By Haslin Gaffor
SANDAKAN, Aug 17 (Bernama) -- Bongkud was seen climbing up a tree in search of food within the gated area of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre at the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, near here.
These are good days for the Bornean sun bear which is now free to carry on with its natural activities in the 0.32 hectare forest enclosure compared with his 'captive days' in the past.
The sun bear was rescued by the Sabah Wildlife Department in June 2012 following a tip-off from a tourist who had seen the animal being kept in a small pen by a villager in Kampung Bongkud, Ranau.
Following the rescue, the bear was sent to the conservation centre and was named after the village where he was rescued -- Bongkud.
Bongkud is now two-years old and is among the 28 sun bears being taken care in the conservation centre. The sun bears are the world's smallest bears and their numbers have been dwindling over the years.
The conservation centre, opened in 2008, is the first such centre in the world dedicated to caring for sun bears.
Located next to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, the place also serves as a centre of information on sun bears and carries out various awareness programmes to educate the public on the animals.
A mammal, the sun bear is divided into two sub species namely Helarctos malayanus malayanus and the even more smaller sized Helarctos malayanus euryspilus which can be found only in Borneo.
Found throughout the mainland of Asia, Sumatra in Indonesia and in Borneo, the sun bears are already classified as endangered species under the IUCN Red List of animals under the threat of extinction.
These creatures are hunted illegally for use in traditional medicines as well as in the preparation of exotic dishes. These are among the major reasons for the drop in the sun bear population, at least by 30 percent, in the last three decades.
In Sabah, the bears' habitats are mainly in the low-lying forest areas, specifically in the conservation areas of Maliau Basin, Danum Valley and Imbak Canyon.
However, the population density of the bears in the state's forest reserve areas remains low.
The focus of the centre currently is on the rescue of sun bears being kept in illegal captivity and those whose natural habitats are being threatened by human activities.
Wong Siew Te, the centre's founder and chief executive officer said the conservation efforts involved three stages, namely identifying threatened sun bears and bringing them to the centre, rehabilitate them and finally free them back into the forest areas deemed safe.
The 28 bears in the centre, made up of 21 sows and seven boars, are between one and 20-years of age. They would be released into the forest next year once the rehabilitation period is over.
Another area of focus for the centre is in educating the public on sun bears, Wong said, adding that little is known about the bears locally and internationally.
Wong, who has been actively involved in the conservation of bears the last 15 years, said many were not even aware that the laws protect the sun bear and it would be illegal to hunt, keep or eat them!.
Due to the lack of knowledge on sun bears, many think that they are from the same family as the Panda bears found in China.
Many are also not aware that the sun bears are fully protected species under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997, and have been given the same protection as the orangutan and Sumatran rhinoceros.
Under the enactment, those found owning a sun bear or its products, can be fined up to the RM50,000 or jailed for five years, or both.
Wong said another important focus for the centre is research, encompassing the areas of ecology and biology, adding that there was insufficient data on the sun bears in the country and region.
"I too carried out research for six years on the bears in the forest while completing my degree but there is still so much still unknown about them, including their total numbers in the country, in the state and in the world," said Wong, who has a degree in Wildlife Biology from University of Montana, US.
Wong, currently preparing his PhD thesis at the same university, stressed that there was a need to protect the species before being wiped out by human activities.
Demand for its bile
Wong said the locals in Borneo believed that the sun bear's bile had restorative properties and capable of curing injuries.
"This may be the reason why the sun bears are hunted... for their bile and meat," said Wong, who is from Georgetown.
Due to the high demand from the locals, there is rampant illegal selling of the its fresh meat, its bile in capsules, and other parts in traditional medicine shops.
Clash with humans
In Borneo, the decline in the number of the species continues with their illegal capture for sale as pets and at times they are also killed when they are seen as an enemy of man.
The disappearing forest areas and encroachment of their natural habitat has also exposed the animal to more humans and made them more vulnerable to being hunted and caught.
There is an urgent need to conserve the remaining forests in order to save these animals and also stop the illegal hunting of them, Wong said.
To be open to public
Meanwhile, to expose more people to the conservation efforts taken for the sun bears, the centre is expected to be opened to the public once it is fully completed and several facilities are put in place.
Currently, the centre has a building called Bear House to house all the bears.
The bears in the centre eat four times a day and their diet consists of vegetables, fruits, eggs, rice, and meat, and the cost of feeding all the 28 bears amount to RM10,000 a month.
The sun bears are naturally ant, termite and insect eaters and play an important role in the eco system, in the distribution of seeds and also in the control of termite population.
At the centre, there are 11 full time staff currently as well as four volunteers from other countries.
The centre greatly welcomes volunteers from student communities both from overseas and locally including from Europe, United States and Asia. Some of the volunteers are also doing their research in the centre.