Used to locked up in small cages as pets, the sun bears rescued by Sabah Wildlife Department and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation can now enjoy the life that once were taken away by poachers and hunters.
These bears are truly the tree hugger bears. I first discovered their arboreal behavior when I saw one of my radio-collared wild sun bear on tree for the first time in 2000. He was feeding on wild figs in a fruiting fig tree about 45 m above the ground. Together with him on that tree was a female orangutan with baby, a female binturong with baby, a family of gibbons, many squirrels, and hundreds of birds. All of them were feeding and roosting on the same tree. It was a SPECTACULAR sighting which I will never forgot!
I love sun bears, the tree hugging bear. How about you?
Special thanks to Marc Anderson who help us captured these spectacular moment of Keningau, one of our rescued bear in Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
Photographed by Marc Anderson http://www.andersonstockphotos.com/blog/
Text by Amy Scott
Photos by: Ng Yen Fern, Marieanne Leong, Amy Scott and Ng Wai Pak.
I have just returned to Australia after spending almost 2 months volunteering at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sepilok, Sabah on the island of Borneo. I arrived at Sandakan airport on July 6th and was met by a smiling Wai Pak the BSBCC project manager and Marieanne and Fern two Sabahan volunteers whom I was to enjoy several weeks living and working with. We then did a few necessary bear centre errands, banking, shopping, a trip to the post office etc before heading back to the centre in Sepilok about 20km away where I met other volunteers, Venda and Roshan, and hard-working bear keepers David and Daniel. It was also my first meeting of the sun bears. I guess the first thing I noticed, that I wasn’t expecting, was how agile the bears were, like monkeys - climbing all over the cages and on the tyre swings and branches including upside down. It was very entertaining to watch! This was just my first day and I didn’t know then what a great experience was ahead of me.
We all stayed at the volunteer house with Wai Pak about 5 km from the bear center in a lovely rural setting. The house is a large old double story timber house with 3 bedrooms and living room/office upstairs, and downstairs the kitchen, eating area and bathroom. I came to love the house, particularly its open air style and surroundings of banana and palm plantations and an orchard of limes. I enjoyed watching the geckos in my room moving about and catching insects, and the front balcony was a great vantage point for watching amazing electrical storms and also squirrels and birds darting about in the palms next door. We had as many limes as we liked for making ‘lime cordial’ and also chilies for cooking and we enjoyed many of Wai Pak’s great creations in the kitchen (and while we’re on the topic of good food, BSBCC CEO Wong certainly makes a superb dumpling amongst other dishes! J).
So what does a ‘typical’ working day at the Bear Centre involve? Of course a typical day is not always typical but usually Wong would pick us all up at the house at about 8.00am and after a quick breakfast at the Sepilok cafe, of normally Mee Telur (noodles and a fried egg) and a Kopi Nai (coffee with condensed milk) we would start work at the ‘new’ bear house about 8:30. After greeting David and Daniel and a bit of pre-work ‘cheeky banter’ it was time to change into our rubber boots (gum boots if you’re an Aussie) and start the first task of the day washing the 22 trays from the bear’s early morning rice porridge breakfast. These are disinfected, scrubbed, rinsed and stacked for drying.
Next the fun commences! – The cleaning of all enclosures in the main bear house: Sweeping up piles of bear poo and old and wet leaves and grass, scrubbing and hosing floors and walls squeegeeing the floors dry and scrubbing of water troughs. New foliage, vines, and branches are then collected from outside for distribution around each newly cleaned enclosure.
The next task for the day is cutting fruit for the morning fruit feeding. A combination of fruits and vegetables (but majority fruits) are given twice a day to the bears and can include apples, oranges, snake fruit, corn, bananas, papaya, corn, cabbage, beans and water melon.
The morning fruit feeding is at about 11:00 and the afternoon feeding about 2:00. Fruit is scattered and spread around enclosures to promote more natural foraging behavior. After the morning feeding, fruit is chopped for the afternoon feeding and put into large bowls in the fridge over lunch. Rice, for the afternoon rice porridge meal, is also put onto cook in two large pots. Then it’s washing of bowls, knives and chopping boards and a general tidy up of work area before lunch.
After lunch the rice is served out into individual trays for each bear to cool down prior to feeding at 4pm. Sweet potato or raw egg are mixed with the rice on alternate days. The afternoon fruit is then fed along with cleaning and collecting of foliage for the ‘old’ bear house. *The ‘old’ bear house is the original bear house (also includes quarantine for new bears) and the main or ‘new’ bear house where most bears now live was completed in 2010. Funding for an additional bear house is underway and when completed, bears from the ‘old bear house’ will be moved here.
Following cleaning of the old bear house time is often spent in the afternoon preparing enrichments for the bears and a large part of the volunteer role at the BSBCC involves undertaking tasks that provide environmental ‘enrichment’ for the sun bears while they are in their cages in the bear house.
Enrichment is the process of providing stimulation to an animal in an unnatural situation such as when in captivity that provides a more natural environment and promotes normal behaviors and activities. Enrichment also attempts to reduce repetitive or stereotypical behaviors that can be observed in animals that have been kept in small enclosures for extended periods with no stimulation. Many of the bears that arrive at the BSBCC have been in this situation.
In a wild situation sun bears will spend a lot of their time on the move, foraging for food, digging and climbing. They will interact with the natural environment experiencing different smells and sounds and come into contact with a variety of plant and animal species and different terrains. The BSBCC is the only sun bear center in the world that has natural rainforest habitat for the bears to roam, and seeing the bears digging, foraging and exploring their outdoor environment and just acting like wild sun bears was definitely one of the highlights for me at the center. However due to several reasons including current space limitations as the bear center expands and new bears keep on arriving, not all bears can be outside in the forest enclosures at the same time so providing enrichment to the bears while they are in their cages in the bear house is an important part of the BSBCC program. The main aim of the enrichment process is to provide as many elements as possible of bear’s natural habitat and then provide other sources of stimulation for the bear’s senses that provide extended periods of activity and interest. The longer the enrichment keeps the bears busy and interested the better!
