By Wong Siew Te
Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) was first discovered in Malay Peninsula and described to science by American naturalist in 1825. Ironically, after 187 year, many Malaysians, along with most people in the world, do not know about this world's smallest bear species. One of the reasons for this phenomenon is the lack of education materials on sun bear in the school's curriculum in this country. However, this phenomenon is about to change.
Penerbitan Pelangi Sdn Bhd (Pelangi Publisher Ltd. Co.) (www.pelangibooks.com) is determined to help BSBCC and to raise awareness of sun bear and BSBCC among the secondary schools students in Malaysia. The publishing company is producing 300,000 copies of science reference books for Malaysian schools with BSBCC's logo and website printed on the book's cover. In addition, Pelangi Publisher also donated RM10,000 to support BSBCC as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project. Soon, more and more Malaysian students will learn and know more about sun bears and the important roles that they play in the forest ecosystem.
BSBCC would like to thank Penerbitan Pelangi Sdn Bhd for their generous support and their initiative to help educate students about sun bears. We hope this CSR project will catalyze more corporations to play their parts to protect sun bears in this region and support BSBCC in the future!
By Aneeta Sundararaj
Picture by Wong Siew Te
The sun bear is under threat. And that’s definitely not good news for the equilibrium of our rainforest, writes Aneeta Sundararaj
Cerah, soon to be a movie star
Om is a gentle giant
“They play such an important role in the ecosystem but we know so little about them” - Wong Siew Te
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KEEP in mind this advice when you first meet Wong Siew Te: first, don’t tell him you don’t know what a sun bear is. He’ll probably chastise you with, “we Malaysians don’t even know that we have one of the most important species of bears!”
Second, don’t try to lighten the mood with, “ ...they’re so cute.” If you do, brace yourself for an outpouring of the woes that plague this animal and, its impending extinction.
If your initial contact with Wong is fraught with tension, endure his angst because what follows is a beautiful story of one man’s passionate devotion to conserving sun bears.
Once calm, this 43-year-old father of two begins to describe the creatures in detail. “They can walk straight and carry their babies in the same way humans do. It’s like watching a human in bear skin.”
Sun bears are also very good tree climbers. Wong refers to them as “forest engineers”.
“They climb trees to get at the honey in the bee hives. They use their claws to create a cavity in the tree trunk. These cavities, once abandoned, are very useful to hornbills and squirrels that use them to create nests. The other animals cannot make this cavity. If the bears don’t do it for them, they’ll have nowhere to nest.”
A distinctive feature of the sun bear is its long tongue. “Sometimes, as long as 18 inches. They use the tongue to reach into cavities in trees to eat their favourite food, termites and ants.
“Sun bears love to lie on their back and pour the honey or termites on their chest and stomach. Their short hair will help them separate what’s edible from what’s inedible.” For this, Wong describes them as “doctors of the forest”.
“Sun bears eat termites. If they become extinct, we’ll probably lose all our trees to termites.”
“They play such an important role in the ecosystem and maintain the equilibrium in the forest, but we know so little about them. We don’t even know what their life span is. I guess that, in the wild, they’ll probably live between 10 to 12 years. In captivity, there’s one in Honolulu that’s 39 years old,” laments Wong.
It doesn’t help that sun bears have a slow reproduction rate and generally have only one cub each.
How did this interest in conserving sun bears come about?
Without pause, Wong narrates his journey to becoming a wildlife conservationist: “I’ve always loved animals. But, I grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s and never heard of wildlife conservation. When I was a boy, I used to watch birds. I never knew there was such a thing called ‘bird-watching’. I always thought I would become a vet. I couldn’t get into the only university that offered this course, UPM. So I went to Taiwan to study animal husbandry and veterinary sciences.
There, I became an active member in the Bird Watching Society.
“Through my binoculars, I learnt to appreciate the beauty of nature. I also saw poaching of wildlife.
When Wong finished the programme, he became his professor’s research assistant. “Then, in 1994, at the age of 25, I started my undergraduate degree at the University of Montana. After a lecture, I went up to Dr Christopher Servheen and told him I was from Malaysia. He told me he was looking for someone to do research on sun bears. I agreed. And that is how I came to be here.”
Wong’s voice then takes on a sad tone. “The more I learnt about them, the more concerned I became. Bears in captivity are in a sad state. Zoos, mini zoos, crocodile farms, private menageries, and even private homes. These bears are kept in small cages and unhygienic conditions. Some of them just pace up and down. Seeing them like this breaks my heart.”
Spurred by their sad plight, Wong founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre that rehabilitates bears held in captivity so that they can be set free in the wild again. His rationale is simple: “I knew that if I didn’t do something about them, no one would.”
