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/
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.