There are various categories of ‘enrichment’ that can be provided and some of the ‘habitat’, ‘physical’ and/or ‘sensory’ enrichments prepared and provided to bears at the BSBCC include:
Food enrichments included:
The second was a small gut passage rate pilot study, which involved mixing seeds (dried beans) with the food of several bears and recording how long seeds took to pass through the gut of the bears. This information could contribute towards learning more about the role of sun bears as seed dispersers in the rain forest and it is hoped may lead to a larger student project in the future.
I also undertook some bear behavioral monitoring over a period of a week in August spending a few days in both the ‘new’ and ‘old’ bear house that involved recording what activity each bear was performing every 5 minutes from various categories of ‘natural’ and ‘stereotypical’ behavior. It is a good technique to determine the rate of natural compared with stereotypical or non-natural repetitive behaviors that bears are performing and help with identifying which bears need more enrichment and how bears are improving over time that they are at the center. I found this to be a very interesting little project learning a lot more about sun bears and their behavior.
The Bornean Eco-Film Festival was on in Sandakan in July. It showcased a number of environmental documentaries many filmed in Sabah and highlighting local environmental issues. It included the Bear Trek film Promo showing the work of bear researchers from around the world and featured Wong undertaking his research on sun bears in Danum Valley which was fantastic to see. Wong also did a presentation on the BSBCC and issues facing the sun bears that was very well received by the audience and hopefully will lead to wider awareness of the plight of the sun bears.
I very much enjoyed my time at the BSBCC and in Sabah and met some great people and gorgeous sun bears which really are the most remarkable animals! At the same time I learnt a lot about sun bears and the threats they are facing now into the future and why they need our help so much. It was a great experience for me and I highly recommend it to anyone! Thanks Wong, Wai Pak, Daniel and David and all the volunteers I worked with for looking after me so well and to the sun bears for making it such a wonderful experience!
Recently I am dealing with several cases of pet sun bear cubs. Among them are Fulung, Bunbun, Mary (we rescued this cub 3 days ago, stay tuned for her story), an unknown sun bear cub in West Malaysia, and this morning a reader from my blog asked me "where can I get one of these bears for myself?". My answer to him was crystal clear: "No! You cannot get a sun bear for yourself!! It is a serious offense if you do. You will be fined, jailed, and caned if you do! Probably burn in hell too!"
No, no one can keep a sun bear as pet! Absolutely no one!
Sun bear is listed as "vulnerable" in the IUCN Red List of Threaten Animals. They are an endangered species. They are protected species by both national and international laws. In all range countries where sun bears are found, there are local and national wildlife protection laws that prohibit any one from killing, capturing, selling, keeping, harassing, etc., of sun bear. In addition, there are international laws like CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) prohibit any illegal trade of sun bears and their parts between countries. In short, YOU CANNOT OWN A SUN BEAR AS PET!
Why can't you t own a sun bear as pet, although they are small, so cute, and super cuddly?
This is why YOU CANNOT OWN A SUN BEAR:
1) Protected by Law: Like I mentioned earlier, they are protected by law no matter where you are! In Malaysia, offenders can be fined up to RM100,000, jailed 5 years or both.
2) Dangerous I: Sun bear is a wild carnivore. They are very strong and equip with large canines and sharp claws that can do a lot of damage. In the wild, they use their strong claws and canines to break termite nests, and bee hives, even the bee hives that are found inside iron wood, one of the hardest wood in the world.
3) Dangerous II: They are wildlife that cannot be tame. The domestication of dogs and cats took thousands of years and generations. If you think you can tame a wild caught sun bear (even if it is a cub), I advise you to think again.
4) Sun bear serve important ecological roles such as seed disperser, ecosystem engineer, forest doctors etc., in the forest ecosystem. By removing a sun bear from the forest to captivity, you eliminate the important roles they will play in the forest.
5) Fuel wildlife market: By buying a sun bear as pet, you fuel (encourage) the wildlife pet trade market. You will encourage more people wanting to keep sun bear as pets. There will be more poachers looking for sun bear cubs in the forest. These poachers often have to kill the mother bears in order to capture her cubs. In addition, there will be more middle man to trade sun bears as it is a lucrative business.
6) Ethically and morally wrong: sun bear is part of the forest ecosystem in SE Asia. They evolve and survive in these forests for the past 5 million years. They have every ethical rights, ecstatic and intrinsic values to be part in the forest ecosystem. Any actions that result the killing, extirpation of the bear from these forests are therefore ethically wrong.
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is set up because of many sun bears being kept as pets. (Read more at http://sunbears.wildlifedirect.org/2008/05/07/bsbcc-%e2%80%93-how-did-it-all-begin/). At first it was fun to have a super cute sun bear in your house. However, as a bear, they have to grow fast and grow strong quickly to face all the challenges to survive. After several months, they grow big, become so strong and aggressive to a point their "owner" (they like to be called as a bear lovers) cannot handle them because they become too dangerous to be a "pet". Al this point, there are often 3 options happen to the bears: a) make some money from the bears by killing the bears and sell their body parts, b) continue to keep them in small cage, and c) surrender to the authority. Regardless of what options, the life and the faith of the bears are mean to be doomed and worst them doomed. They are in hell!
