An Interview with sun bear expert Siew Te Wong: Habitat destruction, logging, wildlife trade drive sun bears toward extinction
Industrial logging, large-scale forest conversion for oil palm plantations, and the illegal wildlife trade have left sun bears the rarest species of bear on the planet. Recognizing their dire status, Siew Te Wong, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Montana, is working in Malaysia to save the species from extinction.
Known as "Sun Bear Man" in some circles, Siew Te Wong is setting up the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. The project aims to save sun bears, which have largely overlooked by conservationists, through research, education, rehabilitation, and habitat conservation.
"The primary goal of the proposed BSBCC is to promote Malayan sun bear conservation in Sabah by creating the capacity to rehabilitate and release suitable orphaned and ex-captive bears back into the wild, providing an improved long-term living environment for captive bears that cannot be released, and educating the public and raising awareness about this species," he said in an interview with Mongabay.com. "[Sun bears] remain as one of the most neglected bear and large mammal species in Southeast Asia." Siew Te Wong's efforts are partially supported by the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN), an innovative group that uses a venture capital model to protect some of the world's most endangered species. WCN will be hosting Siew Te Wong at its upcoming Wildlife Conservation Expo in San Francisco, California on October 4th. Expo attendees will be able to meet Siew Te Wong firsthand. The event, which is open to the public and costs $25-50 per person, also features 16 other conservationists working to protect wildlife around the world.
AN INTERVIEW WITH SIEW TE WONG
Mongabay: What is your project?
Siew Te Wong: I have been working on several projects on sun bears over the past 10 years or so. These included research projects on sun bears ecology, studying the impacts of logging on sun bears, looking at the effects of fruit production and climatic patterns on sun bears, surveying the status and distribution of sun bear in Malaysia, improving living condition and helping captive sun bears, and working on the conservation of sun bears. Currently, I am setting up the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre or BSBCC, in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo. This is a long-term project that focus on four aspects, i.e., education, rehabilitation, conservation, and research, on sun bears. The primary goal of the proposed BSBCC is to promote Malayan sun bear conservation in Sabah by creating the capacity to rehabilitate and release suitable orphaned and ex-captive bears back into the wild, providing an improved long-term living environment for captive bears that cannot be released, and educating the public and raising awareness about this species. You can read more about the project at http://sunbears.wildlifedirect.org/
Mongabay: Why did you choose to work on the sun bear?
Siew Te Wong: Actually I did not choose to work on sun bear. The opportunity was given to me in 1994 when I first came to the US to pursue my undergraduate degree majoring in wildlife biology at University of Montana. Dr. Christopher Servheen, a renowned bear biologist from U of Montana, was looking for a student to study the least known bear in the world at that time - the sun bear in Malaysia. Equipped with experiences radio-tracking large mammals (I was working on radio-telemetry study of Formosan Reeve’s muntjac in Taiwan from 1992-1994) and strong interest to study wildlife, I took his offer and begun to prepare myself for the next three years to conduct the first ecological study of sun bear at the same time learn as much as possible on the conservation issues on wild and captive sun bears. In 1998, I started the 3-year field works to study the basic ecology of sun bears stationed at Danum Valley Field Centre, Sabah, as my Masters of Science thesis project. The study not only revealed the elusive life history and ecology of sun bear in a tropical rainforest for the first time, but also exposed more questions and challenges of sun bear survival due to the human disturbances in sun bear habitat, namely logging and other conservation issues. Because these unknown questions need to be answered for sun bears and the many conservation issues that the bears faced, I decided to continue working on sun bear upon finishing my master degree. I studied the effects of logging on sun bears and bearded pigs as the topic of my doctorate dissertation as well as tropical rainforest productivity from 2005-2008 in Sabah. During the same period of time, I also started working on sun bear conservation issues since I considered them desperate issues. I did a lot of education work and helped some very unfortunate captive sun bears as much as I could. Although sun bear is now better known than it was 10 years ago, unfortunately they remain as one of the most neglected bear and large mammal species in Southeast Asia.
If I don’t help sun bear and work on them, nobody would!
Mongabay: How do you track sun bears? What have your learned about them?
