Text by Chiew Lin May
Photos by Tee Thye Lim and Chiew Lin May
The sun bear is the smallest and least studied of the eight bear species in the world. Unfortunately, the number of sun bears is declining. Their population has decreased by 30 percent over the past 30 years and they are listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The causes for this decline are illegal poaching, illegal pet trade and habitat loss, putting their future in jeopardy.
Our project of studying the wild sun bears in Tabin Wildlife Reserve has kicked off!!
Currently Thye Lim is running the project for his masters at Sunway University, and he is conducting this study to estimate the population density of sun bear. The study will be conducted in the biggest forest reserve in Sabah (Latitude 5°12’51”N and Longitude 118° 43’11”E). Tabin Wildlife Reserve was gazetted in 1984.
A total of twenty camera traps will be in use (Moultrie M-999i). One camera will be placed at each station. To increase the detection of sun bears, we set up camera traps along animal trails and on trees which had any signs of sun bears (e.g. claw marks), or on fig trees.
Type of bear signs :
This study is supported by the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), Lancaster University (UK) and Sunway University (Malaysia). This is a collaborative project by Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department and BSBCC.
There are fantastic pictures which have been taken by camera traps during our sun bear study and we will keep you updated on more photos as they come!
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
Man on a Mission
Contributor: wong siew te
Occupation: doctorate student, university of montana; founder and ceo, bornean sun bear conservation centre; wildlife biologist, conservationist
Base: missoula, montana, usa
I.M….an animal lover all my life
Not many people start out with a clear-cut idea of what they hope to achieve in life. for wildlife biologist and conservationist wong siew te, however, his passion for animals is something that he has carried with him throughout his life. this passion has led him to taiwan, the us, and eventually, to sabah to work with the elusive sun bears.
I’VE BEEN AN ANIMAL LOVER SINCE YOUNG!
I was born into a big family of 9 siblings and grew up in Bukit Mertajam, Penang state. I started out like everyone else until I went to Taiwan to pursue a diploma in Animal Husbandry and Veterinary in 1989. Four years later, I continued my bachelor degree in US, majoring in something that is not familiar to most Malaysians - Wildlife Biology. I’ve stayed to pursue that course since then, obtaining my Master’s degree and finally my Doctorate degree.
I have always been an animal lover from very young. Over the years, I kept a lot of pets, including many other sparrows and common mynahs (that I ‘rescued’ after they’d fallen from their nests), fishes, cats, dogs, turtles, mice, and insects such as spiders, praying mantis, and scorpions. In my teenage years, I started to breed birds, fish and dogs. I never got tired of observing them, especially during the process of breeding, developing and growing. To me, this process was something amazing, and I couldn’t think of anything better than spending my life living closely with them and watching them all day long.
“That pair of binoculars opened my eyes to the world of wildlife animals that are not confined to cages, iron bars, and chains.”
WILDLIFE IS BEING THREATENED
At 18, I bought my first binoculars and started watching wild birds without knowing that there was such an outdoor activity called ‘bird-watching’ that millions of birders across the world were passionate about. That pair of binoculars opened my eyes to the world of wildlife animals that are not confined to cages, iron bars, and chains. They seemed much happier; they lived freely – flying, swimming, running and jumping any where they wanted.
It was not until a few years later that I was introduced to proper bird watching activities, during my stint in Taiwan when I joined the Student Chapter of the Bird Watching Society. Besides watching pretty birds and the beauty of nature through our binoculars, we also saw a lot of unlawful poaching and killing of wild birds, other wildlife, and destruction of wildlife habitat. It was then that my eyes were opened to the fact that wildlife is being threatened by all kinds of human activities.
A PASSION FOR CONSERVATION
Since Standard One, I always filled up the ‘Ambition’ column in the student personal information card with ‘Animal Expert’ or ‘Veterinarian’. I wanted to work closely with animals when I grew up, and those were the only two occupations I could think of that involved such work. During primary school and high school, I never considered pursuing any other field. Because of that, I stayed focused on what my interest is and what I do best and know best. After years of experience working with pets, livestock, and wildlife, I have chosen conserving wildlife as my lifelong mission.