Read the 3 parts blogs that I wrote few years ago:
After BSBCC was established 3 years ago, we have rescued 26 caged sun bears. Few days ago one of our volunteer asked me if I was happy to have Mary our latest rescued sun bear cub. I do not know how to answer her. I was not happy at all to see these bears being rescue. How can I possibly be happy if I know their mother was killed, habitat being destroyed, although she was so sweet and cute sucking my finger. I am glad we rescued her and she end up under our care in BSBCC. I can only be glad, not happy, that Mary is here. If you notice, my smiley face has long gone after I set up BSBCC because every day I see these rescued bears in BSBCC. Most of them definitely look happier and are definitely are happier than before. To me, I can only be glad but not happy because I know the sad and sorrow stories behind each and every one of our bears.
Please, do not keep sun bear as pet, if you are mentally normal and warm blooded!
Please, report any unlawful of keeping, killing, and trading of sun bears and its parts to the local authorities!
Please, help us spread the words and raise conservation awareness for this little forgotten bear!
~ Siew Te Wong
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 11th May 2011—Poaching and illegal trade of bears, driven largely by the demand for bile, used in traditional medicine and folk remedies continues unabated across Asia on a large scale, a new report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, has found.
Bear bile products were found on sale in Traditional Medicine outlets in all but one of the 13 countries/territories surveyed says the report entitled Pills, Powders, Vials & Flakes: The bear bile trade in Asia (PDF, 2 MB). The exception is Macao.
Products were most frequently observed in mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar and Viet Nam, where they were recorded in over half of all outlets surveyed. The most frequently encountered products were whole bear gall bladders and pills—found in half of the outlets surveyed.
TRAFFIC’s research suggests a complex and robust trade in bear products. Several of the countries/territories surveyed were either producers or consumers of bear bile products, while in some cases they acted as both.
Mainland China was the most commonly reported place of origin for these products across the region.
In Myanmar, internationally sourced gall bladders were reported to come solely from Lao PDR; in Hong Kong, in cases where the source was known, products were reported to have originated in Japan and over half of those offered for sale in the South Korea were from wild sources in Russia.
Domestic trade of bear bile is legal under strict regulation within mainland China and Japan but is illegal in Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. Regardless of the legality of trade within countries, international trade is not allowed.
Asiatic Black Bears (predominant in this trade) and Sun Bears are both listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which prohibits international commercial trade in the species, its parts and derivatives.
An analysis of the origin of bear bile products found in these surveys makes it clear that import and export regulations are commonly flouted demonstrating a failure to implement CITES requirements to stop illegal international bear bile trade effectively and protect bears from exploitation.
“Unbridled illegal trade in bear parts and products continues to undermine CITES which should be the world’s most powerful tool to regulate cross-border wildlife trade,” said Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley, lead author of the report and Senior Programme Officer of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.
The study found that the vast majority of the bear farms surveyed in Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam did not have captive breeding programmes, suggesting they depend on bears captured from the wild.
“The study makes a clear case for authorities to shut down businesses selling illegal bear products and prosecute individuals caught selling, buying, transporting or keeping bears illegally,” said Foley.
“Both the Asiatic Black Bear and the Sun Bear are threatened by poaching and illegal trade. The demand for bile is one of the greatest drivers behind this trade and must be reduced if bear conservation efforts are to succeed,” added Foley.
“Even legal bear bile producers are circumventing domestic and international regulations by exporting products internationally,” said Dr Jill Robinson MBE, Founder and CEO of Animals Asia Foundation, which rescues bears from farms in China and Viet Nam.
“This report, in addition to Animals Asia’s years of research, shows that the bear bile industry is engaging in illegal practices. As pressure mounts on the wild bear population, there are serious questions to be answered on the welfare and pathology of farmed bears, and the risks to human health in those who consume the contaminated bile from such sick and diseased bears,” said Robinson.
The study’s main findings are:
• Bear bile products were observed in traditional medicine outlets in 12 out of 13 Asian countries/territories surveyed
• Bear bile products were available at 50% or more of traditional medicine outlets surveyed in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar and Viet Nam.
• China is the most commonly reported source for bear bile products
A short presentation can be viewed at:
For further information:
Kaitlyn Elizabeth-Foley, Senior Programme Officer, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Tel: ++603 7880 3940, firstname.lastname@example.org
Elizabeth John, Senior Communications Officer, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Tel: ++603 7880 3940, email@example.com
Richard Thomas, Communications Co-ordinator, TRAFFIC. Tel: +44 1223 279068, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Original posted on http://thebodyshop.com.my/wheres-my-mama
Where's my mama?Kuala Lumpur, 18 April 2011
Every day, countless young wild animals are orphaned when their mothers are captured or slaughtered for the illegal wildlife trade. Many young are also taken from the wild and end up in the illegal trade because someone wants a cute pet.
Now, The Body Shop with the help of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia are calling attention to this problem with the "Where's My Mama?" campaign, that urges the public to consider the impact of their purchases. After the awareness created with the Save Temengor Campaign, The Body Shop continues to protect our planet, this time around by drawing attention to the animals in the wild that are in need of protection.
The campaign features the orang-utan, tiger and bear, all of which are affected by this aspect of illegal wildlife trade.
For each young Orang-utan found in trade, an estimated two to four others die. Some experts place the figure as high as eight. There are two species of orang-utan – the Sumatran and the Bornean, both of which are in serious trouble. Trade in young animals as pets, coupled with huge levels of habitat loss have pushed Asia's only great apes to the brink of extinction.
Adult tigers are hunted and snared to feed the demand for tiger parts, leaving cubs to fend for themselves. Of the nine subspecies, only six survive today. Less than a century ago more than 100,000 tigers roamed Asia's forests but today, largely due to poaching to supply the demand for their parts used in traditional medicines and as trophies, only approximately 3000 survive. And the poaching continues.
