Dr. Wong Siew Te's journey into establishing the BSBCC
Sun bears are the least know bears and a forgotten bears species as I always call them. Certainly, it is not surprise that not many people know who I am and thus a proper introduction is needed for the readers of this blog to get to know me better as well as my work with sun bears.
I am a Malaysian Chinese, born in 1969 and raised in Penang at northern Peninsular Malaysia. “Wong” as I am known as, is actually my family name, and “Siew Te” is my first name. I love animals all my life. Since I was a first grader, “animal expert” was my ambition on the student record until the very last year in high school. Not surprisingly, my childhood was companioned by various kinds of pets. I became a successful pet breeder during my teenage. Studying abroad in Taiwan in 1989 was a turning point in my life. Although I was studying animal husbandry and veterinary, I had begun to appreciate wildlife even more when I was an active member in the student chapter of the Bird Watching Society. Through my binoculars, I learned to appreciate the beauty of wildlife, nature, and forest. Ironically, I also witnessed unlawful mist netting of wild birds, poaching of wildlife, illegal pet trades, and habitat degradation.
After graduated the animal husbandry and vet program, Prof. Kurtis Pei, a wildlife professor at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, recruited me as his research assistant. It was then I started my career as a field biologist/research assistant doing wildlife survey, camera trapping, radio collaring and tracking large mammals, taking care of endangered species at Pei’s wildlife rescue center, and all of goofy stuff people seen in Discovery Channel.
In 1994, I came to University of Montana to seek a dream that was considered as “difficult task” for many people from ordinary Asian family. The dream, which put me on a right track of my career, was to pursue a bachelor degree in Wildlife Biology. The same year, I met my then future academic advisor, Dr. Christopher Servheen, who was looking for a Malaysian student to conduct an ecological study on sun bears. In 1998, I began to study the ecology of Malayan sun bears in a rainforest of Malaysian Borneo as a project for M.S. thesis. For the first time, the study revealed the mysterious life history of this little known bear and many ecological aspects of Bornean rainforest. In 2002, I started my doctorate program at the same university. In view of there were so much unknown about sun bears, I decided the effects of logging on sun bears at the same study area where I did my MSc study in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo. Because of the conservation achievement from the project, I was appointed to co-chair the Sun Bear Expert Team for the IUCN/SSC Bear Specialist Group, from 2002-2005.
Since I started my plan to study sun bear, my interest on them grows daily. Beside wild bears, which were the focus of my studies, I also would like to learn more about captive bears. I often visited places where I heard sun bear were held in captivities: zoo, mini zoos, crocodile farms, private menageries, and even private homes. They were all kept in small cages, unhygienic environment, and in some places were completely disgusting! Some were cubs, some were full grown adults, and some were old individuals. Almost all of them suffered from serious stereotypic behavior, pacing all day long if there were any room in their tiny cage for them to pace. Seeing these bears in these captive condition were completely heart broken. However, I choose to find them, see more of them, and learn more about the stories behind them. This is how the idea of Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, BSBCC, first came in to my mind.
Most wildlife like the sun bears is forest dependent species. They simply cannot survive outside the forest. My experience working in Southeast Asia shows desperate situation for the continuation of local forests. Much more work is needed to ensure the long-term survival of the native wildlife and forests. In many parts of Southeast Asia, the tropical forests are disappearing rapidly to a point where too late to do anything. In contrast, due to the economy and political stability, Malaysia still has a chance for conservationists to save the last stronghold of Southeast Asian rainforests and wildlife. We need distinguished biologists to train local students as conservationists and biologists, to educate public and government on the importance of conservation, and to study the flora and fauna in order to understand better its functions. I am and I was, trained as an “animal expert” or wildlife biologist for all these years. I hope to use these knowledge and training to do a great job in my career to conserve wildlife and forests.
Over the last ten years, I have been engaging on sun bear research and conservation activities. However, due to the very little conservation interest among the conservation communities world wide, sun bear survival faces tremendous challenge from various threats. I hope with setting up of BSBCC, we can do more to help sun bears and their forest that is so precious to all of us. The challenge is huge but I am ready to take the challenge. However, I simply cannot do this alone. I need helps, supports, and allies. Together we can make a different for sun bears and other magnificent species in this region.