Video by Chiew Lin May
"Time is running out! The next ten years will be crucial. If we fail, a lot of species will become extinct." - Dr. Wong Siew Te (Founder & CEO BSBCC)
The sun bears is the world's smallest bear species. They can be found in the tropical rainforest of Southeast Asia. Major threats from poaching, illegal pet trade and deforestation are pushing sun bears to extinction. If no action is taken, the remaining population will be wiped out soon.
Please keep the fight to save the species against the threat of extinction!
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.
SOS From Borneo to the world!
Thanks to Cynthia Ong of LEAP, and the Green SURF coalition of Sabah, Malaysia, a proposed coal-fired power plant has gone from "done deal" to being debated in the Malaysian Parliament!
To continue this important work, LEAP needs your support and action NOW!
Please share the petition with your network! We need to keep pressure up until the Prime Minister reverses his position!
Land Empowerment Animals People
P/S: Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is a LEAP project
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.