Malaysia's only bear species, the Malayan sun bear, is the smallest of the world's eight bear species. And they are in trouble. Adult bears are illegally hunted for their gall bladder, their meat and body parts. Orphaned cubs are defenseless, as they rely entirely on their mother for the first two years of their life – when the mother is killed, the cubs perish. Sadly, the cubs are also captured for the pet trade or to be put on display in zoos.
In hopes of stopping this illegal trade and to draw and awareness to the plight of these animals, The Body Shop Malaysia will run its signature "Kick the Bag" campaign, asking the public to report illegal wildlife trade to the Wildlife Crime Hotline. These paper bags, act as a tool to help spread the word and draw awareness to the campaign. In store, The Body Shop will run the campaign until till the end of the month by giving out postcards to customers that frequent the stores.
We do this at The Body Shop not because it is fashionable, but because to us it's the only way.
Across SE Asia, numerous baby and orphaned sun bears fall victims of pet trade, poaching, and "animal loving" behavior. Just two last week ago, I was asked to help and to give advice on two pet sun bears in Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia Borneo. The owner of this baby bear, Kulik, want keep him because he "love" this bear so much and refuse to surrender to a better home. The negotiation still on going to find a better home for him.
Is Mother's Day, but where's my mama?
Text by Paul Clenton
Linggam is a very handsome, 6 year old male bear with a gentle and friendly personality. He was first brought to Sepilok as a cub (only 3.5kg) in August 2004 after being found at a logging camp at Kampung Pinangah. After a stay at Sepilok Linggam went to Lok Kawi Zoo. He was transferred back from Lok Kawi due to reported aggression problems (though that has never been observed here) and lack of space. Since coming here he is noticeably healthier though perhaps slightly underweight. Linggam is currently undergoing training and this week was finally able to go out into the forest enclosure.
I was watching him discretely while he took his first tentative steps out into the natural world. The transition to a wilderness environment is challenging for an adult bear which has grown up in a world of iron and concrete, but as I observed him it was obvious to see he was constantly thinking, calculating the safe distance to go from his doorway. Some might criticise him for not just running off outside and climbing a tree, but it is this caution he was demonstrating that keeps bears away from hazards in the wild. His approach did not surprise me; he seems the most pensive of bears, when I reflect upon howe he interacts with his enrichment items.
I look forward to observing him over the coming days and weeks to witness his discovery of the wonderful piece of rainforest habitat he now can call home. Watching a bear simply “be a bear” is an incredible thing to do.
Natalie has started to eat some more solid food. She gets 2 trays of rice a day, just like the other bears. The only difference is that her tray has only about 1/4 the typical serving. Awww, baby! She looks so adorable when she tucks in to her rice porridge with her little paws resting either side of the tray. She also gets several servings of milk, served like some posh coffee with chocolate flakes, only her warm drink comes with dog biscuits!
Pet trade, palm oil, and poaching: the challenges of saving the 'forgotten bear'
By Laurel Neme, special to mongabay.com
March 20, 2011
This interview originally aired May 17, 2010. It was transcribed by Diane Hannigan.
Siew Te Wong is one of the few scientists who study sun bears (Ursus malayanus). He spoke with Laurel Neme on her "The WildLife" radio show and podcast about the interesting biological characteristics of this rare Southeast Asian bear, threats to the species and what is being done to help them.
Sun bears are the smallest of the eight bear species. They’re about half the size of a North American black bear and typically sport a tan crescent on their chests. Similar to the "moon bear," or Asian black bear, the sun bear’s name comes from this marking, which looks like a rising or setting sun.
Sun bears live in Southeast Asia and are probably the least known bear species in the world. They have been so long neglected that Wong refers to them as "the forgotten bear species." One of the reasons may be that they are difficult to study because they’re nocturnal and spend most of their time up in the trees.
Nobody knows how many sun bears remain in the wild. However, they are under significant threat and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists them under Appendix I. Habitat loss is the primary concern but these diminutive bears are also threatened by the pet trade and poaching for their parts, which are used in traditional Asian medicine.
For the last 14 years, Wong has dedicated his life the study and ecological conservation of the sun bear. Wong's research has taken him to the most threatened wildlife habitat on Earth, where fieldwork is exceedingly difficult.
His pioneering studies of sun bear ecology in the Borneo rainforest revealed the elusive life history of the sun bear in the dense jungle.
While rapid habitat destruction from unsustainable logging practices, the conversion of the sun bear's habitat into palm oil plantations and uncontrolled poaching activities paint a bleak picture for the future of the sun bear, Wong is helping sun bears both through his research and through the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, which he founded in 2008.
Wong is one of a handful of Malaysian wildlife biologists who has trained in a western country. He did both his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees at the University of Montana in Missoula, and is finishing his doctorate there. He is former co-chair of the Sun Bear Expert Team, under the IUCN/Species Survival Commission’s Bear Specialist Group, and a current member of three IUCN/SSC Specialist Groups. His dedication was recognized when he was named a fellow of the Flying Elephants Foundation, which awards individuals from a broad range of disciplines in the arts and sciences who have demonstrated singular creativity, passion, integrity and leadership and whose work inspires a reverence for the natural world.
The following is an excerpt from The WildLife with Laurel Neme, a program that probes the mysteries of the animal world through interviews with scientists and other wildlife investigators. The WildLife airs every Monday from 1-2 pm Eastern Standard Time on WOMM-LP, 105.9 FM in Burlington, Vermont. You can livestream it at www.theradiator.org or download the podcast from iTunes, www.laurelneme.com, or http://laurelneme.podbean.com. This interview originally aired May 17, 2010. It was transcribed by Diane Hannigan.
INTERVIEW WITH SIEW TE WONG
What’s special about sun bears?
Siew Te Wong: They’re very unique to me! When you ask that question to biologists they’ll tell you the species they’re studying is always special, always unique, because they love them so much. So, it will be the same for me!
