms: feathery-leaved Arenga, fish-tailed Caryota, and the large fan-like Saribus whose leaf ribs bats have bitten neatly in a ring to flop the blade over like a tent under which they can roost.

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The buttress roots of one of the great forest trees. Photo by Divya Muddappa and author

On a low branch perches a silent, somnolent owl, an ochre-bellied boobook, who swivels his head to stare at us with unblinking eyes. A spot-tailed goshawk dashes past clutching a skink in her talons, settling on a low shrub to tear into her prey. A brownish tree squirrel scurries along a liana draped over a tree. Among the Saribus palms and dark ebony trees stand many pale Ficus, their buttresses descending into long winding ridges onto the forest floor that smells of damp earth and humus.

Further ahead, a sunbeam pierces the leafy understorey, lights up a lilac-cheeked kingfisher like a forest jewel. Suddenly, a loud rush of air overhead announces the flight of a pair of knobbed hornbills, a fig-loving species found only in Sulawesi and a few nearby islands. With a whoosh, the great birds land on a high branch. Plumaged in black with white tails and large, yellow beaks, topped by a knob-like casque that is yellow in the female and cherry red in the male, the birds bring colour and life to the forest canopy. The hornbills scan the forest with imperious turns of their neck and a comical tilting of their heads before launching off again. Resuming our walk, half an hour later, a troop of Sulawesi crested macaque crosses our path—a dozen or more black shapes that melt quickly into the forest undergrowth.

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A Sulawesi crested macaque. Photo by Divya Muddappa and author

All along, in Tangkoko, you can sense something remarkable: the presence or imminence of other beings, the invitation to immerse yourself in the forest, to partake in the fellowship of trees, to reflect upon your own connections to place. It seems a pity to reduce the possibility of such experience—as commercial tours and tourism often does—to an acquisitive list of must-see, momentary objects and points. Like us, the tourist arrives, takes the sights and the photographs, and departs.

Returning on our own trail, we think back to the sacrificial insect, the totem tree with tarsiers, the plastic discarded once the moment is seized in photographic memory. We try to leave our moment with the tarsiers behind, carry the immanent forest in us.