A sanctuary and refuge for rescued orphans to grow up wild, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre has big hopes for the world’s smallest bear.
ONE SUNNY DAY
In a tropical rainforest in Borneo, bear keeper Jeniur “Boboy” Justin is standing on a watching platform 20m above the dense forest floor. He is observing Logan, a young male sun bear who’s busy trying to crack open a coconut. Logan’s claws and powerful jaw make short work of the tough shell, and after a refreshing drink, Logan lays on his back for an afternoon siesta.
“Logan loves to eat, he will steal other bears’ food. He has become chubby, ” says Boboy with a laugh.
Logan and his keeper, Boboy are in the forested area of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sandakan, a district in Sabah, East Malaysia. The only centre in the world solely dedicated to the conservation of the sun bear. This has been a refuge for Logan since he was rescued in 2018 as a young cub.
“When Logan first arrived, I could see that he was scared. We found that his left paw had a problem. It got injured in a poacher’s snare,” says Boboy.
Being a young cub without his mother, and with an injured paw, Logan was in need of critical care, and it was Boboy who took on the responsibility of looking after him.
“It’s not easy being a surrogate to Logan,” Boboy reflects. “There are a lot of things we need to know, like how bears, especially babies, can survive in the jungle, how we should teach them to be wild.”
It took months of dedicated care from Boboy for Logan to become confident and capable of fending for himself.
A DARK CLOUD
Logan’s plight is far from an isolated incident. Since BSBCC was set up in 2008, the centre has worked with the state wildlife department, to rescue over 60 bears.
“On average, we have five to six bears being sent to our centre every year; half of them are adults and half of them are cubs. All of these animals are all orphaned, because their mums were killed by poachers,” laments Dr Wong Siew Te (who goes by Wong), founder of the BSBCC.
Sun bears, which are the world’s smallest bear and found all across Southeast Asia, are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Though the exact numbers of sun bears remains unverified, studies have shown that their population has fallen by over 30 per cent in the last three decades.
Habitat loss has been a major factor in this, but the biggest threat that the bears currently face is from poaching for industries like the pet trade and food. Despite being a legally protected species in Malaysia, poaching activities still persist.
One of the biggest current threats, comes from their use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). For centuries, bear bile and gall bladders have been sought after for treating a variety of ailments. A recent report by TRAFFIC, stated that almost 70 per cent of all TCM shops in Malaysia were found with some form of bear products. Up from 2012, when it was at 48 per cent.
But while the use of bear products in TCM has increased, so has knowledge of TCM over the years. There is now a realisation that there are viable and healthy alternatives to using wildlife products. The Federation of Chinese Physicians and Medicine Dealers Association of Malaysia, is advocating for the use of medical herbs instead.
“We can completely use medicinal herbs to replace animals” states Ng Kean Hwa, a second-generation TCM practitioner. “With a clear diagnosis, and when used appropriately, it can directly help achieve the curative effect and is a good form of protection towards the natural environment.”
The value of looking after sun bears and not exploiting them isn’t just for the benefit of the bears. Sun bears provide a very tangible benefit to the welfare of people as well.
Sun bears help maintain a healthy diversity of trees by keeping termite populations in check, and dispersing seeds. These trees are essential resources that people use for medicine, building infrastructure, and other needs that are important to the well-being of society.
“For us as humans, we need a healthy forest ecosystem to provide us with clean air, clean water, stable climate, genetic resources like medicine. All of these matter to us,” says Wong.
To help educate the public on the need to conserve sun bears, Wong has opened the centre for the public to view the bears in a forested enclosure, and to raise public awareness about their plight through education and eco-tourism.
Here, the bears are fed their natural diet and have regular medical and dental check-ups. Rehabilitation is a critical component of BSBCC’s work, and when the bears are suitable for release, they are returned to the wild. To date, BSBCC has successfully released seven sun bears into protected forests.
“My hope for all sun bears is that they can survive for a long, long time in Southeast Asia,” declares Wong. “I really hope that the sun bears can live forever in this world.”
RAYS OF HOPE
Back at the platform, Logan has woken from his nap and is climbing a tree in search of something else to eat. Boboy smiles as any proud parent would, and shares a story of when he had to teach Logan the art of tree-climbing.