Where do they live? Are they unusual because they are an arboreal bear?
Siew Te Wong: Sun bears are found in Southeast Asia in ten different countries… ranging from the eastern tip of India to the southern tip of China in Yunnan province, across Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, islands of Sumatra, and the island of Borneo. It’s a tropical bear. They’re the smallest of all the bears [family Ursidae], and weigh [about] a hundred pounds.
SUN BEAR RESEARCH
How many people study sun bears?
Siew Te Wong: At the time I started my study back in 1998, there were three people, including myself, studying sun bears in Borneo. I was working on my Masters degree and the other two were working on their PhDs. Last year there were three or four additional projects—two in Sumatra, and one in Thailand, and one on the peninsula of Malaysia. So, after all these years, less than 10 people in the world have ever studied sun bears. Period. Compared to other large mammal species, the numbers are so low. We are so behind in generating scientific information on sun bears.
Do all of you exchange information? What’s a party like between all of you? [Laughs].
Siew Te Wong: I’m working really hard trying to get everyone to collaborate and exchange information as much as possible. Since I’m one of the first people to do this work, I want to assist as many students and biologists as possible to do their work. I have spent a lot of time in the forest to learn about sun bears the hard way. If I can pass my knowledge on to others, they don’t have to learn the hard way. I’d love to do that. Almost everyone is in close contact with me. I try to give my advice and my opinion as much as possible—even help them do their studies.
Given that they are so difficult to find in the forest, how do you go about studying them?
Siew Te Wong: The first challenge is to catch them and put a radio collar on them. To study large mammals like sun bears [the first thing to do is] put a radio collar on them to follow them in the forest. [Then] we try to get close to them and see what they do. We collect their [fecal matter]. [From that] we can know how large their range is and so on.[Early on] we tried to catch them without any sort of experience. Back in 1999, I had some help from some bear biologists from here, [and] they helped me set up traps out of wood and metal.
What did the traps look like?
Siew Te Wong: At the time, we used three kinds of traps. The first kind of trap was a wooden box trap, made out of 3’x3’ lumber. It’s similar to the trap used in North America to trap wolverines. [Then] there’s the aluminum culvert trap that we custom-made in Montana. The beauty of this trap is that it can be taken apart into nine pieces and then we can backpack the whole trap into the forest and then put it back together. The third kind [of trap] is the 55-gallon barrel trap.
How did you bait them?
Siew Te Wong: At the time, no one had trapped sun bears before, so I tried all different kinds of bait including all the fruits and honey. After months of trial and error, I figured it out. The best bait to catch sun bears is chicken guts. It’s cheap, it’s smelly, and the bears love it. [Laughs]
SUN BEAR DIETS
Sun bears are not strictly herbivorous?
Siew Te Wong: Sun bears are bears. They’re carnivores in design, but they end up eating whatever they can find. Fruits, of course, are one of the items they can find in the forest. If they could find carcasses or hunt prey, I’m sure they would.
Was that known before you started studying what they eat?
Siew Te Wong: Yes and no. From captive animals we knew they are omnivores and eat almost everything. The zookeepers give them meat. Other species do the same thing. The sloth bear, or the spectacled bear, or the Indian bear, we know they eat a lot of plant material but they’ll also eat meat [if they have access to it].
Will sun bears kill prey or are they simply opportunistic, in that if they’ll find a carcass they’ll consume it]?
Siew Te Wong: They’re more opportunistic. In the forest, if there are some prey items that are easier to catch, then they’ll definitely go for it. For example, they prey quite a bit on tortoises.
Laurel Neme: They can get at the tortoises with the shell?
Siew Te Wong: Apparently they can use their long claws. The shell is not closed up completely. There are some soft spots where the bears can easily use their claws and canines to damage and kill it.
What else do the bears eat? You mentioned earlier that they eat insects.
Siew Te Wong: In 1999-2000, during my first ecological study of sun bears, the forest did not have any fruit in season. The bears were feeding on invertebrates like termites, beetles, beetle larvae, earthworms and any insects they could get. [Beetle] larvae can grow to as much as three to four inches long. They’re packed with fat and protein. A sun bear can spend an hour or two digging at a decayed [piece of] wood trying to fish out beetle larvae. The moment they fish one out, you can tell from their facial expression—[it’s like] they’re having the best chocolate in their life!
What does this happy expression look like?
Siew Te Wong: First of all, they close their eyes! I’m not sure if you can notice or not, but bears smile like humans or dogs. When they smile, they pull their facial muscles backwards, so it looks like their smiling. They’re just like humans when tasting a nice piece of chocolate. You close your eyes and let the chocolate melt in your mouth. It’s exactly the same expression when they have big, fat, juicy, packed-with-protein beetle larvae in their mouth.
Have you tried the beetle larvae?
Siew Te Wong: No! I’m not that desperate!
[Laughs] They still eat the larvae even when fruit is available in the forest?
Siew Te Wong: Yes! And the forests of Borneo have a unique feature where they don’t fruit annually. The forest goes through something called mass fruiting. The mass fruiting occurs every two to eleven years. During the non-fruiting years, the bears feed on invertebrates. Also, there are a few species of plants that do not follow the mass fruiting, like fig and ficus.
Is there a lot of competition for the fig and ficus?
Siew Te Wong: There’s a lot of competition between the bears in a period when there is no fruit around. From my study, from the bears that I captured, they all have different kinds of scars and wounds from fighting. They have a tough life. They compete with each other because food resources are so low.
