SANDAKAN: When Wong Siew Te began his pioneering studies on the Bornean sun bears in 1998, he had first-hand experience on the two significantly different extremes faced by the smallest sun bear subspecies in the world.
Aside from developing passion for the animals while studying them in the wild, he learned about the various roles played by the sun bear in the forest.
At the same time, Wong was in for a rude shock – he witnessed sun bears kept illegally as pets in horrific conditions. The animals were kept in tight cages in private homes and oil palm plantations as exhibitions, among others.
The bear’s mother would also have to be killed for the cub to be captured.
Apart from this, the sun bears also faced habitat loss due to deforestation alongside being hunted for their gall bladders, paws and bile. Filled with a burning desire to fight for their welfare, Wong founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sepilok in 2008.
“It reached a point where I felt I had to do something. If I didn’t, nobody would,” said Wong, who is a wildlife biologist and tropical forest ecologist.
Since its inception, some 69 Bornean sun bears had been rescued by the Sabah Wildlife Department and sent to the BSBCC.
Twelve have been successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild with another 44 roaming the sanctuary.
“All bears at the centre are orphans as poachers kill the mothers to get the cubs,” he said in an interview.
The BSBCC, Wong said, spans some 5ha, with 2.5ha specifically for the bears to roam with the land owned by the Sabah Forestry Department and the Sabah Wildlife Department.
Wong said the BSBCC had the objective of conserving sun bears through a holistic and pragmatic approach.
This includes improving animal welfare, education, research, rehabilitation, ecotourism, community conservation, anti-poaching and forest connectivity to help the bears secure their future.
It also has adoption programmes where the public can financially support the bears at the centre.
“When the project first started in 2008, we had an ambitious plan to build the centre from scratch. We needed lots of funding and expertise to design the centre.
“Everything was challenging and difficult but I consider myself lucky as we got support from the Sabah government,” he said, adding that the federal government also assisted with others who helped in the fundraising process.
The Bornean sun bears, Wong said, were the smallest bear sub-species in the world and unique to the Borneo region.
A full grown adult male weighs between 45kg and 50kg. When standing, they are about 1.2m tall. Females grow to between 30kg and 35kg, standing at 1m.
“They are small compared to the Malayan sun bear which grows up to 100kg for males and stand at 1.7m tall,” he said.
Wong said the Bornean sun bear were omnivorous and the most arboreal bear species in the world, adding that the animals played many important ecological roles.
“They are very important in the seed dispersal process where they eat fruits, disperse the seeds and trees grow.
“Apart from that, when they eat termites, they control the termite population as some (termite species) are known to attack live trees,” he said.
He added when sun bears feed on earthworms, the bears would plough the soil and enhance the soil nutrients and prepare it back for plant growth.
“When feeding on stingless bee hives, they create cavities on trees which would be used by other animals such as hornbills or other tree cavity nesters.
“Their presence in the forest benefits both plants and animal species. They are a keystone species. This is what makes them so special. We cannot lose them,” Wong said.
On the BSBCC’s role in reintroducing sun bears back into the wild, Wong said it was difficult to release rescued adult bears as they are accustomed to a human environment and depend solely on humans for food.
Rescued cubs have better prospects of being reintroduced to the wild, he said.
“We begin bonding with them from a young age and act as their surrogate mother as the mother is most often killed for the cub to be captured.
“Once the relationship is established, we bring them into the forest and allow them to have a connection with the forest,” he said, adding that this process could last up to a year.
“Their instinct usually kicks in once they see an ant or termite nest. We need to give the cubs the opportunity when they are still little,” he added.
Once the cubs reach about 20kg, they are raised in the BSBCC’s forest enclosure where they can forage and climb trees.
“The point is to give them a natural environment so they can perform the behaviours and important skills to take care of themselves.
“Once they reach adulthood at about four or five years and can fend for themselves, we will choose the ones with the highest chances of survival to be released,” he said.
The released bears will also be fitted with a satellite collar for tracking purposes.
On the BSBCC’s future plans, Wong said they hoped to expand some of the wooden fences in the forest enclosures, alongside adding additional viewing platforms for visitors.
“We hope to create more jobs on the ground and improve locals’ livelihoods to the point where they don’t have to poach,” he said.
There is also a long-term research and rehabilitation project on the cards at the Tabin Forest Reserve in Lahad Datu on wild and released sun bears there.
Wong also said he was hopeful of raising awareness to Malaysians and the global community towards the centre and its works.
For its efforts, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is named as one of the 10 winners of the Star Golden Hearts Award 2023.
It is also named as a recipient for the prestigious Gamuda Inspiration Award, bringing home an extra grant of RM150,000.
Wong said the extra grant would further boost their efforts in conservation works and research projects.
“Conservation works are quite challenging. With this grant, we can do more holistic and pragmatic work on the ground,” he said.