Brighter days for sun bears

An aerial view of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sandakan. — Photos courtesy of BSBCC

A YOUNG Dr Wong Siew Te fell in love with the sun bears of Sabah when, as a 26-year-old Master of Science student of wildlife biology at the University of Montana in the United States, he first came to the state in 1998.

He observed and researched the elusive sun bears in the lush jungles and learned how they were a vital part of the forest ecosystem. It was love at first sight, so to speak.

Then came the horror.

He saw massive deforestation, with huge trees being logged.

“In the logging camps, there were all kinds of hunting activities; bears were being poached and eaten, bear cubs were captured and kept as pets,” he said.

Then in 2004, he travelled across Sabah, Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia to carry out a nationwide survey on captive sun bears.

The entrance into the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.The entrance into the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.

The experience was pure nightmare.

“The situation was really bad... many were being kept in captivity, in small cages in somebody’s home, in crocodile farms and in mini zoos.

“A bear was even kept in a mini zoo within a primary school. Their (sun bears’) situation was very sad. Some of their claws had been chopped off, some had become crazy,” he said.

“It was horrible,” said the wildlife conservationist, now 55.

One of the modern buildings in the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.One of the modern buildings in the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.

It was then that a fire began to burn in him to help free illegally kept sun bears and to do more for their welfare.

As a PhD student in 2005, he tried convincing some conservation NGOs to look into the plight of the sun bears but despite his dogged insistence, they were not interested.

This was when the idea of establishing a conservation centre for rescued sun bears started.

The Penangite went on to become the founder of the world-renowned Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sabah’s east coast Sandakan district. He opened the BSBCC, to date the world’s only sun bear sanctuary, on April 1, 2008.

Wong treating a sun bear at the centre.Wong treating a sun bear at the centre.

It was a huge task that came with big personal sacrifices and risks, both reputation-wise and financial, but it was a gamble he was willing to take.

“In the end, I said ‘I don’t care, I will have to do it myself’. I did not have much choice if I wanted to help the sun bears,” he said.

There was already a husbandry for sun bears at the time, run by the Sabah Wildlife Department, located in the Kabili-Sepilok forest reserve, next to the more established Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre.

But being a husbandry, it was hardly a sanctuary and the facilities were poor.

Wong is a wildlife biologist and conservationist.Wong is a wildlife biologist and conservationist.Wong said that with the help of Sabah-based NGO Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP), he took over the husbandry, giving birth to BSBCC in 2008.

The Sabah wildlife and forestry departments are also partners in the project by being virtue of custodians of the some five hectares of land the centre sits on.

When he first took over, there was one old and leaky office building and rusting metal cages, with seven bears.

Now, the BSBCC has two observation platforms, a visitors’ boardwalk and proper bear houses, among others, costing somewhere in the region of RM10mil. There are plans to add more facilities.

There are currently 43 bears in the centre but a total of 69 have been rescued by wildlife authorities and sent to the centre over the last 16 years. So far, 12 have been released back into the wild.

The funds for the centre come from fundraising activities, from the Sabah government, the federal Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry and Sime Darby Foundation as well as local and international bodies and NGOs.

“We first opened for visitors to come in on Jan 16, 2014 so, those are some of the important milestones and fond memories,” said Wong, the centre’s chief executive officer.

He said they were happy with what they have achieved so far, including in raising the level of awareness on sun bears among the public.

Wong (right) briefing tourists on sun bears at the centre.Wong (right) briefing tourists on sun bears at the centre.

“We have generally managed to stop the illegal keeping of sun bears in Sabah. We have also influenced other states like Sarawak and some in Peninsular Malaysia as well as in Indonesia and other parts of South-East Asia to rescue and enforce the law to help sun bears,” he said.

Wong hoped there will be no more crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic which severely hit the centre.

Wong (right) leading his staff on a mission to release a sun bear back into the wild.Wong (right) leading his staff on a mission to release a sun bear back into the wild.

“But there will be no failure for this long-term project. If Plan A doesn’t work, I will try Plan B and if that fails, Plan C and so on.

“This is how I have worked all these years. I believe that as long as I work hard, I will reach my goals,” he said.

It seems the sun bears have a bright future, thanks to Wong.

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