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.
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.