Scientific Name: Helarctos malayanus
English name: Malayan Sun Bear, Sun Bear
Native to: Sun bears are native to Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam
Threats: Loss of forest habitat and forest degradation arising from clear-cutting for plantation development, unsustainable logging practices, illegal logging and forest fires. Poachers kill sun bears for their gall bladders (used in traditional Chinese medicine) and paws (as a delicacy). Other motives for killing sun bears include preventing damage to crops, and fear of bears near villages. When this happens, orphaned cubs are captured and kept as pets.
In 2007, the World Conservation Union added the sun bear to its “vulnerable” classification on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN 2007). It is now illegal to kill or hunt these bears in Sabah.
It’s a bear’s life
AT the moment, there are around 25 sun bears under Wong’s care. You do not have to be an animal lover to understand, recognise and appreciate the mutual love between an animal and people highlighted in the five stories listed here.
Cerah is Wong’s favourite. She was confiscated by the Wildlife Department in 2007. Quiet and well behaved, Cerah is set to become a movie star as she is in BearTrek, a feature-length film about bears of the world. “This is going to be a proper movie in the cinema,” says Wong excitedly. The aim of this movie ‘is to focus on the world’s wild places through the eyes of the eight bear species of the world.’
One of the people involved in the movie project, Chris Morgan, visited Wong in Sabah. When Morgan writes, “Wildly entertaining relationships evolve between bear and handlers during training until the day when we witness the emotional release of the cub,’ he is referring to Cerah’s absolute excitement when she’s released into her forest home for the first time since being orphaned. You can watch this 10-minute video clip on www.wildlifemedia.org/borneo.html.
“Jelita is Cerah’s BFF,” says Wong. “They’re never more than 10 metres apart at any one time.” Wong thinks that being orphans, they act as each other’s protector and teacher. “They hang out and comfort each other.”
Natalie’s only 1½ years old. “When she first arrived, we almost lost her. She was dehydrated and we struggled to get the milk formula right. Then her condition stabilised and she responded really well. Natalie is a naughty little girl! When I used to walk her, she always wanted to play. But playing sun bear-style can be very rough and I had to tell her many times to stop biting my leg. She gets irritated with me. The thing is, even when they’re playing, we humans are not equipped to withstand their strong claws.”
“At 50kg, Om’s a big boy,” says Wong. Still, he’s a gentle giant who is painfully shy. Hold a coconut in your hand, though, and he’ll come out of hiding to take it from you. In 30 seconds, he will remove the husk. Then, he makes a hole in the shell, drinks the coconut water and eats the kernel. Do not assume that accepting the coconut is a sign that Om’s comfortable with you. He’ll finish his snack and retreat to his hiding place.
“Mary came to us extremely vulnerable. She was kept as a pet. Still, it’s amazing to see how she sits in front of the computer and watches TV. But, after some time, I realised she was abnormal — her head is bigger than her body. She’s a dwarf, almost.”
Slowly, though, she is being rehabilitated by Wong and his team.
IN 2008, Wong founded The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia. Admitting he could not do it alone, this is a joint project with the Sabah Wildlife Department, the Sabah Forestry Department and Land Empowerment Animals People.
Wong’s aim is two-fold: first, to provide for the care, rehabilitation and release of orphaned and captive sun bears back into the wild.
Second, he wants to address the lack of knowledge and awareness about the sun bear. He also aims to provide an improved long-term living environment for captive bears that cannot be released into the wild. This would increase the protection for sun bears and their habitat and to allow for on-going research. To know more about Wong’s work,
Original posted at http://www.ecoknights.org.my/component/content/article/28/1317-bear-necessity-a-walk-on-the-wild-side-with-dr-wong-siew-te.html
Wong's notes: Thank you Ecoknights' founder Yasmin Ras for interviewing and running this interview at their website. Thank you!
A special EcoKnights spotlight this month focuses on Malaysian wildlife biologist Wong Siew Te, CEO of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sabah. The EK crew was very privileged to have met Wong last year during the Borneo Eco Film Festival, organized with the kind assistance of Anton Ngui.
Born in 1969 and raised in Penang (a state in the northern Peninsular Malaysia), Wong has always been an animal lover. It all started when he had a special interest in wildlife when he was studying for his animal husbandry and veterinary degree. When the opportunity came to take wildlife biology seriously, Wong jumped at the chance to work with his then academic advisor Dr Christopher Servheen on an ecological study of the sun bears. Armed with passion and dedication, his academic study on these threatened bears led to a conservation achievement in which he was then appointed as the Co-Chairperson of the Sun Bear Expert Team for the IUCN/SSC Bear Specialist Group from 2002-2005.
