The long trek back for Sabah’s sun bears

Many of the bears that arrive at BSBCC are traumatised and malnourished. (Pic courtesy of BSBCC)

KOTA KINABALU: Two months ago, a singer made headlines after she was found to be keeping a sun bear illegally in her condominium in Kuala Lumpur.

What doesn’t make headlines, though, are the many similar cases throughout the country, especially in Sabah where sun bears are categorised as endangered animals.

According to Tee Thye Lim, who oversees operations at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sandakan, the Sabah Wildlife Department has rescued over 60 of the animals and sent them to the centre where they are taken care of and rehabilitated.

Whenever possible, they are then released back into the wild.

There are currently 43 sun bears at the centre who were either rescued or surrendered by their owners.

Members of the staff and volunteers retrain the animals in skills such as climbing, socialising, surviving in the wild and nest building.

But for some, full recovery is impossible.

Each sun bear has a unique pattern on its chest, much like a human thumbprint. (Pic courtesy of BSBCC)

“Some of them came here obese or deeply traumatised by their experience,” Tee told FMT.

“There was one bear that became partially blind because its captor put its cage directly in front of a place where they carried out a lot of welding works.”

In Sabah, Tee said, the government allows individuals to keep sun bears as pets although they must obtain a licence.

He recalled an incident several years ago in which a sun bear was rescued from the backyard of a house belonging to a Datuk Seri after the owner violated the terms of his licence.

The man had been keeping three animals although his licence only allowed him to keep two.

BSBCC staff moving a newly rescued sun bear into a quarantine facility where the animal will be rehabilitated. (Pic courtesy of BSBCC)

Sabah has strict laws in place to protect animals, especially endangered species. Anyone who violates the law can be fined up to RM250,000, jailed up to 10 years, or both.

But Tee said the rate of prosecution is low even with evidence and media coverage.

Tee Thye Lim

“In the case of the Datuk Seri, when we asked what happened to the case, the authorities told us they were not going to pursue it because the person is a Datuk Seri.

“Apparently he was infuriated that the bear cub was taken away,” he said.

Baby sun bears are playful and cute, which makes them desirable pets for many.

Once they grow up, though, owners often lose interest as they develop sharp claws and fangs.

The silver lining for the bears at BSBCC is that none of them were declawed by their owners.

Since BSBCC began operations in 2008, it has successfully released nine sun bears into the wild.

Each bear is fitted with a tracking collar, but many of these have fallen off which makes monitoring them next to impossible.

Tee said the collars fall off because the bears often lose weight following their release.

A sun bear cub named Romolina relaxes in a hammock. (Pic courtesy of BSBCC)

“In here, we schedule their meals but in the wild, they have to find food for themselves. So naturally they become thinner.”

None of the collars collected so far have shown signs of violence, which he takes as a good sign.

The success rate of the centre’s rehabilitation programme depends on the individual bear.

According to Tee, the quickest a rescued bear has ever left its cage was 30 minutes; the slowest, five years.

Some never venture from their cage and end up dying there of health problems acquired before their rescue.

Rescued sun bears are fitted with a tracking collar before being released into the wild. (Pic courtesy of BSBCC)

Tee said the public appears to be growing more aware of the importance of sun bear conservation efforts although much remains to be done.

“We still deal with bad decisions made by people. The centre is doing its best, not only to improve the welfare of sun bears here, but also to educate visitors and carry out research on how to provide better care for the animals.

“We are already planning outreach programmes to educate the public about this beautiful and unique animal. We will not stop here,” he said.