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/