EcoKnights salutes Wong for his amazing dedication and effort in studying and working on the ecological conservation of the sun bear for the last 13 years.
Today, Wong is the CEO of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, which he founded in 2008. He was also 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.
Here's an up, close and personal interview with Wong Siew Te.
EK: Can you tell us about your background (education and career), your current position at the Conservatory and what your roles are there at the Conservatory?
WST: I work closely with animals all my life. Since I was a little tot, I kept all kind of animals as pets. After high school, I went to Taiwan to obtain a diploma in Animal Science and Veterinary. Four years later, I pursued my bachelor degree in Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana, USA, followed by a Masters degree and a PhD degree all from the same university. Unfortunately I did not earn my doctorate at the very end due to unforeseen circumstances. I studied the ecology of Malayan sun bears for my Masters degree and the effects of selective logging on bearded pigs on my doctorate. In 2008, I founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sepilok, Sandakan, Sabah and have hold the position of Chief Executive Office since then.
EK: Have you always been interested in conservation? How did it start?? Is your family supportive? Do your children understand what their dad does for a living?
WST: I love animals since childhood and have kept all kind of pets: birds, fishes, cat, rabbits, mice, turtles, civets, and many carnivorous insects. My father was the one who brought me these pets at that time and gave me a lot of encouragement to keep these pets. During my teenage years, I became a pretty successful breeder breeding birds, fishes, and dogs. However, I did not have any interest in conservation until I was 20 years old simply because I never know about conservation until then. My career with conservation started from bird watching during my teenage years before I actually know there was an outdoor activity call "bird watching." During my first year of study in Taiwan I joined the "Bird Watching Society" in our university and started to know about conservation. After I earned the diploma in Animal Science and Veterinary program, I worked as a research assistant for a wildlife professor at the same university in Taiwan.
During the two years as a research assistant, I was involved in several research projects on fauna surveys, setting up of a rescue centre for endangered species, and radio-telemetry studies on barking deer in Taiwan. All of these activities helped my future research and conservation works in many ways. My family has been supportive of my work although they wanted me to be with them all the time. I think there is no perfect world when you are in the field of conservation. We gain at the same time lose a lot as well. My eldest daughter somewhat understands my conservation work. She has been talking highly about my work in school to her friends. My youngest daughter who is 7 still needs a few more years to understand what her father does for a living and why I am always not around the family, especially to her friends.
EK: Please tell us about the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), a bit of history, the goals and what the centre hopes to achieve? Has the centre reached some of the goals it was set out to do?
WST: I first had the idea of setting up a centre to rescue caged sun bears back in 2004 when I did a survey of captive sun bears across Malaysia. During the survey, I encountered many captive sun bears locked up in small metal cages kept as pets, displayed to attract tourists, or some of them were confiscated by the authorities. Sun bears are a protected species in Malaysia. However, the lack of enforcement on the wildlife protection laws and lack of capacity, interest, and resources to properly house these bears has caused all of the sun bears to be housed in substandard, pathetic and disgusting condition. In addition, sun bears remain as the least known bear in the world and one of the most neglected large mammals in SE Asia. Therefore there is a need to set up a facility that helps sun bears with a holistic approach. In 2008 I set up the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) with the partnership from Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department and LEAP, a NGO base in Sabah.
The primary goal of this project is to promote sun bear conservation in Borneo by (1) creating the capacity to confiscate, rehabilitate and release suitable orphaned and ex-captive bears back into the wild; (2) providing an improved long-term living environment for captive bears that cannot be released; (3) educating the public and raising awareness about this species; and (4) achieving increased protection for sun bears and their habitat through ongoing research, increased knowledge and awareness, and further protection of habitat.
Over the last four year we have been working hard to raise funds to set up the centre. Although the centre is not yet fully established and not yet open to the public, we have achieved several goals such as rescuing and housing 27 rescued pet sun bears, conducting many education outreach programs for school groups who wish to learn more about the sun bears and their habitat.
EK: I understand fundraising is always a tough part of conservation. How has it been in terms of support from the public, corporate organizations and government? Who are your supporters and/or funders so far?
WST: The supports from the public, corporate, and government has been moderately encouraging over the past few years. Majority of our construction funds were provide from tax payers money through government funding, whereas our operation fund come from public support and corporates. Our funders include Sabah State Government, the Ministry of Tourism Malaysia, several zoos in US, and many individual online donations and Facebook funds raised from small donors across the world.
EK: What kind of manpower and financial requirements does the centre take to sustain itself? Is it sufficient? How can a reader of this article help?