After my SPM, I was aiming for UPM’s Animal Husbandry diploma program but failed. After STPM, I applied for the Veterinary Program in UPM but unfortunately, my attempts were deterred again. Without much choice, I went to Taiwan. In Taiwan, I completed the Animal Husbandry and Veterinary program and learned a lot about the industry. At the end of my study, a wildlife professor from our university was looking for a research assistant to help him conduct various wildlife surveys and research work. I enjoyed working with wildlife and being stationed in the field (forest), which most people dislike or find difficult. Eventually, I conducted my own field research for my M.Sc and PhD project to become a field biologist. It was during this period of time that I was introduced to wildlife conservation and decided that this was what I really wanted to do with my life. I then took up the venture in the US. During my first year in the US (1995), I was given the opportunity to study the Sun Bears in Sabah, which led to what I am doing today.
SACRIFICES ALONG THE WAY
Over the years, I made a lot of sacrifices. Firstly of course, is all the money I’ve spent to pay for my education. Unlike other international students who studied natural resources-related fields (the field that my course of study falls under) that have government scholarships and support, my education was wholly self-funded. I spent a lot of time and effort working to pay school fees and am still doing it till today. The fees also put a lot of pressure on my family who helped support me all these years. I am grateful and thankful to all of them as without their support and help, I would not be able to study abroad and do what I am doing now. Another sacrifice I’ve had to make is living apart from my family. Since 2005, I was separated from my family – two daughters and my wife – for 3 years when I was living in the forest to conduct my field work on sun bears and bearded pigs.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN RA
What exactly a field biologist/research assistant (RA) does in the field depends on the nature of the research. When I was an RA conducting wildlife surveys in Taiwan, my typical field day would start early, before 5 AM. I’d prepare breakfast and a packed lunch at the camp site, arrive at the transects at dawn, and start recording all the birds that I saw and heard. After that, I’d check all the live traps I set the day before for any small mammals or service camera traps. After dinner at night, I would go out to look for amphibians and reptiles (yes, frogs and snakes!). Sometimes I was accompanied by other RAs or student; sometimes I worked alone.
In 1995, I worked as an RA studying birds and bats in West Malaysian rainforest. We start the day at 6 AM opening mist nests in the forest before breakfast. We had our breakfast after all the mist nests were opened to catch birds. Then the rest of the day would be spent going around the net line (2.5 km long), bringing down the birds caught on mist nets, and putting coloured rings and bands on them. We would do this till dusk, then we would close all the bird nets and open the bat traps. After dinner, we would start to check bat traps and process the bats caught. After 12 AM, we would have our shower in the creek beside our forest camp. I was never alone when I bathed in the creek. With the faint light from my head lamp, I could always spot frogs and their predators – snakes, all around me!
When I studied sun bears in Sabah, my day would start at 7 AM or earlier. We would start the day by checking bear traps. I ‘processed’ the animals, if we caught any target animals in the traps. If not, I tracked down a particular radio-collared bear with radio-telemetry equipment to study what these bears do. After dinner, I would be working with data, doing computer work and making preparations for the next day.
“The rewarding part is when we’re able to send those bears back into the wild and see them start to reproduce and have a life back in the wild.”
ON A MISSION TO SAVE THE SUN BEARS
The opportunity of studying sun bears was given to me in 1994 when I first came to the US to pursue my undergraduate degree majoring in wildlife biology. Dr. Christopher Servheen, the then co-chair of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group and a renowned bear biologist from University 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 of radio-tracking large mammals and a strong interest to study wildlife, I took up his offer and began to prepare myself for the next three years to conduct the first ecological study of sun bears. At the same time, I wanted to learn as much as possible of the conservation issues facing wild and captive sun bears.
In 1998, I started my 3-year field work to study the basic ecology of sun bears as my Master of Science thesis project. I was stationed at Danum Valley Field Centre, Sabah. The study not only revealed the elusive life history and ecology of sun bears in a tropical rainforest for the first time, but also exposed more questions and challenges of sun bear survival due to human disturbances in sun bear habitat, such as logging and other issues. I decided to continue my work with sun bears upon finishing my Masters 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 pressing issues. I did a lot of education work and helped some very unfortunate captive sun bears as much as I could.
Since then, more conservation attention has been given to this species. For the past 10 years, there were only three conservation projects involving sun bears, but in 2009, three more projects were started. Nevertheless, sun bears still remain among the most neglected bear and large mammal species in Southeast Asia and a lot more conservation issues still need to be addressed to help this bear.
One of the biggest challenges we face is always finding funds, because how much work can actually be done depends on how much funding we receive. Another challenge is finding the right people. In order to do good work, you need to find good people who are capable of doing the work. In Malaysia, there is not much ground for training aspiring wildlife biologists. There is not enough knowledge or passion for wildlife conservation/research work, and a lot of conservation work being done in Malaysia is done by foreigners, because our own people do not have the passion or the training for it.
