Sun bear conservationist Wong Siew Te on success and regrets
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 14, 2013 - 14:15
FOR as long as I’ve known him, Wong Siew Te has always had the air of a man in a hurry, urgent with purpose.
He talks fast and loudly, gesticulating whenever a topic of interest crops up. His favourite topic is, of course, the Malayan sun bears, having spent the last 15 years studying these creatures. Wong is the CEO and founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC).
But this Penangite is equally excited and passionate when talking about food. “I’m a good cook. I like to cook and eat delicious food,” Wong, known as the ‘sun bear fella’ declared.
“I have only two interests: animals and cooking. I would have been a chef if I didn’t make it to Taiwan to study veterinary and later to the US to study wildlife biology.”
As a student, he worked in Chinese restaurants in Johor and in the US. According to friends, his signature dishes are a rich beef stew, teriyaki chicken and Tung Po pork.
Growing up in a big family — he is the youngest of nine siblings — and with the extended clan all living in a small shop house in Bukit Mertajam meant everyone had to pull their weight.
Wong’s family, his uncle’s and several workers lived above his father’s tailoring shop.
“Since we were little, my siblings and I were expected to do household work. Preparing four meals a day was a big task for my mother and aunt. I would help them to make and keep the re going in the big brick stove, clean and prepare the food. There were vegetables to be washed, prawns to be peeled and the list went on!” he reminisced.
In his free time, he would y kites, spin tops, play masak-masak (cooking games) with children from the neighbourhood and roam his family’s orchard.
The Wong children harvested fruits and coconuts and caught sh in the little creek at the orchard. “My childhood was amazing,” the 44-year-old mused fondly.
“My love for animals was influenced by my late father. He was the one who brought back all sort of cool animals for me when I was a kid,” he recalled. His childhood reminds me of my favourite conservationist and author Gerald Durrell.
Many of the animals were orphans, which were rescued and nursed back to health, and stayed on as pets. Like Durrell, Wong kept a menagerie of pets ranging from invertebrates (scorpions, praying mantis, spiders and stick insects), birds (house sparrows, common mynas, Fisher’s lovebirds and ringnecked doves), mammals (rabbits, white mice and common palm civets) to fishes (guppies, fighting fishes and gold fishes).
When his flock of birds multiplied, he sold the o spring to local pet stores. Nowadays though, he is against buying or keeping any protected species as pets.
Wong laughingly proclaimed he is able to carry a tune based on his teenage years of being in a band. “Another talent I have is painting. I used to paint but I hardly do it now because I have no time!”
Time is precious and mostly spent on managing the sun bear centre. Built on 2.5ha of forest adjacent to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan, Sabah, the centre currently houses 28 rescued sun bears. Once completed, it will house up to 40 sun bears.
The bear house, visitor centre and observation platforms take up only 0.5ha of space with the rest of the land dedicated as forested areas for the sun bears.
The project is a joint partnership between Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department and local NGO Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP).
Wong mooted the idea in 2004 but construction for the first phase only began in 2009. Phase 2 got the green light recently, thanks in part to the successful ‘Big Dreams Little Bears’ fundraising dinner. For one night only, the who’s who of Sandakan’s tycoons and businesses dined and outbid each other during an auction of specially commissioned photographs. They raised RM443,000.
“Funding is, by far, one of the biggest challenges. I’ve been a one man show all this while up until BSBCC was set up. Now, I have a team of dedicated staff and allies. There is also more (public) support to help conserve the sun bears,” said Wong.
“(The BSBCC team) has little experience in running a conservation centre but we’re willing to learn and improve quickly.”
Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) or honey bears are the smallest of the eight species of bears in the world. They are found in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia and listed as a Totally Protected species in peninsular Malaysia and Sabah. In Sarawak, it enjoys a Protected status.
Little else is known about the species. Wong is often quoted describing the magnificent creatures as “the forgotten bear species”.
Poaching and loss of habitat are the biggest threats. A deep-rooted belief of sun bears possessing certain medicinal and magical powers fuels the demand for the parts such as claws, canine teeth, gallbladder and paws.
“To be honest, I don’t understand why people still own or eat sun bear parts. The key lies in education and awareness. Only when the demand stops, the killing of sun bears will too,” he said.
The sun bears weren’t always his first love. Wong obtained a diploma in animal science and veterinary in Taiwan before pursuing his undergraduate studies at the University of Montana in America. A chance meeting with renowned bear biologist Dr Christopher Servheen saw him tracking sun bears in Malaysia and as they say, the rest is history.
“Now, everything about the sun bears interests me. This is a case of the more I learned, the more I loved them.
“The success of conservationists is not valued by how much money they rake in. In fact, the success of conservationists is valued by how many wildlife you saved, how many wildlife habitat you helped to protect, and how many people you help influenced to love wildlife and their habitat,” he reflected.
“I think I’m rich in my life. What I’m doing is very meaningful. Sometimes, when I walk with the bear cubs in the forest, I ask myself what would be a more meaningful thing to do in life than helping an orphaned sun bear cub get its life back into the wild?”
But his measure of success is tinged with loneliness. Like his beloved sun bears, he leads a solitary life. His wife and two daughters live in Taiwan. He sees them twice a year and there are no plans for them to uproot to Sabah.
“Being away from my family to work in wildlife conservation weighs heavily on my mind and heart. Yes, I do regret it but I’ve come this far in my career. I have to finish what I started. I’m halfway there now.
“I miss everything about (the girls). The hardest part is saying goodbye after every short reunion.” He hopes to make up for lost time with his family someday. Ideally, he wants to retire and “do nothing but cook for and take care of his family”.
“Doing what at that time is not important anymore as long as I’m with them.” Until then, the fight for the sun bears continues.
By EVANGELINE MAJAWAT