BSBCC so far has four full time staff- 2 animal keepers, a project manager, and me as the CEO. Our typical monthly expenses range from RM15, 000-RM20, 000. Over the past four years we have over 700 volunteers helping us on various tasks to taking care of our bears and setting up the centre. All of these man power and expenses seems a lot but it is at the minimum level. It is not sufficient. When we open to public, the staff capacity will increase from 4 to 17 staff, this mean that we need more funds to pay salaries and other relevant expenses.
Like all conservation programs in the world, the amount of conservation works we can achieve to help save any species is dependent on the amount of funding we can generate. Our efforts to help save sun bears in Malaysia are no exceptions.
First, we need to raise sufficient funds so that we could set up the centre, run the conservation programs, take care of the rescued bears, etc. We need funding to do them all. The most direct way for you to help our efforts is donating fund or help us raise fund. They can make the donation online at: http://www.leapspiral.org/content/suppor… or write to me at email@example.com.
We also have a Facebook page cause setup where people can join our cause and make their donations at http://www.causes.com/causes/95651.
Unlike tigers, pandas, and rhinos where most people know more about, the sun bear is the least known bear in the world and one of the neglected large mammals in Southeast Asia. The lack of knowledge about the species and their plights among the public is a big obstacle for the conservation efforts to save sun bears. Everyone can help us to raise awareness of the sun bears simply by spreading the words about our cause and the sun bears. Internet has become an important tool to communicate with friends across the world.
Joining our Facebook cause http://www.causes.com/causes/95651) and repost our blogs http://sunbears.wildlifedirect.org/), could help us spread the words and message for sure.
The last thing about how other people can help us is what I always tell people on how they can help us: “do what you do best to help us!” If you are a writer, you can help us write about sun bears and our work; if you are a film maker, help us produce a film about the sun bears; if you are a scholar, help us conduct studies on sun bears, etc. In short, do what you do best!
EK: Can you share some of your successful, emotional/sad and difficult moments at the centre? The challenges you and the centre had to face?
WST: To me, the setting up of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre from nothing to what it is today is the biggest success story. In addition, rescuing every pet sun bear and bringing them to our centre are all successful stories. Imagine all of our rescued sun bears were capture from the wild since they were cubs after their mother were probably killed by poachers. They were then being locked up in small metal cages for a long time until they were rescued by the Sabah Wildlife Department and sent to us. At our centre, these sun bears are no longer confined to small cages and no longer displayed the very serious stereotypic pacing behavior. They have access to the forest enclosure where they can climb the tress, dig the soil and break decayed woods to look for insects and other invertebrates. Last February I came back from US and saw these rescued sun bears foraging in the forest enclosure for the first time. I broke into tears seeing them live like wild bears. I am so happy all the hard work finally pays off. No one has any idea how much effort I put in and how much sacrifice I have made to make this happen. This is the first step for BSBCC- to improve their welfare. I have done it. No, WE have done it!
The challenges that I and the Centre have face since the beginning have always been funding. Excluding the operational expenses, the capital or the funding on buildings required more than RM 5 million. These are by far the biggest challenge that I have to face when I decided to found this project almost four years ago. Luckily thanks to many very dedicated person and partners, we are more than half way to raise the funds and heading towards the right direction. Looking at the fact that the global economy took for a negative turn when the Centre was set up, I must say we have pulled through one of the most difficult times.
EK: What gives you strength?
WST: laughs*). I do not know what gives me strength. However, what I do know is that I love animals, I love bears. I feel very happy if I can help them when they are in trouble and needed helps. Or perhaps my nature of optimism and tenacity gave me strength to do what I have accomplished. Last year I "walked" our rescued orphan sun bear cubs: Natalie, Fulung, and Mary, in the forest. They treated me like their mother and trusted me to protect them. At that time I was thinking what would be a more meaningful career to do in my life than helping these orphan cubs return to the forest? After all these years in this field, I felt like the closer I work with animals, the more strength and energy I have to help them. Perhaps the wildlife and the forest give me the strength and energy to continue working closely with wildlife. This is like a positive feedback loop that fuels me do more and more work in conservation.
EK: What are the threats and issues the sun bears are facing in this country? What are some of the ways that need to be emphasized and/or enforced? What is the reality/future of sun bears in Malaysia? Globally?
WST: Sun bears in Malaysia face the threats from habitat lost, poaching for their body parts, and keeping bear cubs as pets. The threat from habitat lost accelerated since the 60"s when vast lowland rainforest in Malaysia were cleared for agriculture and development until recently. Over the last few years, poaching has been a serious threat to sun bears in Malaysia, partly fueled by the international wildlife trade. Keeping sun bear cubs as pets was exacerbated by both forest clearing and poaching activities when loggers and poachers killed mother bears and captured their cubs.
