Text, photos, and video by Siew Te Wong
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Yesterday when I walked little Mary in the forest, she stopped at the base of this huge dipterocarp tree. The scene was just amazed me: "big tree, little bear" was what came out from my mind immediately. It was a peaceful time we spent in the forest under the big tree. Mary was busy digging the nests of termite and ant and feeding furiously on the angry insects that swamped out from their broken home. The big tree stood there like a giant with no fear. The sound of the cicadas and other unknown insects rumbled like there is no tomorrow: they have to mate now!
The big tree, the little sun bear, and the tiny termites all need one other to survive. Female sun bears den in the hollowed tree trunk or cavities of huge trees in the forest when they give birth and nurse helpless baby for months. These cavities are the safest den for the female sun bears because they are relatively dry in the ever wet and moist rainforest (rainforest always rain!), relative cold in the hot mid tropical day, and relatively warm at night (tropical rainforest may get cold at night because of the rain and high humidity). There is simply no other better den site that a sun bear can find in the forest then a large tree with cavities or hollowed. The trees are huge, like this one, with a diameter of at least one meter (3 feet) and a height of 30 m (100 feet) or more. They are probably very old - at least few hundred years old too! In return, sun bears are opportunistic omnivores that feed on termites, beetles and other forest insects that kill trees (forest pest, so to speak). By feeding on the termite colonies and other insects, the sun bears act as forest "doctors" that keep these insects at "healthy levels". The tiny termites, feed on the woody materials in the forest, both alive and dead. And the cycle go on and on..
Here comes a problem for sun bear in the human altered landscape: these forest giants are getting rare in logged forest because they are targeted for timber market and sell for a lot of money. In Borneo, most of the remaining forests are being selectively logged except few totally protected forest reserves that remain as undisturbed primary forests. The lack of large trees with cavity may post a challenge for female sun bears to find suitable den sites and successfully raise cubs.
Big trees little bears and tiny termites, all need one other to survive. Are we wise enough to keep all of them in the forest? For sure the termites will survive. But I am not sure about the sun bears and the big trees. Only time will tell!