Siew Te Wong: To study this elusive sun bears in rainforest, I first have to trap them and then fit them with a VHS radio-collar. It sounds easy than actually doing it. In reality, it is very difficult to trap wild sun bears. During 6 years bear trapping in the field, I only managed to trap and to radio-collar 10 wild sun bears. Trapping bears is difficult and tracking them in the rainforest is even more challenging. I used triangulation method to locate them on a map remotely. After knowing their location on a map, I then ground-track them with a receiver, directional antenna, GPS unit, and try to get as close as possible, looking for feeding signs, scat, bedding sites, microhabitat and anything about bears that I could possibly find in the forest. From these data, I learned their basic ecology and biology like their diets and food habits, home-ranges sizes, movement and activity patterns, bedding and denning sites, arboreal behavior, and the limited and critical resources in the forest. I also documented a famine period that lasted a year in 1999-2000 where my radio-collared bears and many bearded pigs in the forest died and emaciated in the study area. The famine was caused by a prolong food shortage that related to the El-Niño Southern Oscillation/La-Nina Southern Oscillation, a fig (Ficus spp.) production failure, and logging that destroyed sun bear habitat and disrupted the migratory behavior of bearded pigs. I also learned that sun bears could live in selectively logged forest. However, there are few “critical” resources in the forest they must have in order to survive. Fruit trees like mature fig trees and oak trees that do not follow the mast fruiting cycle and fruit year round are very important and critical food resource for sun bears. I consider mature fig trees as “super key-stone species” for many wildlife in Bornean rainforest including bear, due the lack of other wild fruits in the forest during the non-fruiting period that can last for many years. The other non-food critical resources are tree cavities from fallen big trees on forest floor that either serve as day beds or den sites. Due to the high rainfall and generally wet climatic condition year round, dry and safe dens in these huge tree cavities on the forest floor are critical for female bears to successfully nurse and raise cubs.
Mongabay: What are the biggest threats to sun bears?
Siew Te Wong: The biggest threat to sun bears is habitat destruction. Sun bears are “forest-dependent species” that will not survive without good and large forest. They need large contiguous forest to maintain healthy populations. Over the past few decades, many parts of Southeast Asia where sun bears are found underwent tremendous deforestation and transformation from the world demand for tropical hardwoods, development, and agriculture, especially large-scale monoculture plantations. The rapid disappearance of these forested land and suitable sun bear habitat is the major cause for the serious decline of wild sun bears to approximately 10,000 individuals! For comparison, the population of the endangered Bornean orangutans is about 41,000 animals on the island of Borneo. Beside habitat destruction, keeping sun bears as pets, poaching for its body parts for consumption, medicine (gall bladder), and souvenirs, are some other threats to the sun bears.
Mongabay: Is there any way to make industry more responsive to the plight of sun bears, for example protecting key habitat or making operations "greener"?
Siew Te Wong: As I mentioned earlier, sun bears, like many kinds of wildlife, are forest-dependent species. For the forested areas that were destroyed and converted to other land uses, it is too late for us to do anything. We simply cannot “recreate” a tropical rainforest that is the same as the original forest. Our efforts to save sun bears should prioritize the full protection of existing forest from deforestation and any kind of disturbance. Different countries in SE Asia have unique problems in land use and forest conservation issues. Here I'll look at how the timber and palm oil industries in Malaysia and Indonesia can help the plight of sun bears. Sun bear can live well in “good” selectively logged forest. I am emphasizing “good” because selective logging has been transformed from a relatively low impact logging practice (only few commercial valuable timber stands were removed from the forest) in the past, to a highly destructive, nearly clear-cut type of practice now-a-days due to the world demand for timber products and wood processing technology that turns the “poor quality” timber into something useful. Although generally speaking the regeneration in tropical rainforest is fast due to optimum climatic condition for plant growth, forest trees are extremely difficult to recruit in this kind of “trashed” forest after undergrowth vegetation like creepers, vines, rattans, wild gingers, tall grass, etc., carpet the forest floor and remain there for decades. Thus, in order to have a win-win situation for both human hunger for timber products and bears that need their habitat, governments have to apply strict logging regulations to force timber producers to follow low impact logging guidelines. At present, if total protection of sun bear habitat is not an option and we have to harvest timber in sun bear habitat, timber certification programs from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) that promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management is the way to help reduce degradation of sun bear habitat. In addition, delineating key forest patches as refugia from disturbance within large logging concessions can be an important way to mitigate the impacts of logging disturbance. A small number of sun bear feed on oil palm fruit in plantations adjacent to forests that still sustain bears. However, the extra feeding opportunity in plantation does not benefit sun bears since it increases their vulnerability to poaching. Due to the scale of transformation of lowland tropical rainforest into oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia – probably history's most massive conversion over such a short period of time – sun bears have lost a tremendous area of habitat and there is no argument that palm oil industry directly impacts the survival of sun bear. I urge for no further conversion of tropical rainforest into oil palm plantation. Although the industry could take more responsible and environmental orientated measures to “relatively” mitigate their impacts (such as the implementation of “eco-friendly” palm oil production practices and joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that may or maybe not help wildlife), I strongly believe that the damage cause by replacing sun bear habitat to monoculture plantation is irreversible. The other measure that the oil palm industry could do to help sun bear is to work with local wildlife authorities and plantation workers to reduce any human related mortality of sun bear to a minimum.
Mongabay: What is being done to reduce consumption of bear parts in Malaysia or is the market mostly China?