Sun bears are a totally protected species in Malaysia. No one is allowed to kill, to harm, to sell, to keep and to harass sun bear. However due to the lack of interest to enforce wildlife protection laws by the authority and lack general conservation awareness of sun bears by the general public, unlawful activities of killing and harming sun bears persist.
In order to save sun bears, the wildlife authority and law enforcement agencies MUST enforce wildlife protection laws seriously. Any offenders MUST be prosecute and punish with maximum penalties in order to deter any illegal activities of killing and harming sun bears. General public and wildlife conservation NGOs must work closely with the authorities to give information, be the watch dog, and unsure enforcement is carry out properly in favor of the protected wildlife such as sun bears.
The sun bear is a forest dependent species. The amounts of forested lands remain in this country reflects the amount of habitat available for the sun bear. In Malaysia we have lost about 50% of our forested land. Much of these forests were prime sun bear habitat from the lowland dipterocarp forest. Therefore deforestation in this country has to be halt completely at any cost if we were to save sun bears and important wildlife species in Malaysia.
The future of sun bears in Malaysia and in the world is pretty challenging. There are two inherent reasons that make the future of the sun bear bleak if the current trend that threatens sun bear continues. First, the natural density of sun bears in the forest is always low in the first place. In Borneo the density of sun bear is relatively much lower than the endangered orangutans. Second, the reproductive rate of sun bear is very low. Female wild sun bears are estimated to produce 4-5 cubs in her life time. With the low density and low reproductive rate, additional killing of any sun bear individual in the wild may bring serious consequence to the population.
In Malaysia, about 50% of our forest covers remains after several decades of deforestation and human development. This also means that the sun bears have lost at least 50% of their habitat. However, compare to other Southeast Asian countries where sun bears are found, the deforestation and the poaching activities in Malaysia is relatively mild. Because of this reason, Malaysia is the last stronghold for the survival of sun bears in Southeast Asia. In Borneo, Sabah is the last stronghold for the Bornean sun bear also for the same reason.
EK: How does the Conservatory contribute to the conservation of the bears and how far ahead in terms of efforts does the centre have?
WST: As mentioned earlier, Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre aims to conserve sun bears through improve animal welfare, raise conservation awareness through education, conducting research to know more about this little known bears, and help sun bear cubs returning into the forest through rehabilitation program. All of these activities contribute toward the conservation of sun bear and they all have to act side by side through a holistic approach, so to speak. So far we have rescued 27 sun bears from the fate from being locked up in small cages and improve their animal welfare issues through our animal husbandry and facilities. Although BSBCC has not yet open to the public and start our education program in full swing, we have worked with many school groups and outreach programs over the past three years. Right now as we speak the construction work for the observation platform and boardwalk that link the entrance to the platform is ongoing. We still lack the funding to construct the visitor briefing area. Once the construction for these two components is done we will open to the public and launch a full education program to educate the visitors on the plights of sun beats and their habitat. We hope the centre will be partially open to public by later this year and fully open early next year. Several research projects are on planning and will conducted later this year as well. All and all, we are not far to achieve what we plan to achieve for BSBCC.
EK: What is your advice to students who are in university studying environment or conservation? And especially if they want to take the path you took? What does it take to be you? What are some of the attitudes or philosophies one has to adopt in this field?
WST: This question can have a very long answer. For myself I have been through a non-typical path. For example I love animals pretty much all my life; I have many animal experiences since I was a kid; my ambition when I was 7 year old was to be an "animal expert"; I started bird watching before I know there was an activity call bird watching; I have two years of field and veterinary experience before I started my bachelor degree in Wildlife Biology. All of these shaped me of what I am today. However, other students should not be discouraged if they do not have the experiences I had. Everyone is unique and has their own back ground to do well in the field of conservation. My advice to students who are in university studying environment or conservation is that what they are studying is important to the entire humanity, entire world and all living organism on Earth. I know many of the students who study environmental study or conservation may have been "assign" to study the course or these courses are not their first choice.
However, if they start to develop the interest when studying the course they still can do well and contribute to this field. One characteristic that allconservations and environmentalists have is that they all have very strong interest and passion on this field, regardless of when they started to develop their interest or passions. For me I develop the interest and passion when I was very young. However, I met many great conservationists and wildlife biologists who developed their interest when they did their Master degree or even later in life. The important thing is to follow your heart. This field may not necessary bring you glamour or high financial rewards. However, it will make you contribute to the society, humanity and make your life "worth it" at the end. In this field, environmentalists and conservationists put the fate of environment or wildlife that they are fighting for before their own personal benefit and agenda. They do not expect a "reward" from what they are doing and sacrificing. What they want is to improve the situation and condition of the issues that they are working hard and fighting for- a better tomorrow for the environment, wildlife, and planet Earth.
