SANDAKAN: After six years of toying with the idea, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is now accessible to the public who want to get close to the world's smallest bear.
The opening of the centre is expected to raise awareness and encourage research on the endangered species.
It is learnt that the conservation centre, housing 28 sun bears is the only facility of its kind in the world run by a non-governmental organisation.
It was set up in 2008 through the collaboration of the Sabah Forestry Department, Sabah Wildlife Department and Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP).
Located next to the world renowned Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, its key facilities include an observation platform, boardwalk and a visitors' centre.
However, the two houses, which provide a natural habitat for the sun bears, are not accessible to visitors.
BSBCC founder Wong Siew Te said in its effort to raise awareness, the centre had moved forward to let the people get a better view and understanding of sun bears.
"Now, we can educate the public on the importance of sun bears and the forest.
"Research and rehabilitation will come next as this is a long-term project, and here to stay."
Sun bears are classified as a totally protected species under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997, providing it the same status as the orang-utan and Sumatran rhinoceros.
Found throughout mainland Asia, Sumatra in Indonesia and Borneo, the exact number of sun bears in the wild is unknown.
This makes it even more pressing to reduce pressure on a species classified as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List and at risk of becoming endangered.
Habitat loss and poaching for its parts for use in traditional medicine are among key threats that have led to a decline of by at least 30 per cent of its population in the last three decades.
Other threats include illegal capture for the pet trade and killed when wrongly perceived as pests.
Sabah Wildlife Department director Datuk Dr Laurentius Ambu said the department would endeavour to increase enforcement efforts in clamping down on those who keep the species as pets or trade its parts.
He stressed that no licence had been issued for anyone to own sun bears, except to the BSBCC and the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park.
"Our department will also work tirelessly to ensure that sun bears can be released back into the wild, subject to their adaptation to the habitat.
"It is also our hope that this centre will facilitate research on sun bears and conduct outreach programmes to raise awareness on the dangers of keeping this species in captivity."
The centre is open daily from 9am to 3.30pm. Fees are RM5 for Malaysians above 17 and RM2 for citizens between 12 and 17.
The fee for foreigners is RM30 (above 17) and RM15 (between 12 to 17 years). Admission is free for children under 12.