“If I can save a species from extinction, I’ll do it. If I can change or influence someone’s opinion about conservation, I’ll do it. Life is short; this is my mission.”
THE BORNEAN SUN BEAR CONSERVATION CENTRE
There are two issues that inspired me to found the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). The first is the fact that there are many sun bears being kept as pets in bad conditions. Sun bears kept in government facilities face equally bad conditions. Secondly, very few people know about sun bears, and there is a need to educate as many people as possible about this species.
What the BSBCC is striving to do is to:
THE MOST REWARDING PART OF MY WORK
We try to rescue bears kept in small cages/as pets. The rewarding part is when we’re able to send those bears back into the wild and see them start to reproduce and have a life back in the wild. In terms of research work, finding the scientific data is also rewarding.
ADVICE FOR ASPIRING CONSERVATIONISTS/WILDLIFE BIOLOGISTS
This field requires many people with different backgrounds and skills. Anyone can do it and get involved as long as they have the passion, which is by far the most important element, although a degree in a related field is an advantage. However, with internet becoming the main source of information these days, anyone can learn a lot from websites. They can get involved with conservation projects to gain the first hand experiences and broaden their knowledge.
Finally, never give up. Everything I am doing and have achieved today is all because of my stubbornness. I identified my course and stayed the course even if it seemed like Mission Impossible at first. We might take detours along the way, but as long as we work hard, we’ll get there.
WILL I EVER GIVE UP WORKING WITH SUN BEARS?
No. This is it for me – there is so much work to be done especially in Malaysia, and sun bears are my focus, and has been my focus for the last 10 years. Eventually I’d like to work with conserving wildlife and also their habitats in Malaysia and Asia. It’s not going to be easy – it’s a big and optimistic goal, but this is what I want to do. If I can conserve a forest, I’ll do it. If I can save a species from extinction, I’ll do it. If I can change or influence someone’s opinion about conservation, I’ll do it. Life is short; this is my mission. To me, leaving a legacy for future generations to enjoy is worth my effort and worth my life.
YOU CAN HELP SAVE THE SUN BEARS!
There are several ways to help: Donate funds. All conservation projects require funding to conduct their conservation programs. You can support and donate funds to the Bornean Sun Bear Censervation Centre. For more information about the centre, visit www.leapspiral.org/new/content/project07.html or http://www.bsbcc.org.my/
Have you seen a sun bear building a tree nest? I bet you have NOT!
Many people not even know about sun bear or seen a sun bear, let alone seeing one of them making a nest high on top of the trees.
Here is a rare opportunity of a lifetime to see a radio-collar sun bear building a nest in the rainforest of Borneo.
Don’t blink and please hold your breath until the end of the video.
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Sun bears in the wild make nest on tree and sleep on these tree nest like orangutans. However, nest building behavior is more common in forest where human disturbance is higher and large terrestrial predators like tigers, and leopards are presence. It makes sense for sun bears to make such tree nest and sleep on high on tree, some as high as 40 meters (128 feet) because it is much safer and dryer on top of tree. These nests usually consist of a pile of tree branches and twigs that are band over from the surrounding centered at a tree fork that close to the main trunk. The diameter of these tree nests ranges from a 1 to 2 meter. Unlike orangutan nest, sun bear rarely snap branches or break branches close by. I still lack of evident that they reuse these tree nests, and believe that they construct new nest every time they need one because wild sun bears tend to wonder a large range, unless there are important food resources available like a fruiting fig tree in the forest. Under this situation, sun bears tend to hang around the area until the food resource is depleted and they have to move on to forage for food. Although the metal baskets that we provide for our captive bears are very different from the natural nest, these bears still love them because these baskets give them a dry, safe, and cozy bed.
You can read more about the nest building behavior in my earlier blog:
It all begins at the fall of 1989 when I first came to Taiwan from Malaysia to continue by college education. I recalled it was the second day of my college life in National Pingtung Agriculture College when I saw the poster of Bird Watching Club (BWC), posted at the notice board of the 1st Restaurant, announcing its first meeting of the semester and recruitment for new members. The poster caught my attention because of the word “Bird”. At that time, I never knew there was an activity call “bird watching”. What I did know about birds was keeping cage birds for amusing or bird singing, the hobby that I have been doing for few years at that time-keeping and breeding birds. The first impression after seeing that poster was “what a COOL student club!” As always, the first feeling toward something is always the right of choice: I am going to join them!