EK: Why is it important doing what the centre does and what you do?
WST: Like mentioned earlier, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is working on the conservation issues of sun bears through improving animal welfare, education, research, and rehabilitation of sun bears. All of these conservation issues that the sun bears faced are very urgent, meaning someone has to help sun bears desperately to solve the problems such as pet sun bears, poaching issues, and habitat destruction issues. Unfortunately sun bears are a forgotten bear species. Very few organizations in the world aim to conserve sun bear and working on their conservation issues. In Malaysia, the plight of sun bears received very little conservation attention. In view of that, BSBCC develops unique tasks to help and conserve sun bears in many ways. The final mission is to save sun bear from extinction, preserve the rainforest habitat of sun bears and much other wildlife, and educate the public about the sun bear and wildlife conservation issues. Without BSBCC, captive sun bears will continue to suffer in captivity and wild sun bear population is likely to decrease to a point where there is too late to anything- brink of extinction.
Although BSBCC is focus on the conservation of sun bear and its habitat, I am not and I will not. It is true that my work has been focusing on sun bears for many years; however, my interest in conservation and research is not restricted to sun bears. My interest is very broad. It includes the conservation of all wildlife especially mammals and birds, tropical forest ecology, human disturbances in rainforest ecosystem, and climate change. I hope my work can inspire younger Malaysians to love and to conserve nature, environment, and wildlife.
As a local Penangite, I hope I can be a role model for other Malaysians to involve and supports conservation because conservation needs all of us working together to make a big difference for our wildlife, nature, and environment. Eventually conservation in our own country has to depend on our own countrymen, our own resources, and not foreigners and foreign resources.
EK: What are some of the special moments you had with the bears? Please describe it.
WST: There are a lot of special moments I had with wild sun bears which I studied and the captive sun bears at BSBCC. I will mention few of these special moments here:
a) The first time I saw one of my radio-collared wild sun bear on a tree was when 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! That was also the first time that I learn the sun bears are very arboreal and good climbers.
b) The first time I caught an emaciated sun bear in August of 1999 was a special moment too. That was the first time I learned about the tough life of sun bears living in the wild. The famine episode where many bears and wild pigs died from starvation has change the perception of what and how we think about the tropical rainforest.
c) The first time I "walked" a sun bear cub in the forest was very special moment. In 2007 we filmed BEARTREK the movie in the rainforest of Danum. I took Cerah (an 8 month old female sun bear cub) into the forest for the first time for the filming. Cerah was an orphan cub rescued by Sabah Wildlife Department and her mother was probably being killed by poachers. I have no idea what her respond will be at that time when I let her out from her cage. Surprisingly she decided to "follow" me in the forest like a well trained dog, just like she would follow her own mother. Sun bear cubs are programmed to follow their mother for obvious reasons. They are totally dependent on their mother for food, safety, knowledge of finding food, and establishing territorial. It was really special to see her treated me like her own mother.
d) "Big tree, little bear and tiny termites" was a special moment when I walked Mary another female sun bear cub in the forest. It was a scène where Mary stopped at the base of a big dipterocarp tree and fed on termites in a decayed wood. The scene made me think of the inseparable relationships between big trees, sun bears, and termites in the forest ecosystem. All of them have evolved for millions of years in this forest ecosystem and in need of each other to survive. However, human activities in recent years have disrupted these unique relationships and jeopardize the integrity. Whether or not sun bears will make it to the next millennium will very much dependent on the human activities and how we treated our nature and the environment.
More information about the BSBCC can be found here.
To get updates and be more involved in their daily activities, join them on their Facebook group here.
Move by Wong’s passion and want to contribute? then click here to donate.
Text by Siew Te Wong
This is another good story of "do what you do best to help sun bear and BSBCC".
Joyce Malmo was a volunteer project manager with the Raleigh International working with BSBCC back in August 2010. She felt very privileged to be working at BSBCC and experiencing the sun bears. Joyce decided to do more subsequently to her volunteering work with us. She decided to write a children book about sun bear and other wildlife and their habitat across the world.
The book, ANIMALS - Stories From Across the World is an environmental education storybook for children between 6 – 10 years. It’s a storybook meant for children, teachers, parents, guardians and children. The book contains 7 animal stories from various animals across the world including activities and educational material that can be used at home or in the classroom. This book is currently available for sale as an "eBook" as starter to generate enough fund to publish in paper format. Joyce is very kind to donate 10% of the sale to BSBCC for our education activities. You can purchase the book online at http://www.story4environment.org/.
