What happened to the missing sun bears?


Two years ago, I visited the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sepilok, Sabah, for a documentary project. The centre is established and managed by an amazing individual known simply as Mr Wong. And through Mr Wong, I became acquainted to the main character of our documentary – Damai, a Malayan sun bear.

Damai is an adorable sun bear who was just eight months old when I met her. Unlike most sun bears who are dependent on their mothers until at least two years of age, Damai spends most of her time alone. This is because she is an orphan.

Apparently, when Damai was still a baby, she and her mother got lost in a palm oil estate. The workers who found them killed her mother and sold Damai as a pet. Damai then grew up with her adoptive human family, treated like a puppy, caged and given human food.

However, when she was four months old, Damai managed to escape from her cage and was found walking aimlessly around the neighbourhood when a concerned citizen informed the Wildlife Department – that was how she ended up at the sun bear conservation centre.

When I met Damai, she was already four months living in the centre under the care of Mr Wong. She totally depended on Mr Wong to help her regain her strength and teach her the skills she needed to survive in the forest one day. But it wasn’t an easy task to re-acquaint Damai to the forest.

The fact is, sun bears are supposed to be experts at climbing trees besides having a natural curiosity to explore the woods. Sadly, having been caged for months, Damai’s feet and arms were not only weak but also deformed, making it difficult for her to ever be able to survive in the wild on her own.

Apart from Damai, there were about 28 other sun bears at the conservation centre when I was there. Almost all shared a similar background to Damai’s. While young sun bears like Damai have to spend a lengthy amount of time at the centre to be trained for the wild, the older ones very likely live out their entire lives there since their fragile conditions leave them with no other option.

Reading the news about the two missing sun bears from a resort in Tawau, Sabah, reminded me of my episode with Damai and her friends. While Damai is lucky to be cared for and loved by Mr Wong and his team of volunteers, the other two missing sun bears aren’t.

According to recent news, the two sun bears were both placed inside a small cage as “attractions” at the resort’s mini zoo. Some concerned visitors who saw these unfortunate creatures reported the matter. However, since the photos of the bears, looking malnourished and caged, became public, the resort now claims that the bears have been released into the wild instead.

The questions that everyone must ask is:

  • How were the two sun bears obtained in the first place?
  • Why were the sun bears not given proper care while in the care of the conservation centre?
  • If the sun bears were in fact returned to the forest, shouldn’t the resort be held liable now since sun bears kept in captivity are not able to survive in the wild?
  • Why were the sun bears not handed to the Wildlife Department instead?
  • What if the reason given by the resort is merely a way to shut up the critics? Where then are the sun bears?
  • And why is the Sabah Wildlife Department keeping silent about the issue?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed sun bears in the category “high risk of extinction”, but what effort has our government taken to protect and conserve these fragile and precious creatures?

While stories of pandas, dogs, pigs and wombats easily make headlines in our media and are discussed about in Parliament – why hasn’t anyone shown interest about the missing sun bears and conservation efforts in general for this endangered species? Clearly “kera di hutan disusukan, anak di rumah mati kelaparan”. Shame on you!

I sincerely hope everyone plays their part to pressure the authorities to get to the root of this matter. Demand an answer to the question: “What happened to the two missing sun bears?”

Come on folks, all Damais out there need our help for survival. Let us not turn our backs on them.