Sun bears: At home in the forest

  • Living
  • Sunday, 04 May 2014

Ronnie, an eight-year-old male sun bear, was rescued from View Top Resort in Tawau in July 2013. Their powerful claws enable sun bears to tear up logs and termite mounds in search of food.  -CHIEW LIN MAY/BSBCC

At a rescue facility in Sabah, sun bears, once kept in cramped cages, now get to live the way they were meant to.

Natalie is up to her usual antics. Strong and agile, she takes no time in clambering up a high tree. Then, she nimbly treads across a thin branch to reach the next tree.

Nearby, Wan Wan sniffs the ground in search of worms, beetles, and maybe termites. Mamatai, meanwhile, appears contented leaning back against a shady tree, holding onto her hind paws. Occasionally, she swats the flies buzzing around her face.

It’s like any other day in a wild sun bear’s life – except that these bears are in a fenced enclosure, albeit a forested one.

At the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sandakan, Sabah, sun bears which have been rescued from captivity get a chance to live in their natural habitat and learn to be wild. Instead of cramped cages, home for these bears is now a rainforest full of trees for them to scale and build nests, logs to dig into and bushes to frolic in.

“This is not a zoo or merely a tourist attraction,” founder of the centre, Wong Siew Te, stresses. “It is a centre to improve animal welfare, and for education, research and rehabilitation.”

The wildlife biologist has been studying sun bears for some 16 years and has designed the centre as a holistic approach to conserve the endangered species. Once the bears have picked up survival skills, they will be released into the wild.

Seeing sun bears kept in dreadful conditions was what drove Wong on a quest to open a facility to improve their welfare.

“In 2004, I received a grant to do a survey of captive sun bears in the country and I found most to be kept in a deplorable manner, with no proper monitoring and care. After seeing bears in such a bad state, I cannot turn a blind eye to them. I simply cannot. I saw a need to do for sun bears what the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan was doing – housing rescued orang utans in a proper manner and rehabilitating them for future release back to the wild.

Bear sanctuary

A suitable place was soon found, next to the Sepilok orang utan centre. The 2.5ha site sits within the 42sqkm Sepilok-Kabili Forest Reserve and once housed a Sumatran rhinoceros captive breeding programme which stopped in 2006 after the death of the last male rhino there.

The site was perfect for what Wong had in mind – the former rhino paddock consists of natural forest which the bears can forage in. The Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and Sabah Forestry Department, which both owned the site, accepted Wong’s proposal for the centre and came in as partners, together with non-profit Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP).

The centre started with eight sun bears in 2008, and now has 33. These bears had been seized by the SWD from zoos, homes, private menageries, plantations, logging camps, restaurants and resorts.

Wildlife biologist Wong Siew Te, who founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, talking to visitors about the species that is threatened by deforestation and illegal hunting.

The centre opened its doors to the public in mid-January. Wong hopes it will raise awareness on the plight of sun bears which are threatened by loss of habitat and hunting. Bear paws, meat and bile are coveted as folk remedies, while bear cubs are sought after as pets.

“When visitors share their experience at the centre on social media, that helps spread the word on sun bears and people will want to help. Before the centre was set up, not many knew about sun bears. They face pretty much the same problems as orang utans but while the orang utan is a celebrity animal that gets lots of attention, the sun bear is the least-known bear species and the most neglected large mammal in South-East Asia,” says Wong.

He believes sun bear populations are lower than the orang utan’s, and so they are an even more endangered species. He says in his six-year research in Danum Valley Conservation Area in Sabah, he encountered the primate every day but not sun bears.

Wild again

At the centre, the bears look healthy and contented in their jungle environment. But they did not arrive looking like that. There is a painful past behind each bear.

“Mary was malnourished when she arrived,” shares Wong. “She was not fed milk as a cub, and so suffered from calcium deficiency. You can see that her head is small in comparison to her body. She is still not very strong and cannot climb very well.”

Mamatai, on the other hand, was obese when she arrived. She certainly was fed well by a doting owner. She has unusually short legs and this is believed to be due to years of captivity in a small cage, which restricted the growth of her limbs.

Kuamut was found with a heavy chain almost embedded in her neck.

Sunbearo practises his climbing skills from a hammock. He was seized from a hot spring park in Tawau. -CHIEW LIN MAY/BSBCC

“Maybe she became aggressive as she grew bigger and the owner could not remove it. As she grew, the chain tightened around her neck. If she wasn’t rescued, she would have slowly choked to death,” says Wong.

The latest arrival is Loki, a cub illegally kept in Ranau. Still highly stressed, she constantly sways her head and body from left to right, and remains in the quarantine area.

“I’m sure something bad had happened to her,” says Wong. “Behind each cub that is seized, there is a dead bear as the cubs have to be separated from their mothers. The stories of sun bears need to be told and people need to be made aware that they are a protected species and it is illegal to keep them.”

For that, Wong’s group conducts campaigns in plantations and forest-edge villages as encounters with sun bears are more likely to occur in these places compared with urban areas.

“Poachers need to know that what they do is illegal and they can be jailed and fined. Consumers, who are the ones who buy, eat and keep the bears, also need to know that their acts are against the law.”