The following is what Joyce wrote about the chapter on Susie the sun bear in her book:
Sun bears are the smallest species of bears in the world and are found in the tropical rainforests throughout Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, the number of sun bears are declining. This is mainly as a result of deforestation and poaching.
The story about Susie came about after volunteering at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC) through Raleigh (UK youth development charity) last year.
Susie is a real sun bear. She was the first sun bear that I saw at the BSBCC – actually, the first sun bear that I ever saw. Even though parts of the story about Susie is fiction, it is true that she grew up in the rainforest near Tawau and was kept as a pet, before she was rescued by the BSBCC in Sepilok, Sabah in Malaysia.
The story about Susie the little sun bear cub and how she lost her mum and ended up at the Sun Bear Center is the saddest story in the animal storybook. I wanted it to be as close as possible to what unfortunately does happen in reality to many sun bears. Yet the story gives hope by introducing one to the Borneon Sun Bear Conservation Center - founded in 2008 by Mr. Siew Te Wong – it is safe to say that he is the leading expert on sun bears.
The Center was set up with the support and help of Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD) and a charity called Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP).
So, this is where Susie lives, together with more than 20 other rescued bears. Most of them were brought to the Center as orphans or as victims of the pet trade.
Spending about 6 weeks at the Center in Borneo working as a volunteer through Raleigh in 2010, I could see a true dedication by the staff, not only for the conservation of the sun bears, but the environment in general.
However, the BSBCC is still under construction. It aims to conserve sun bears through a combination of education, rehabilitation, research, and improvement of the welfare of captive orphaned sun bears.
Currently, the Center is not open to the public. At the moment, they will start working on the construction of a viewing platform for visitors, so the idea is to open it in order to educate the public.
Apart from being incredible fascinating animals (which we know very little about), the sad story of the sun bears is one that opens up the door to many different environmental issues, which can can be introduced into the classroom by simply telling the story about Susie the sun bear from Tawau.
For more information about the BSBCC, their work and the sun bears, have a look at their website/blog: http://www.bsbcc.org.my/
Thank you Joyce! Your work is important to us and the sun bears.
Please help us spread the words about this book and support Joyce and BSBCC!
Sorenson, J. 2011. Interview with Siew Te Wong. The Brock Review. 12(1): 182-186.
The entire article can be download from:
Please go to http://jwc-web.org/news_world/topics.cgi to read the original posting.
Wong's note: Thank you Hina Fukuda from Japan Wildlife Center for writing this article and help us promote sun bear and their plights in Japan!
Malayan sun bears, also known as honey bears (or Helarctos malayanus), are the least known of the world’s eight bear species. Few people know they even exist, especially compared with other types of bears, like polar bears and grizzlies.
Perhaps part of that is because sun bears are so challenging to study. They’re the smallest bear species. They weigh just 100 pounds and are less than half the size of a North American black bear.
To complicate matters, they have black fur and spend their time in the trees of Southeast Asia’s dense tropical rainforests-making simply finding them a tricky task. In this case, out of sight has meant out of mind-and little attention has been given to this endangered species.
But one man, Malaysian biologist Siew Te Wong, has dedicated his life to changing the status of what he calls “the forgotten bear.” He’s one of the world’s few sun bear researchers and also founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sabah, Malaysia.
Wong has successfully overcome many research challenges. Because failure is the mother of all invention, his difficulties forced him to design new equipment and take new approaches to get to know this species. For instance, he devised a new type of trap that he could break down and backpack into the forest.
He’s also experimented with bait to attract the animals so that he could radio collar them for study. While it was never his intent, with much trial and error he eventually became “top chef” to these endearing creatures when he hit on the perfect recipe (that is, chicken guts). The result of his over 15 years of effort: a wealth of data about the biology, habits and range of this elusive bear.
For instance, his study of wild sun bears shows that they are diurnal and not nocturnal, as is commonly assumed. Rather, he notes that sun bears that live close to human typically switch their activities to nighttime to avoid human confrontation.
He’s also uncovered the bear’s favorite food. Any guesses? According to Wong, it’s beetle larvae! Though he’s never been tempted to try one himself, Wong enjoys watching the bears dig into a decayed piece of wood with such fierce concentration that it may be hours until they finally find their three-inch reward.
The moment they fish one out, they pull their facial muscles back in a smile, close their eyes and let their big, fat, juicy “packed-with-protein” prize melt in their mouth. Wong says, “it’s like they’re having the best chocolate in their life!”