Siew Te Wong: Sun bear is a protected species in Malaysia. Any killing, eating and using bear parts is totally prohibited by law. There are three different laws protecting sun bear and other protected species in Malaysia: Protection of Wildlife Act 1972 in Peninsular Malaysia, Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 in Sabah and Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998 in Sarawak. At the international front, Malaysia is a signatory of Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) and a member of Asean Wildlife Enforcement Network (Asean-WEN). Thus, the law that available to protect this species is sufficient. However, the problem of sun bears being killed for all kind of purposes results from lack of enforcement on the ground. In addition, there is also a lack of educational outreach to educate people in the country that it is a felony to kill and to consume bears parts. Unlike the tiger where there are several conservation and education programs in Malaysia to reduce the consumption of tiger products, very little being done to reduce consumption of bear parts apart from the wildlife protection laws, which I've already said are poorly enforced. The market for bear parts from Malaysia limited to China, it also includes local demand by the Chinese community and indigenous communities in Sarawak.
Mongabay: What are other ways to help sun bears?
Siew Te Wong: The first thing we need to understand is the fact that the sun bear is an endangered species. The number of sun bear in the wild throughout the world is much more fewer than many endangered species, like the Bornean orangutan. Many these endangered species benefit from the many NGOs, biologists, conservationists, and governments working to help them. This collaboration can be an effective way to protect threatened species as we can see with many endangered species in Asia such as tigers, rhinos, elephants, orangutans, panda, and many others. Unfortunately, none of this has happened for sun bear. Thus the first way to help sun bear is to adopt the models in use for other endangered species. We need a big team of biologists, conservationists, and NGOs as well as the full support from the public and the local government to tackle the threats and conservation issues of the sun bear. The sun bear conservation efforts are clearly far behind many endangered species. What I've been doing for the past many years is studying this species to understand it as much as possible. It is now time for us to move on to the next level: the conservation stage, where we work hard to conserve the species with the knowledge and resources we have in hand. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center will be the very first initiative and a big step toward helping sun bears in Malaysia. We hope to establish this center as a model and catalyze other countries in Southeast Asia to help conserve sun bears. At the same time, we obviously need funds to operate the various activities to be carried out by the center: educational outreach and lobbying for the protection of more sun bear habitat. We need everyone to get involved, from the local communities who live close to bear habitat to the top politicians who can provide financial, institutional, and policy support for the sun bear.
Like all of us and all animals, sun bears need sleep (What am I talking about? Of course sun bear need sleep!). But, not many people have seen how wild sun bear sleep in the tropical forest. I bet this posting will be an interesting and eye opening for many of you who see this for the first time!
Sun bears in the wild make nest on tree and sleep on these tree nest like orangutans. However, nest building behavior is more common in forest where human disturbance is higher and large terrestrial predators like tigers, and leopards are presence. It makes sense for sun bears to make such tree nest and sleep on high on tree, some as high as 40 meters (128 feet) because it is much safer and dryer on top of tree. These nests usually consist of a pile of tree branches and twigs that are band over from the surrounding centered at a tree fork that close to the main trunk. The diameter of these tree nests ranges from a 1 to 2 meter. Unlike orangutan nest, sun bear rarely snap branches or break branches close by. I still lack of evident that they reuse these tree nests, and believe that they construct new nest every time then need one because wild sun bears tend to wonder a large range, unless there are important food resources available like a fruiting fig tree in the forest. Under this situation, sun bears tend to hang around the area until the food resource is depleted and they have to move on to forage for food. Although the metal baskets that we provide for our captive bears are very different from the natural nest, these bears still love them because these baskets give them a dry, safe, and cozy bed.
This bear nest was about 35 m (110 feet) above the ground. If this bear (Batik) was not wearing a radio-collar and I was not constantly tracking her closely in the forest, there was no way that I can figure out that Batik the sun bear was sleeping 100 feet above of me. It took me some time to locate the nest and the saw Batik with my binocular that day due to the dense vegetation and the height of the nest.
I used my Canon S1IS to zoom in to the nest (12 X) and took this photo. Because of the think vegetation and the nesting material, we can barely see Batik's muzzle and a hind paw hanging mid air.
After waiting patiently for about 3 hours under the tree, Batik finally woke up from her nap and slowly climbed down from the tree. It was really amazing to see how agile a sun bear could be when she climbed down carefully but swiftly from the tree! The dark spot on top of her was the nest she was sleeping earlier.
Another photo of Batik taking her nap. This time she did not construct a proper nest. In stead, she simply slept on branches that could support her body on top of a medium sized tree about 15 m above the ground. Sweet dream!
Here Batik made a simple nest on a small tree about 2 m above the ground. As you can see, as long there are some supports underneath the body, sun bear can really sleep like a baby! Like all of us and all animals, sleeping is such an import activity for a sun bear daily routine. They need a comfortable bed, place, or spot to sleep and rest. However, many captive bears do not sleep well in the poor living environment that their human owners provide them. I have seen many sad cases where these bears did not even have a clean, dry spot to lay down their body and have a good sleep. They try to keep their body dry and clean by just sit upright with their hand holding on the cage bars. It is a very cruel act by taking away the rights of a good sleep for the captive bears, beside their right to live freely as a wild bear.
Tree nest is one of many ways the sun bears sleep in the wild. I will write more about other ways they sleep or nap in the wild soon!