But for the ficus, it’s something different. They’re big and can produce big crops. There’s no need to compete for this kind of fruit. The resources are available [to the bears] for a period of two weeks or so. One strangling fig [a kind of ficus] can put out about 2 million fruits at a time, so there’s no need for competition. I have evidence of three different bears feeding on the same tree at the same time. I’ve also witnessed one of my radio collar bears feeding on top of a fig tree, and then on the same tree there was a female orangutan with babies, a binturong (Asian bearcat) with babies, gibbons, and all kinds of birds and squirrels. It’s a very spectacular sight.
Is the fruiting seasonal or by year?
Siew Te Wong: The fig tree is not seasonal. They fruit individually throughout the year. Some species fruit twice a year, some put out three different crops a year. The reason they do it [that way] is to maintain a healthy population of fig wasps, their only pollinators.
ROLE OF SUN BEARS IN ECOSYSTEM
What’s the role of sun bears in the ecosystem?
Siew Te Wong: They do two big things for the forest. One, they are frugivores. They’re large mammals, so they eat big fruit with big seeds, for example, durian—the king of fruits in Southeast Asia. When they eat the fruit they disperse the seeds. Sun bears are important for seed dispersal in the forest ecosystem. They pretty much plant the forest. The seeds need to be carried far away from the mother tree to enhance the germination period and the survival rate of the trees.
[Second], by feeding on invertebrates like termites, they break the termite mound and they break apart decaying wood. They are actually creating another type of niche, another type of feeding site for other animals. They don’t finish everything, which leaves another site for other animals to feed on.
They’re considered an ecosystem engineer. [Another example is that] they feed on beehives. The beehives are in tree cavities, so they have to break into the main trunk of the tree in order to get to the beehives and they create cavities. These will later be used by [other animals like flying squirrels] to make nests. [Since they] prey on a lot of termites, they actually maintain healthy forests because termites have the reputation of killing or infesting trees. By reducing the number of insects that are harming plants, they do the plant community a good thing by keeping these pests at a healthy level.
ESTIMATING SUN BEAR POPULATIONS
What is the conservation status of sun bears? Are they endangered?
Siew Te Wong: Yes, they are an endangered species. They are listed under the IUCN Red List as a Vulnerable species. They just got this status in 2008. Before that, they were listed as data deficient because so few people had studied them. We didn’t have the scientific information to know how many sun bears there are in the world. Now, we have estimates.
Looking at the big picture, looking at the deforestation rates in Southeast Asia and with the forest disappearing so fast, we know the sun bears are in big trouble. We know their population has declined by more than 30 percent over the last 30 years. With all the poaching, hunting, and pet trade going on in the region, [we know] sun bears are in trouble. Although I do not have the numbers of how many sun bears there are, from my experience working in the forests of Borneo, I know the numbers are lower than orangutans, for sure.
What would it take to do a population census? Is it possible?
Siew Te Wong: Yes and no. I tried to estimate the number of bears in the forest and I pretty much failed because I haven’t come up with a reliable method to do it. Right now the method that people use most is called catch and recapture. By assessing the capture rate and recapture rate, we can estimate how many there are in the wild.
This method has been widely used by tiger biologists. [But they can use it because] individual tigers are recognized by cameras. This method is not applicable to sun bears because individuals cannot be identified from a camera picture because they’re just black; they don’t have a special marking.
What’s an alternative method that researchers commonly use for population studies?
Siew Te Wong: Another method is to use DNA. So far, a bear’s DNA is quite difficult to collect because in a tropical forest it rains every day and the genetic material is very difficult to obtain.
THREATS TO SUN BEARS
What are some of the biggest threats to sun bears? You talked about habitat destruction, poaching, hunting, and pet trade. Which is most important?
Siew Te Wong: What you mentioned are all threats but, by far, habitat destruction is the biggest threat for sun bears in Southeast Asia.
Why is that?
Siew Te Wong: Sun bears are a forest-dependent species; they have to live in a forest. When you see a landscape being cleared, a forest being cut down and replaced with plantations, replaced with development, sun bears have lost their home forever. The deforestation rate in Southeast Asia is horrible, with plantations replacing the tropical rainforest. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see how seriously sun bears are affected by deforestation. The second threat, which I mentioned earlier, is the poaching for bear parts. This is still ongoing. They’re poached for their gallbladder, their claws, their canines, their meat, and many [other] purposes, especially for traditional Asian medicine.
Then there is the pet trade.
Siew Te Wong: Sun bears are really cute. They’re the smallest of the bears. Because they are small and cute, people love to keep them as pets. [At the same time] deforestation [provides greater access to the interior of the forest] and baby bears are more vulnerable. People poach the mother, capture the baby, and then the baby becomes a commodity in pet trade.
Do they make good pets, or do they grow up?
Siew Te Wong: They absolutely do not made good pets! They’re big animals with big claws and strong canines; they’re very destructive. No one can tame a bear. In the end, they’re locked up in metal cages, which is very sad. The situation is quite desperate.
BORNEAN SUN BEAR CONSERVATION CENTRE
You helped found the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sabah, Malaysia in 2008. How did the Center come to be? Is that the reason behind founding it?
Siew Te Wong: At first, back in 1998, it was just a project. I noticed there were a lot of sun bears being held in captivity. Private owners kept them as pets, or [they were] on crocodile farms or zoos. [All these places] had a lot of sun bears, and they were all very sad. They roam the forest but [at these places] they were locked up in small cages. They shook their heads all day long with stereotypical behaviors [of animals in captivity]. No one tried to do anything about it. Sun bears are a protected species in all of the countries where they are found. No one is allowed to hunt sun bears by law or keep them as pets. But, because of the lack of law enforcement and lack of interest to conserve the species, these kind of things happen.
[If you keep one as a pet], you need to obtain a special permit. Southeast Asia is a developing country; wildlife crimes are of little priority compared to crimes against humans, so a lot of the laws are not enforced. People keep bears because they’ll never get caught.
