As difficult as it has been to keep the absolute longing to begin work right away at bay, the first week in “quarantine” was a wonderful opportunity to explore our surroundings and learn more about the fascinating creatures that make the island of Borneo their home, Malayan sun bears being one of them.
At Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, where I spent several weeks volunteering a couple of years ago, they had a few rescued sun bears. I never got to work with them though, as I was busy with the elephants. Fortunately, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is just next door to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre where I am currently working, thus very easy access for us volunteers. During my first week here in Sepilok I spent some time wandering around BSBCC, and during our quarantine week us orangutan vollies were lucky enough to meet BSBCC’s CEO & founder, Siew Te Wong. There is not a great deal of research out there about the Malayan sun bear on Borneo, and Wong (a wildlife biologist) has done an amazing deal of field research to get more information about these animals published. In his extensive travels Wong has been witness to poorly-treated captive animals (e.g. in sub-standard zoos and in private homes), and in 2008 he set up BSBCC. BSBCC is a refuge for sun bears in need, as well as a rehabilitation centre with the ultimate goal of assisting the sun bear’s population numbers through animal rehabilitation & release and community education.
Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) are found in regions of Southeast Asia, including on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. These animals are the smallest species of the bear family, and possess a dark coat with an individually-unique pale horseshoe patch on the front of their chests which is said to resemble the rising sun. Sun bears have developed amazing ways to exist in their ecological niche. For example, they have very long tongues (between 20-25cm!) for snacking on hard-to-reach honey, and are fantastic climbers. Initially I had no idea of just how high they can climb – trees are where they source a lot of their food from, and where they spend long periods of time resting in nests that they crudely build from branches and leaves heaped together. Sun bears eat a variety of food (mainly insects, fruit and honey), and due to this diet they positively influence flora and fauna species around them – when searching for honey and bugs they use their long claws to create grafts in trees which other animals can then nest in (e.g. flying squirrels and hornbills); they nibble away at termite infestations; seeds from fruit are naturally dispersed after passing through their digestive tracts; and they enhance the forest’s soil health by mixing it thoroughly as they dig around for invertebrates. Sun bears are invaluable to their environment, yet – as with so many other animals – face massive threats to their survival due to human interference.
Habitat destruction, of course, has caused a massive decrease in the expanse of natural habitat available to the Malayan sun bear. Palm oil plantations are a major culprit of population decline in countless species on Borneo, and the sun bear is no exception. Habitat loss caused by logging (unsustainable and illegal) and forest fires are also significant causes. Being so small and beautifully cute, sun bears are also a target of wildlife traffickers. Their gall-bladders and paws are sought-after for traditional medicine, which means they are an animal popular with poachers.
Sadly, although the Malayan sun bear is a protected species, law enforcement in this region of the world is lacking when it comes to injustice to wildlife. It was interesting yet disheartening to speak to our guide, Jeremy, at BSBCC about this species because despite the sun bear’s incredible contribution to the natural ecosystem, it is common for Malaysians to be unaware that this species even exists in the jungle they see every day. This lack of education is something BSBCC is working hard to change.
One thing I adore about Sepilok is that so many incredible species such as the Malayan sun bear coexist in this untamed environment just outside my door. Free-ranging orangutans move through BSBCC as they please, and wild sun bears roam the very jungle I can see out the window of the volunteer house. The natural habitat here is so unique and rich, and it astounds me that it is not more protected along with its extraordinary fauna. The work of organisations such as BSBCC is utterly crucial to ensuring that more people are aware of the importance native species hold to the local environment, and in teaching why we ought to be fighting to save what’s left of the natural world. The Malayan sun bear is classed by the IUCN as Vulnerable, which is one step up from Endangered. In the past 30 years it is suspected that this species’ population has decreased by over 30%, and that this population decline will not stop as long as forest areas containing high-value timber and/or suitable room for plantations are available. Also, without significant anti-poaching measures, the sun bear’s commercial exploitation will continue to be a large part of this species’ future.
While the plight of unique species such as the sun bears can seem overwhelming, there are very practical things you can do. Have a look at my recent post on palm oil for more information on this product that has impacted the environment so greatly (and how, as a consumer, you can avoid supporting it). When travelling, choose eco-tours that support conservation and wildlife welfare, and if you are in a charitable mood you can simply donate directly to an organisation of your choice. In Southeast Asia it can be tricky because there are many establishments that promote themselves as conservation projects, when really they support poaching and wildlife exploitation; I recommend doing some research if you are considering an organisation to support.
BSBCC is certainly an organisation that I would vouch for; the work they do is invaluable to the Malayan sun bear’s conservation and for individual animal welfare. BSBCC’s physical establishment has changed greatly in the last eight or so years, and now boardwalks sprawl high above wild enclosures, nestled amongst the trees – visiting this sanctuary is a perfect way to see elusive sun bears in a very natural setting. BSBCC works hard to rehabilitate their animals and will release individuals that they are confident can survive on their own. Those that cannot be released into unenclosed jungle will live a life as wild as possible at the sanctuary, foraging for food, climbing trees and building nests, and sunbathing as sun bears love to do. If you want to learn more about sun bears or the work that BSBCC is doing take a look at their website – it can be inspiring to see just what other people are doing to help the world.