To sun bear researchers,
I hope you all agree with me that research on sun bears is seriously lack behind many endangered species and time is running out for sun bears as the habitat and the animal itself are declining in an alarming rate.
Sun bear still remains the least known bear in the world. Over the past few months there have been several students and researchers in Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia contacted me about their plans to study sun bears. This is very good news for all of us who love this animal so much. Over the last 10 years I am one of the very few people who studying sun bear in the wild. Thus, I am so happy to see the change now, as many of you want to study sun bears! I have been in contact with most of you and answered questions and help you with all of the resources I have individually. I am very happy to help you all in whatever way I could.
However, because some of you are studying the same aspects and may have similar questions on your study, I think it is time and good for us to help each other by SHARING information and resources. I strongly believe that this is the way to help our understanding on this species without showing selfishness on individual studies but to open up our heart to seek the best information on sun bear that will eventually aid the conservation and research on sun bear in SE Asia. Therefore, I started a discussion group on “Save the Sun Bear” at http://borneozoology.ning.com/group/savethesunbears.
This site http://borneozoology.ning.com/ is started by Dr. Tajjudin Mohd from University Malaysia Sarawak, in the hope of providing a space for students, teachers, zoologists, etc., to discuss topics of their interest in zoology, biology, ecology and anything that we are interested with. So please join us and start the discussion, NOW.
Beside Gabriella and me studying sun bear in the wild in 1998-2001, the third student who studied sun bear at the same time was Fuyuki Nomura. Fuyuki was a doctorate student from Hokkaido University, Graduate School of Environmental Science, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan. He studied sun bear ecology and sun bear usage of oil plan plantation at Tabin Wildlife Reserve, eastern tip of Sabah. Among three of us, Fuyuki caught and radio-collared the first sun bear in Borneo in early 1999 and successfully caught 2 males and 2 females sun bears for his study:
Nomura, F., S. Higashi, L. Ambu, and M. Mohamed. 2004. Notes on oil palm plantation use and seasonal spatial relationships of sun bears in Sabah, Malaysia. Ursus 15:227–231.
The first scientific paper on sun bear was not published by any three of us who were studying sun bear in the wild in late 90’s. It was a paper published by Kim McConkey in 1999 describing how sun bear play an important role as seed disperser in Bornean rainforest. Kim was at that time doing her doctorate dissertation with University of Cambridge, in rainforest of Barito Ulu, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia Borneo.
Yesterday as I was up dating my resume, my mentor who is also my first employer in the field of wildlife conservation, Prof Kurtis Pei from Taiwan, sent me an old photo of me taken way back in 1992 when I was working with him. This photo really brought up a lot of good memories of my younger days working in the field. Yes, I was young, energetic, and full of passion and enthusiasm to do wildlife research and conservation work.
I was holding a radio-collared male Formosan Reeve’s muntjac at Little Ghost Lake Forest Reserve some 2000 m above sea level. I was about to release this muntjac or barking deer after our aborigines guide caught him and I fitted him with a radio-collar. The study was the first radio-telemetry study of this species in the mountainous forest of Taiwan. It was the beginning of my life working in the forest and working with wildlife. The project pretty much changed my life and career. From then onward, I was doing nothing but to study wildlife and working closely with wild animals for the following 16 years until now.
I know what you are thinking. Yes, it was me in the photo!
Looking back at my long list of resume, I was young once, doing what I love and doing what I believe to be the right thing to do.
You can read more about the study at:
McCullough, D. R., K. C. J. Pei, and Y. Wang. 2000. Home range, activity patterns, and habitat relations of Reeves' muntjacs in Taiwan . Journal Wildlife Management 64(2): 430-441.
Today is already the first day of December 2008. Sun bear still remains the least know bear in the world. Almost everyone know about bears. They know polar bears, grizzly bears, American black bears and giant pandas because these are the bears that they seen in the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, National Geographic Channel, movies, advertisements, bill board, news articles or any kind of mass media you can think of. A small portion of the people know Andean or spectacle bears from South American, sloth bears from India, and Asiatic black bears from Asia. However, only very few people know about sun bears. This is a sad fact.
One of the biggest reasons for sun bear remains so little known is the lack of biological studies on this species. Until now, there are only 3 ecological studies that involved trapping and radio-collaring of wild sun bear in the world. One of them is my study base in Danum Valley Field Center and Ulu Segama Forest Reserve, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo. I did my Master of Science (MSc) project on studying the ecology of sun bear from 1998 – 2000, and then continued the study, by looking at the effects of logging on sun bear and bearded pigs for my doctorate degree.