"The best enrichment for a captive sun bear is another sun bear, if they get along well" is what I believing in now. In the past when I studied wild sun bears in the forest, they always have solitary lifestyle for a good reason: food in the forest is always scarce and not enough to feed many mouths. However, their solitary behavior may change when they are at a fruiting fig tree where fruits (food) are over abundance in a short period of time.
Sun bears are very much like the orangutans. Orangutans are the only great apes that live solitarily, at least most of the time. For great apes (two species of chimpanzees, two species of gorillas, and two species of orangutans), there are many benefits to live as a social/family group. However, because of the food scarcity in the rainforest of Borneo and Sumatra in general, they have no choice but to have a solitary lifestyle. Few weeks ago, I saw three sub-adult orangutans on a fruiting tree. They fed on the fruits of the tree when they were hungry and played and hang-around together for few days. The fruit tree attracted the orangutans far away for the feast (orangutans are important seed dispersers), but at the same time give them the opportunity to meet one another.
When I did my wild sun bear studies, I spent up to few months trying to trap them in the forest. Once I trapped them, I sedated them, put a radio-collar, collected some biological samples, and released them after an hour or two of handling episodes. My jobs thereafter were to track them down in the forest. Some of them I never got to see them again. Few of them, on very lucky circumstances, I observed them for few seconds through the thick vegetation. All of the evident that I collected from the wild sun bears indicated that they were solitary, except in one occasion: fruiting fig tree where few sun bears and other wildlife feast on a same tree. This is why I believe sun bears in the wild are solitary.
After I set up Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, I have the opportunity to observe many sun bears up close and personal. These captive sun bears display a very unique behavior that is very different from what I learned from the wild bears: they are social. They love to social. They love to interact and play with one another, just like the three wild orangutans I saw few weeks ago in the forest. The biggest reason for this social behavior in captivity is because food is not limited and they do not have a reason to compete for food. However, they have a hierarchy status and personality where this bear will never get along with that bear, etc. In short, observing these bears slowly convince me that sun bear are social animals.
Anyway, back to Fulung and Mary. These two cubs were rescued and sent to BSBCC on August 15th and September 12th, respectively. Now their quarantine periods have over and both proved to be healthy. Today we integrated them for the first time. Both of them are being housed next to each other separated by barred wall, plus a wooden plank so that they have no contact with each other. Few days ago, we removed the plank so that they have contacts through the bars. They show interest on each other. Sniffing, licking, and occasionally playing through the bars.
Today is the big day. I opened the door in between the two dens. During the first 10 minutes they just ignored each other like the other bear never exist. What interest Fulung most was Mary's den; and what interest Mary was Fulung's den. They checked out every corner and inches in the den. Then, Fulung walk passed Mary and suddenly realized that Mary was in his den. Mary also realized that Fulung was physically there. Fulung used his head to push Mary, and Mary used her paws to scratch Fulung. They finally get into a play fight that looks violent, but totally harmless and silent. Two furry balls were wrestled first on the floor. Then Mary who was disadvantaged by her smaller size, always being pushed down and tried to escape Fulung's bites. She finally climbed into Fulung's sleeping basket and Fulung followed. Both of them spend the next 30 minutes biting, kicking, wrestling, slapping, and pushing (Fulung pushed Mary with his bigger body). Because of Mary smaller size and weaker in strength, we decided to separate them after 30 min and call it a day. We will continue the integration tomorrow.
For Mary and Fulung, both orphaned as a result of their mother (probably) being killed, and they being captured as pets, the best enrichment toys for their life in captivity are the companionship of each other. The playing, biting, wrestling, and fighting (seem violence but not destructive) help their social skills at the same time improve the development of the muscle, agility, and growth. All of these are important elements in the long process of development to become adult and healthy sun bears.
Please help us help Fulung, Mary and other sun bears that we rescued and care at Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. At the moment our operation fund is at a record low and we are desperately needs your help in many ways. You can donate online at:
http://www.leapspiral.org/content/support_leap.php (select "Donate" to Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre)
http://www.causes.com/causes/95651-bornean-sun-bear-conservation-centre (click "Give")
Siew Te Wong
Oct 24, 2011