Text by Amanda Wilson
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Among many male bears at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), one particular bear stands out in spite of his quirks and cheekiness. He has an exceptionally smaller, snout and rounded body size for a male bear. With pitch black eyes and a nose that may appear bigger than it actually is due to his dark-coloured snout, he is actually a simple, adorable and kind-natured bear. At 12 years old, BSBCC has been his home for the past 6 years. He was named after the logging camp where he was rescued from – Seagalung, but the spelling came to be Sigalung in the end.
According to reports, some villagers found Sigalung along with another adult male bear, Phin, near the logging camp in Sipitang, Sabah. They were assumed to be orphan bears kept as illegal pets after their mother got killed. Initially, both bears were rescued and brought to the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park where they underwent quarantine period before being sent to BSBCC on the 10th of March 2014. Sigalung appeared healthy when he first arrived alongside five other bears at the centre. Like most bears upon arrival at the centre, he barked at people and appeared to be aggressive at seeing a new environment. When he was moved by transportation cage into the then newly built second bear house, he was belligerent.
He has since adapted well to his new surroundings. Sigalung has now blossomed into a different bear who is intuitive, energetic and adventurous. When he is excited, especially when he knows he will be receiving enrichments, he will cling onto the metal bars of his indoor den and whip his head side to side. He, at times, will get enticed at the presence of other male bears. He gets cheekier by day and we love to see how much he is grown into his character. Sigalung is one of the healthiest bears in the centre and we hope his health continues to flourish as he embraces adulthood.
Any wild animal kept as an illegal pet and confined for years would surely be impacted in their natural behaviour, whether physically or psychologically. At the centre, he does not only get to experience the natural forest environment, he gets to meet other bear friends, receives a sufficiently healthy diet under supervision of veterinarians and keepers, as well as enrichments to cater for his bear needs. Enrichments not only help to keep him occupied, but also to learn adequate survival skills that are vital in his rehabilitation process before being released to the wild.
For male bears to be integrated with other male bears, it is not an easy task. Adult males get very territorial and aggressive. Sigalung was only ever integrated with one male bear, Phin, his old pal back in 2014. However, the process was unsuccessful due to Sigalung’s aggression as he played too roughly with Phin.
When he initially arrived at the centre, Sigalung was hesitant and scared of going out into the forest enclosure to explore. Nowadays, whenever the guillotine door is opened, he shows eagerness and anticipation to step out into the natural forest environment. He would directly bolt for the forest that is calling out to him even when its drizzling out. In the forest enclosure, he loves to dig, forage and explore nature at its finest. He would hide in bushes or piles of dead wood and likes taking cover under the shade of fallen trees and branches. Although it took him about 2 years to be integrated into the training pen for the purpose of fence training, his first step into the forest was a memorable one thanks to the staff and volunteers who were patient, determined and consistent in their efforts. Finally, on July 27th 2017, he conquered his fear, set his paws on the grass after so long and is now enjoying the taste of freedom in the forest - exploring and doing what bears do best!
Sigalung and his kind are one of the many treasures in our ecosystem. Sun bears are precious beings that deserve so much love! However, due to their elusive and solitary behaviour, they were called the forgotten bears for a reason. Up until recent years, not much has been known about sun bears, be it general knowledge and awareness or scientific research. They are important to the forest as they are agents of seed dispersal, they control the termite population, keep the forest environment healthy, and their digging enhances nutrient cycling in soils as well as provides habitats for other animals in their excavated holes in trees.
The prime reason of their declining population here in Malaysia is pet trade. Orphaned sun bears whose mothers are almost always killed by poachers are kept in captivity since a very young age. These bear cubs who are dependent on their mothers do not get exposure to the very skills that help them to learn how to survive in the forest. People intending to keep sun bears as pets might think that they’re cute as cubs but once they get bigger, it gets tougher to contain them and people might get hurt or worse - the bears. There have been cases of people going to the extent of depriving these bears of their canines or claws to ensure the owner’s safety, but forget that the bears need these essentials to survive in the wild. Keeping the bears as pets is the very first breach in nature. Rehabilitation is a very lengthy and complicated process and often, rescued bears kept in captivity for too long reduces their chances of being rehabilitated and released back into the wild.
The forest ecosystem provides for the various species of fauna including sun bears that thrive by giving back to nature through their natural bear behaviours. Let’s be like sun bears and be more mindful of our actions towards nature and other creatures! Sun bears may be cute, but they are not pets!