Sun bears’ love for invertebrates helps the ecosystem in two critical ways. First, by eating pests like termites that kill or infest trees, sun bears help maintain healthy forests providing an important pest control service. Second, in their hunt for bugs, sun bears will smash termite mounds and crack open tree cavities, which in turn creates new nesting and feeding sites for other species, like flying squirrels. In essence, that makes them “ecosystem engineers.”
Sun bears serve another important ecosystem function: seed dispersers. They often feed on large fruit with sizeable pits, like durian, that are too big for other species. Then, by depositing the pits far from the mother trees, the bears facilitate germination and increase the survival rate of seedlings, thus helping to “plant the forest.”
Despite the sun bears role in helping to maintain their forest home, they face multiple threats, so much so that they are listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which prohibits their commercial trade. Unsustainable logging and expansion of industrial palm oil plantations are already destroying significant swaths of their tropical habitat. In addition, pet trade and uncontrolled poaching for their parts, which are used in traditional Asian medicine, imperil the species.
Nobody knows how many sun bears remain in the wild. Many scientists say they’re the rarest of the bear species and suggest their numbers have fallen by more than 30 percent in the last 30 years. Wong has tried to estimate sun bear populations but has failed thus far because he hasn’t found a reliable method.
One survey technique used by scientists for species like tigers assesses the capture and recapture rate by remote cameras and extrapolates from there. But this approach won’t work for sun bears because individuals cannot be identified from a camera picture because they’re just black; they don’t have a special marking.
DNA analysis is another way to get at this information, but collection of a sun bear’s genetic material is quite difficult because in a tropical forest it rains every day. Whatever the number, one thing is certain: rapid loss of forests throughout their range and an active trade in wild bears and their parts point to a bleak future. Yet there is much the average citizen can do.
Wong notes that whenever he’s asked how somebody can help, he always answers, “do whatever you do best!” For instance, artists painting pictures of sun bears, which the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre then sells at auctions to raise funds. Reporters report about the bear.
“There are so many people that have heard about polar bears, grizzly bears and giant pandas,” Wong says, “but they’ve never heard about sun bears. By helping to spread the word about sun bears-showing people pictures of them, putting stories about sun bears on Facebook-they help us to promote awareness.
Unfortunately, our conservation work spends money and, 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.”
If everybody shared information and stories, we could raise the profile-and ultimately the chances of its long-term survival-of this forgotten bear.
For more information: Listen to an interview with sun bear researcher Siew Te Wong on Laurel Neme’s “The WildLife” radio show. Or read an edited transcript on Mongabay.com.
Recently they did another "update" of my work and my story..
2010 BSBCC Annual Report is now available online.
Please download from here http://www.leapspiral.org/pdf/BSBCC-2010.pdf
Hope for the World's Smallest Bears
by Francesca Sandwell
Sep 22, 2010
Positive News Issue 65
Nineteen rescued Sun Bears are settling into their brand new home at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre; the first of its kind in the world. The one-hectare site in Sabah is one of the most exciting preservation projects to date.Found primarily in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, the rapid disappearance of the bears' habitat has seen the population decline drastically. The key aim of the centre is to promote conservation in the region and be self-funding through a visitors' programme. Profits will go to rehabilitate and release orphaned or ex-captive Sun Bears back into the wild, as well as educating the public and raising awareness about the species.
The man behind this unique initiative is Siew Te Wong, a Malaysian wildlife biologist and leading Sun Bear expert. It was his research that first revealed the the plight of these elusive creatures; the smallest of the world's eight bear species. He founded the conservation centre in 2008 and has been directly involved in the rescue of those in captivity, where they are often kept as pets.
"I consider myself very lucky to be able to study and observe them in the wild," says Wong. "They belong to the forest, not behind bars. Seeing them released into the forest enclosure is the first step towards giving them a better life."
Key to the initiative is leading partner LEAP - Land Empowerment Animals People, who work with two government bodies, the Department of Forestry and the Department of Wildlife. The venture has also gained significant support from Raleigh International - a leading youth and education charity, based in the UK, who offer volunteering opportunities on sustainable projects worldwide.
Since 2009 Raleigh groups have been helping to construct perimeter fencing for the new enclosure and build a bridge to provide visitor access to the grounds. Upcoming work includes the completion of trails and board walks so the bears can be viewed in their natural habitats.
Eventually, most of the residents will be reintroduced back into the wild. But those who have weak eyesight or are not fit enough, will remain at the centre and be well looked after by its enthusiastic and committed volunteers.
"I am so pleased that I have kept the promise I made to these bears six years ago - a new home and a new life," says Wong, adding: "To me, they are just like good old friends."
Contact: Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre, PPM 219, Elopura, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
Wai Pak, project manager, helping
a young bear adapt to her new home
Photo: copyright Charlie Hoare charliehoare.com