Given the lack of interest among other NGOs, I decided "[if] you guys aren’t going to do [something,] I’m going to do it." The first group of animals that I wanted to help was the caged animals. [I think] people had to be told, "No, you can’t keep sun bears as pets. It’s against the law!" [So, when] I founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, the first thing we wanted to do was rescue the caged bears.
The second thing was to educate the people. We needed to show them how special and unique sun bears are and what important role they play in forest ecosystems. We wanted to do conservation work, rehabilitate those sun bears back into the forest, and continue to do research.
How did you get funding for it?
Siew Te Wong: Funding is very challenging. This project I didn’t do myself; it wasn’t possible to do all by myself. I was very fortunate to have help from a local NGO from Sabah called LEAP. It stands for Land Empowerment Animals People. They helped me establish [the project] and we created a partnership between the Sabah Wildlife Department and the Sabah Forestry Department. These were the two agencies that helped establish the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
It’s unusual to have government agencies so involved in something like this.
Siew Te Wong: Yes. There’s usually lack of interest to set up [conservation] centers by the government. As biologists, as conservationists, we work together to assist the governments to set up the Center. The resources came from private entities and they collaborated with the government. The bears actually "belong" to the government, to the country, so we need to have the Sabah Wildlife Department be involved in the project in order to make it successful. [Plus,] the land that we release the bears into actually belongs to the Forestry Department. It makes sense that [these two departments] are partners on this project.
The funding for this project was not cheap. We needed about $1 million to set it up. Because we had no money to start with we had to raise this money. We divided the project into three different phases. Phase one needed about $400,000. In November 2008, we held a fundraising dinner where we raised close to $300,000 in one evening. That evening the government declared a matching fund. So, this project is half funded by the Sabah government.
The first phase of the project was finished in March 2010 and involved construction of a bear house that can house 20 bears and also a 1-hectare forest enclosure. Now, we’re officially in stage two. This includes refurbishment and upgrading of the old bear house and also renovation of the offices. We’ll have a visitor gallery, boardwalks, and an observation boardwalk for people coming to visit. [Phase III consists of the construction of the second block of bear houses and forested enclosures for 20 additional bears.]
One of the unique things about our project is our location. Our enclosure is next to a well-known orangutan rehabilitation center [Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SOURC)], where hundreds of tourists come. We want to open our facility as well because we want to educate those people about sun bears and let them see sun bears in their natural environment. We also want to generate revenue from tickets to run our conservation and education program. We are side-by-side. The (orangutan) rehabilitation center is run by the Sabah Wildlife Department and my project with sun bears is also a Sabah Wildlife Department Project. So, we share the same facilities. [Due to their close proximity, the BSBCC utilizes existing SOURC veterinary facilities and personnel, parking, access roads and ticket gates. It also links to existing forest trails and boardwalks at SOURC.]
How many bears do you currently have?
Siew Te Wong: The bears at our Center were confiscated by the Sabah Wildlife Department. We have twelve bears right now (May 2010). After our bear house is built, we’ll have another four bears come in about two weeks from now. After that, we have an additional ten other bears lined up to come in. We’ll be at capacity about one month after we finish our first bear house.
This will lead us to phase three in which we build another bear house and another forest enclosure. As you can see, there are a lot of bears in captivity that need to be rescued and taken care of.
SUN BEAR REHABILITATION AND RELEASE
Do you have an idea of how many bears need to be rescued?
Siew Te Wong: In Sabah, there are at least 50 bears that need to be rescued. I’m sure there will be more in the future. [In other places in Southeast Asia] there are hundreds to thousands. Different locations have their own problems.
Are there plans to release them into the wild and what would it take to release them?
Siew Te Wong: It takes a lot of time, resources and manpower to release them. But I think it is the right thing to do and I believe they are [able to be rehabilitated]. It is not easy. It is very time consuming. What we plan to do is select the bears that still have strong instinct and walk them in the forest every day. This is a slow process. We don’t bring the bear into the forest, open a cage, and say "good luck." We live with the bears in the forest for years until they are strong enough to fend for themselves, until they are knowledgeable enough to know where food is, and until they have established their home range.
Have you already begun to identify bears for release?
Siew Te Wong: Well, we just started. We just moved bears to the bear house and forest enclosure, so we’re just starting to study the individual animals to see who can be the first potential candidates to be released into the wild.
TALES OF RESCUED BEARS
Tell me about some of the bears you have rescued.
Siew Te Wong: One is a bear cub is named Chura. Chura is with us right now. Chura is a good candidate [for rehabilitation and release]. [We have a couple other females] that we’re trying to establish a relationship with the keepers. The bears will trust our keepers and then we’ll eventually be able to walk the bear in the forest hopefully in the next year or so. You can see on my YouTube channel about big males that may or may not be good candidates. We’ll have to observe how they perform in the forest enclosure first. [Note: Beartrek, a big screen movie produced by Wild Life Media about bear research will feature Siew Te Wong trying to reintroduce baby bears into the wild. The promo, available on YouTube, shows Chura.]
Laurel Neme:What makes Chura a good candidate?
Siew Te Wong: Instinct is very crucial. It’s actually pretty sad. For sun bears kept in captivity, they have been kept in small cages or have walked on cement floors for years. They have been fed with human food. [They reach] a point where they lose their instincts. They can’t recognize, for example, termites as their natural food. We have to identify those that still have their instincts. We’ll give them the opportunity to eat termites and present them with decaying wood. They’ll pick it up right away, sniff it, and break it apart, and see what they can get out of the termite nest, or they’ll just leave it alone. The bears that have lost their instincts do not associate that kind of thing as their natural food. These would be bad candidates to release.
