Archived: Saving the Sun Bears

SANDAKAN: Helarctos Malayanus or Sun Bear is often perceived as a fierce and ferocious animal due to its large canines and sharp claws, but the truth is that this black fur-coated animal is actually a shy and doting creature.

While the Sun Bear or Honey Bear as some call it can be easily found in the tropical rainforest of South East Asia. few are aware of its unique history and origin.

According to 44 year old biologist, Wong Sie Te, the Sun Bear is not just any ordinary black bear.

“The name itself carries a unique identity. Helarctos means Sun Bear and Malayanus refers to Malaya – our own old history before independence,”

“Long before Merdeka, western researchers and scientists discovered the Sun Bear in Malaya and because of that the scientific name of the bear carries the word Malaya. It was found in our rainforest and this bear is very different from other types of bears around the world,”

“Sun Bear is the smallest of the bear and they have exceptionally long tongue to extract insect and honey. They can eat durian and coconut too. They are omnivores as they feed on termites and ants,” Wong explained.

Wong, who is also a veterinarian said his curiosity and love for the animal began while he was studying in the United States and after he was asked by his American professor to study more on the animal.

But it was only after he visited several Sun Bears in captivity he then realised that a conservation centre is needed to protect this special species from extinction as commercial hunting for the bears were becoming a major threat.

“The bears came to me and they chose me. I was a student and I was asked by the lecturer to study more on them just because I come from Malaysia,”

“And I find it disturbing to see them in cages thus the idea came to me to open up a conservation centre and a research centre for us to learn more about them,”

“There are two major threats – first is habitat destruction for development purposes. The bears got nowhere to go and they die and in some cases they were shot dead by poachers,”

“Number two is commercial hunting. Sun Bear’s gall bladders are very famous amongst Asians. Not just South East Asians but Asians. They consider it as a traditional medicine and it is quite pricey,” he said.

Changing public perception

In 2008, Wong’s hard word paid off as he successfully opened the Sun Bears Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in collation with the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD).

SWD is responsible for the bears while the SFD is managing the forest. A tripartite agreement has enabled the BCBSS to have its own land area for Sun Bear consevation efforts.

The BCBSS centre provides the rehabilitation and release of orphaned and captive sun bears as well as disseminates information and knowledge about Sun Bears to the public.

Wong told FMT that to address the problem mentioned earlier, the centre provides a facility to house captive and orphaned sun bears in indoors and outdoors forest enclosures before it can be release back into the wild.

“It is like a rehab centre where the bears are kept and train before they can be release. All the bears here were rescued from Sabah. As for now we have rescued 28 bears,”

“Not all the bears will be released, those who are qualified enough to go back into the wild will be let go others will be staying in this conservation centre.

“Here they are free to roam everywhere as the centre is built inside a rainforest and the only difference is they are not 100 percent out into the wild,”

Wong also expressed his gratitude towards the Sabah state government for funding his project where he has been given the opportunity to run the centre and to conduct more research on the animal.

“The centre received funding from several bodies but the Sabah state government helped us a lot. From research centre to educational program they have been really supportive,” he said.

When asked about public perception and awareness campaign, Wong admitted that many needs to be done by the centre in order to reach the public while describing that the lack of information on the issue is still a major factor that have to be tackle.

“We are looking at a series of campaign and movement. We realise that it is vital to promote knowledge on the issue,”

“Many people still have limited idea or information about Sun Bears, although cases of commercial hunting have gone down, but we still need to create awareness and I believe, all of us must work together, however, thanks to the rapid growth of internet, we can now reach the community in a much easier way,” he said.

FMT campaign

Last weekend FMT Borneo Plus, a sister site of FMT dedicated to news from Sabah and Sarawak, launched its four-month long Save The Sun Bears campaign at the BSBCC in Sepilok and in Harbour Mall in Sandakan.

The campaign runs from now until Easter in April and involves reports and articles on conservation, Sun Bears as well as Sabah and Sarawak’s wildlife. It will also highlight the work done at various levels by the Sabah state government agencies and conservationists.

The campaign’s launch, which was supported by the Four Points by Sheraton Sandakan hotel and the KL-based MMICARE Association, is a prelude to BCBSS’s own opening of centre to the general public next month.

The new centre was constructed on the site of an existing run-down indoor bear house at SOURC along with an adjacent former rhinoceros enclosure and 2.5 hectares of intact forest.
The two bear houses will be linked to a total of eight large outdoor fenced enclosures in the surrounding natural forest.

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