Text by Seng Yen Wah & Chiew Lin May
Photos by Tee Thye Lim & Chiew Lin May
One day in May 2008, a one year old female sun bear cub came from Lok Kawi Wildlife Zoo named Lawa to Sepilok. She had a beautiful face which would catch your eye. But, how does such a gorgeous bear end up at Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre? Normally, cubs stay with their mothers until they are two to three years old. However, in Lawa's case, she was separated cruelly by killing the mother in order to get a cute sun bear cub, kept illegal as pet or sold on the illegal wildlife pet trade. Sun bear populations are estimated to have declined over 30% in the last three decades, leading for those bears being in danger of imminent extinction in the wild very real. Now, sun bears have been stated as totally protected species under Sabah Wildlife Enactment in 1997. People who keep them illegally and hunting them, will be fined up to RM50,000 and can be send to jail for 5 years, or both.
Lawa lost her mother when she was still a cub. She had no chance to learn the natural survival skills from her mother. The BSBCC provided her with a second chance, reintroducing her to natural forest enclosures. Lawa has grown into a smart, agile and independent bear. She is now nine years old, weighs 40.5kg. She has spend most of her days eagerly exploring up in the trees. She can make beautiful tree nests by using liana and tree branches. Nest building is one of the important but rare survival skills of a wild bear. After six years going through rehabilitation at the BSBCC there is now a happy ending for Lawa as she has acquired many vital survival skills and she is ready to return to her real forest home.
Release candidates are chosen based on their age and survival skills. They have to be fit in four conditions, they need to know how to forage, climb, nest building and lastly, the most important condition is they need to not attach to human and know how to avoid humans, in order to be at low risk of being killed by poachers or turn into a nuisance bear.
On 24th July 2016, the BSBCC is preparing the final stage for the release of Lawa to a core area of Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Located in the Lahad Datu, Sabah encompasses 120500 hectares of pristine rainforest. Before the big day, the bear team again needed to find Lawa in Pen G at 4 pm. Dr. Rosa Sipangkui, a veterinarian from the Sabah Wildlife Department, sedated Lawa. Once sedated, Lawa was moved from Pen G to bear house in order to undergo a full medical examination to ensure she is in good health before her release. Besides that, Wong Siew Te, BSBCC Founder and CEO made sure that Lawa’s satellite collar is functioning and well fitted on her. Finally, Lawa was moved into the translocation cage. She was then placed at the bear house area for a night. Our bear care keepers spent the night monitoring Lawa. She might not have known it, but after today her life will be totally different!
It is time to go! On 25th July 2016, when it was still dark, the bear release team was getting ready to depart from Sandakan to Tabin Wildlife Reserves on two trucks, taking Lawa to her second chance in the wild. The release team started in full force for the release of second sun bear back into the wild.
The team arrived at Tabin Wildlife Reserve Headquarter at 8.15 am. The morning sun and clear sky reminded us to start moving.
This year our release team will be using helicopter model Sabah Air Aviation Sdn Bhd (Bell 206 B3) Jetranger Underslung to reach our final destination.
We made the final release preparation and inspections to ensure the safety. The operation was split into two difference trips. The first trips, the team entered the mud volcano of Tabin forest to evaluate and identify the suitable release site.
They checked the wrapping net thoroughly. After final checks on Lawa by Dr. Rosa and Wong Siew Te, the team took the transportation cage and loaded it into the wrapping net. The process went smooth.
At 10.15 am, Wong Siew Te (BSBCC CEO & Founder) and Lawa was finally lifted up into the blue sky, heading to Tabin mud volcano. At 10.35 am, Bell 206 Jetranger that carrying Lawa landed safely on the Tabin mud volcano.
The arrival of Lawa was greeted by the sound of birds in Tabin Widlife Reserve. The sights, sounds and smells of Tabin Wildlife Reserve will be very new for Lawa. Immediately Lawa was taken to the release side by BSBCC team. Lawa looked well rested, happy and ready. She realized there were so many higher trees in pristine rainforest around her. She will soon free and ready to live a new life as a true wild sun bear!
After everything was set up, the moment to open the door and let Lawa take a deep breath with the sense of freedom arrived. Once the translocation cage was opened at 11.10 am , Lawa run out of the cage quickly. She was very fast, directly heading into the deep forest! We hope the best for her now! She will be starting to explore, forage and adjust to her new habitat. It was an emotional moment for all of us watching her walk away from the transportation cage and – off course - us. One moment we could still see her and at the blink of an eye, she disappeared into the tall trees. She finally home, in the forest. Enjoy your freedom Lawa! May you have a long and happy life there! Our bear care team will carefully monitor her progress via her satellite collar.
Sun bears are forest animals. They are playing important roles in the forest. They are forest gardeners. After they consume fruits, they travel along and disperse the seeds in the forest. They carry the seeds away from the mother tree, so that the seed has a higher survival rate. Next, they are forest engineers. Sun bears are excellent climber. One of the reasons that they climb up a tree is because they want to harvest the honey from bee hives. They will use their strong canine and sharp claws to tear off the tree trunk and get the honey inside. After that, it will create a cavity that provides a resting place to other animals like hornbills and flying squirrel. Besides that, they also are forest doctors. Termites are small insects which eventually cause a tree to get sick or die. This is because some termite species will build their nest inside the trees. But, sun bears eat termites. So, sun bears can help to control the population of termites and keep the forest healthy. Last but not least, they are forest farmers, because they are good diggers. They do a lot of digging which can actually help to mix up poor soil and rich soil to enhance the nutrient cycle in the forest. And, that is why we call them “the keystone species”. Lawa is now been released in the forest. She is carrying out a very important task. This is what she needs, the forest and the freedom.
We would like to take this opportunity to say a huge Thank Yous to the most amazing partner, the Sabah Wildlife Department, Dr.Rosa Sipangkui, the Sabah Forestry Department, LEAP, the Tabin Rangers, the BSBCC team, our volunteers and Brad Josephs who help fundraise and Kynite Filming Crews who helped and supported us generously with Lawa’s release. Thanks to the years of hard work spent rehabilitating Lawa, she will have the opportunity to roam free in the wild, back where she belongs. Reintroduction programs for sun bears are very costly. We need your support to protect this magnificent species from extinction. Help us release more sun bear back to wild by donating at www.bsbcc.org.my. You can make a difference in the future survival of sun bears!