He gladly notes that awareness is slowly growing – more people are coming forward to report illegally kept sun bears and bear meat being sold in markets.

Back to nature

Left to fend for themselves in the jungle enclosure, the bears pick up survival skills. It is all part of the rehabilitation programme to prepare them for a return to the wild. No bears have been released to date though early last year, Wong had wanted to re-introduce two juvenile bears into the core area of Tabin Wildlife Reserve near Lahad Datu, an area so remote and impenetrable that they would have to use a helicopter to transport the bears there. However, the plan was abandoned following protests by funders who doubted the bears’ ability to survive in the wild and also feared the possibility of poaching.

Wong says that the majority of the rescued bears at the centre, having been held in captivity for too long, are not suitable for release. These bears, however, can play another role: “At the centre, they become ambassadors to raise awareness on the species and can still be focal points for research.”

A BSBCC staffer portions out rice porridge to be served to the sun bears.

It is difficult to study wild sun bears. You cannot observe them like you do gorillas or orang utans as they are elusive animals. At the centre, the bears carry on pretty much like they do in the wild, thus offering researchers insights into bear behaviour. Wong’s team is learning much about the bears’ tree-climbing skills, foraging habits, vocalisation, use of tools and even nest-building ability.

Yes, sun bears build nests from twigs and branches on tree tops, just like the orang utan. However, the rescued bears will not get a chance for sleep-overs in their lofty dens. For safety reasons, they do not sleep in the forest but in cages housed in a building which Wong calls the “bear house”.

“They’ve been trained to return to the bear house as around 4pm, we feed them there,” explains Wong. They are fed fruits, vegetables, tubers, coconuts, corn and porridge to supplement the termites, beetles, millipedes, worms, and on rare occasions, tortoises, which they find in the forest.

The different groups of bears (segregated according to age, sex and behaviour) take turns to be released into six paddocks spread over 1ha. Those which have to remain in their night stalls are kept busy with enrichment toys — there are hammocks for them to climb into, tree trunks for them to tear up, honey-filled balls for them to hunt down, and even wall-mounted “nests” for them to snuggle into.

The bears are separated by sex to discourage breeding. “We are running out of room,” quips Wong. “Our programme is to rescue captive bears, not breed them. It will be difficult to release bred cubs into the wild as they need long maternal care. Without the mother, the cub is less likely to live to adulthood.”

Also, Wong says captive breeding does not help bears in the wild as it does not protect forests.

“Bears are forest-dependent species. Their numbers depend on the amount of forest left. A wild male bear needs about 1,500ha of forest to find its own food.”

And just as sun bears need the forest, the forest needs them, too. Wong describes the species as “forest doctors” as they control termite colonies, disperse seeds and break down dead wood – all of which keeps the forest healthy. Hence, it is crucial to prevent more loss in bear habitat.

Finding funds

It took years for Wong’s plan to come to fruition mainly because of funding woes. Initially, the money trickled in but a determined Wong travelled the country making presentations to potential donors. Project partner, LEAP, also helped to source for funds.

Wong has spent RM6mil over the past six years to get the centre up and running. For that, he is thankful to key donors which included Sime Darby (RM2.1mil); Ministry of Tourism and Culture (RM1.6mil); Sabah Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment (RM132,000); GEF small grant project (RM150,000); Oakland Zoo (US$1,000); Alexandra Abraham Foundation (US$25,000); Sabah Government (RM600,000); Neway Inc (A$10,000); and also generous members of the public (RM600,000).

Ronnie, an eight-year-old male sun bear, was rescued from View Top Resort in Tawau in July 2013. Their powerful claws enable sun bears to tear up logs and termite mounds in search of food.  -CHIEW LIN MAY/BSBCC

With 33 bears to feed, enrichment toys to build, structures to construct and repair, as well as salaries to pay, Wong needs some RM60,000 each month to run the centre. He says the facility is still under development. When more funds are available, he intends to expand the visitors’ viewing platforms and fence up another 1ha of forest which is now unused, to provide the bears with more foraging grounds.

While many have applauded his work in creating the sun bear sanctuary, there are detractors who have questioned the huge sums needed to house the rescued bears. But Wong believes there is no other way: “I don’t enjoy keeping them here. Ideally, they should be in the wild but if I release them, they will not survive.

“We’ve spent much money in six years but it is crucial to set up the foundation for future conservation of sun bears. I believe this is good work. How are we going to spread awareness on sun bears if there is no centre? Don’t judge me now. Judge me after 10 years to see what we have achieved.”

In any case, the expenses of the sun bear centre so far is minuscule in comparison to what is needed for the two pandas on loan from China. The panda enclosure at Zoo Negara costs RM25mil while the electricity bill to keep it cool will be RM180,000 a month.

Also, Malaysia will pay China US$1mil (RM3.24mil) a year for 10 years to keep the pandas. This is why some conservationists have argued that local species deserve equal emphasis and the Government should match whatever it is spending on the two pandas, on the conservation of sun bears. After all, the sun bear is our very own species of bear, one which we have long neglected.


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