“There was one time I climbed a small tree, and the tree wasn’t able to support me, and the branch almost broke. What I was most afraid of was that Logan was just below me, and I feared I would be crushed along with Logan,” he shares with a laugh.
“Logan’s hand was weak when it came to climbing trees, but he still challenged himself and refused to give up. That’s why I like Logan. I have spent all this time working with him and our relationship is so close.”
Today, Logan is a master tree climber, despite having a deformed paw. But Boboy has bigger hopes for his "adopted" bear. “In time, we will try our best to fix Logan’s paw… so he can be like other bears, and be released into the wild.”
The desire for the sun bears to see a new dawn, is one that Boboy wishes all Malaysians will come to embrace. “I hope that everyone can work together to protect and care for the wild animals we have. I hope that one day, my children will have the opportunity to see the sun bear in the wild.”
Before he returns to look after the rest of the bears under his care, Boboy has one last story to share. “We gave him the name Logan because of his left paw. It looks like the comic superhero Wolverine’s claw,” says Boboy with a smile.
High up in the trees, Logan has found a comfortable spot, and like a true hero, has fallen asleep once again.
LET’S TALK ABOUT IT:
How can we get more involved in sun bear conservation and spread awareness?
ABOUT BORNEAN SUN BEAR CONSERVATION CENTREEstablished in 2008 by wildlife biologist Dr Wong Siew Te, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is the world’s only conservation and research centre solely dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of the Malayan sun bear. A sanctuary for bears to recuperate and relearn natural behaviour for release back into the wild, the centre also aims to spread public awareness through eco-tourism and education.
CONTRIBUTORSDirector & Editor
Producer & Writer
By BORNEOTODAY REPORTERS
KOTA KINABALU: International and local scientists, government officers as well as NGO players convened for the past two days at a local hotel here to identify major recommendations for the conservation of the Malayan sun bear in Sabah.
These will be included in a State Action Plan, just a few months after three other plans, for the proboscis monkey, the Sunda clouded leopard and the Bornean banteng, were approved by the State Cabinet.
For the next two days, Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) and Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) are jointly organizing the 2nd International Symposium on Sun Bear Conservation and Management.
Experts from the region will present updates on sun bear population status in the different species range countries such as Cambodia, India, Indonesia (Sumatra and Kalimantan), Lao, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam and West Malaysia, said Dr Wong Siew Te, CEO of BSBCC.
“Several open forums will present the opportunity to discuss some critical issues on sun bear conservation such as poaching and trade; sun bear release, translocation and monitoring; sun bear captive breeding; implementation of Global Status Review and Sun Bear Conservation Action Plan; and ex-situ research prioritization,”he said.
“On the second day of the symposium, we will present to the different stakeholders the several recommendations we plan to include in a Sun Bear Action Plan for Sabah.”
ProfessorBenoit Goossens, DGFC director said they hoped to come up with a long-term vision for the future of the sun bears in the wild in Sabah.
“Uncontrolled hunting of sun bears for Traditional Chinese Medicine, pet trade and habitat loss and fragmentation are considered to be the major threats to the survival of the sun bear in Sabah,” added Professor Goossens.
“It is therefore critical to increase effectiveness of enforcement on the ground, improve the intelligence of the different government departments, and establish connectivity between sun bear populations in the state.”
For the past year, the Sabah Wildlife Department has worked with its partners to produce conservation action plans for most of the Schedule 1’s (Totally Protected) terrestrial species.
Last May, the State Cabinet adopted the proboscis monkey, Sunda clouded leopard and Bornean banteng action plans 2019-2028.
The Elephant Action Plan and Orangutan Action Plan 2020-2029 are being finalized, and focus is now on producing the Sun Bear Action Plan 2020-2029.
“It is crucial that those three new plans are adopted and implemented by the Sabah state government as they are backed by scientific research and expert opinions as well as input from industry leaders and several government departments,” added Professor Goossens.
The Technical Working Group Meeting on the Sun Bear Action Plan and the 2nd International Symposium on Sun Bear Conservation and Management were funded by BSBCC and DGFC.
The organizations that contributed to the two-day technical working group meeting on the sun bear action plan were Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department, Sabah Foundation, Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Danau Girang Field Centre, WWF Malaysia, TRAFFIC, Animals Asia, Free the Bears and Sunway University.
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