Bears are just like humans in that they have different personalities. Some are smarter than others, more alert than others, or more cautious than others. We want to pick out the bears that are alert, smart, and have a strong instinct to forage in the wild. These are the components to their success.
Bears are just like humans in that they have different personalities. Some are smarter than others, more alert than others, or more cautious than others. We want to pick out the bears that are alert, smart, and have a strong instinct to forage in the wild. These are the components to their success.
HOW TO HELP SUN BEARS
What can people do to help if they get interested in sun bears? Where can they go for more information?
Siew Te Wong: People ask, "How can I help?" I always answer,"whatever you do best!" Artists, help us paint paintings of sun bears and sell it at auctions to raise funds. Reporters report about our work. And, of course, everyone is on Facebook. Join our sun bear conservation Facebook cause. Get in touch with us. Anyone can help.
Understand that sun bears are the least known bears in the world. There are so many people that have heard about polar bears, grizzly bears and giant pandas, but they’ve never heard about sun bears. By helping to spread the word about sun bears, showing people pictures of them, by putting stories about sun bears on Facebook, they help us to promote awareness. Unfortunately, our conservation work spends money. Generally, the amount of money we raise reflects the amount of work we can do to help a species. [But] fundraising for an animal that is not well known is not easy.
Text by Wai Pak Ng
There were about 40 participants from Southeast Asian rescue centers and zoos attended the 1st Southeast Asian Animal Enrichment & Training Workshop from the 4th – 7th October 2010. This workshop was hosted by Wildlife Reserves Singapore and instructed by Gail Laule (Active Environments) and Valarie Hare (The Shape of Enrichment).
I am very fortunate to have the chance attending the workshop. It was a very useful workshop where all of the participants have the chance to follow lectures on the behavioral managements, techniques of positive reinforcement training and comprehensive enrichment program. Besides that, we also being given a hands-on opportunities to implement various enrichments strategies inside Singapore Zoo.
The most useful part of the workshop was the problem solving session. I managed to bring up the case of our regurgitation bear for discussion. At the end, every one benefit in the process of searching for the root of the problem and suggesting the solutions. After that session, I have a better idea to solve the problem at our centre now and in the future.
Lastly, I would like to thanks the organizing committee for the warm hospitability. You all have done great job to make this workshop a success. I am looking forward the 2nd workshop!
Here is a link for more pictures on our enrichment setting in the zoo.
The Singapore Zoo held a workshop on 4 October 2010 on animal enrichment and training.
Over the course of four days, 30 participants were shown how to keep animals in a captive environment, stimulated. The participants came from 20 organisations in the region, including zoos, rescue centres and wildlife parks.
Photographers Desmond Foo and Ng Sor Luan show you the various techniques used at the workshop.
A sun bear makes its way up a log as it licks the honey smeared on the log. Earlier, Singapore zoo keepers had smeared honey on coconut husks and the log to encorage the sun bears to use their explorartory and natural abilities to find their reward- a coconut that had been smeared with honey and had pieces of sugarcane embedded in it. The Straits Times/ Desmond Foo
By Wai Pak Ng
It was a rainy afternoon. David, Daniel and I were waiting our bear house for the rain to stop so that we could go out for lunch. The waiting gave us more opportunity to observe the bears and film this video clip.
Sun bear is the most arboreal bear species. In this clips, you will see how well our rescued sun bears climbed and at the same time play fight with others. They are good on balancing themselves on the thin branches! As indicated by the title of this video, "Primate or Bear?" they really look a lot like primates who adapt an arboreal lifestyle!
There are four bears in this video: Keningau, Tokob, Susie and Manis. We call this group as the adult female group. They live together in the four connected bear dens in our new bear house. However, it is common to see them all gather in one den playing and socializing, just like what you see in this video.
We are so glad to see them living together in a harmony way. In the wild, sun bear live a solitary lifestyle because of food difficult to find, thus competitions among bears are always high. However, finding food is not an issue for these bears under our care. We learn that they are actually quite social and like to interact with each other. We found out that they are less stress after spending more time interacting with each other. Manis used to have very bad pacing behavior by pacing in a circle and Takob used to be aggressive to people and easily became stressful. Both of them show a great improvement in their behavior: Manis hardly pace in circle and Takob is less aggressive compare to the time when they were kept alone.
We are still fixing the damage fence in our forest enclosures. We really hope the fence will be ready soon so that they can enjoy the forest enclosure again.
Primate or Bear? What do you think?
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/il8kT9aXD2k" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
Text and photo by Wai Pak Ng
Last month was a busy but a fruitful month for all of us in BSBCC. At first we have Ah Lun and Julaini come to our centre. Then, we accepted Kudat and Panda. We were pretty much nonstop on rescuing these caged sun bears until recently we having another three bears which add up to 19 bears in our centre!
The three latest rescued sun bears I mentioned above are Gutuk, Linggam and Toby. They are all males but come from three different age group: old, mature and young cub. Gutuk and Linggam used to house at our facility (the old bear house at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre) before BSBCC was set up in 2008. They were sent to Lok Kawi Wildlife Park few years ago due to lack of adequate space and resources to taking care of more bears. However, things are different after the setting up of Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. With the establishment of BSBCC, we have our state of the art new bears house and another state of the art forest enclosure. This is time to rescue more caged sun bears and let them have a better living environment especially in the forest enclosure.
As for Toby, he was just rescued by the Sabah Wildlife Department recently from a pet owner and was housed in Lok Kawi Zoo temporary before he was sent to us. Now Toby is the youngest bear in our centre!
Within a month, BSBCC's resident bears increased from 12 to 19 bears. For me, this does not increase our burdens, but a chance for us to keep our promise to provide a better living condition to those captive sun bears. This is just the beginning for BSBCC, its still a long way to free our bears and let them live in their nature home. So, let’s us work together and witness our growth!