Protecting endangered species


SUN BEAR: This bear may be the smallest member of the bear family but it is also the most aggressive.

THE relatively recent The Borneo Post articles on coral reef clearance in Sematan and the success of wildlife rangers and Sarawak Forestry in seizing an orang-utan, clouded leopards and hornbills from poachers in Bau reminded me of the privileged wildlife experiences I have had in my frequent visits to Sabah and Sarawak.

To have observed proboscis monkeys at Bako and along the Kinabatangan River in Sabah and the dusk nesting of hornbills will ever remain in my mind’s eye. I have, on several occasions, visited the orang-utan sanctuary in Sepilok, Sabah with senior UK students and Semenggoh in Padawan with younger Kuching pupils. To witness a clouded leopard’s staring eyes at night and orang-utans build their daily nests at dusk, and a bearded pig snuffle through waste bins all at Danum Valley, south of Lahad Datu in eastern Sabah, was absolutely mesmerising!

The articles in The Borneo Post on poachers brought home to me the cruelty to animals that I have witnessed in life, often through the ignorance of those involved but always to feed their incomes.

In 1992, just after the liberation of Romania from its communist regime, seeing in a village in Transylvania three caged brown bears with ducts inserted in their stomachs to extract bile for medical consumption in China brought tears to my eyes. In a town there, I also witnessed a chained bear dancing to the tune of a totally out of tune musician. To witness a chained sun bear outside a cafe in a hilly area near Miri several years ago left me horrified. Poachers had simply taken these animals and sold them on to middlemen for further exploitation and profit.

In 2006, when visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphan Sanctuary in Nairobi, Kenya, it was heartwarming to see man’s humanity to such elegant mammals before they were later released into the wild after medical care for some gruesome poachers’ wounds.

Later I had the fortune to visit the Masai Mara Reserve in Western Kenya to observe elephants freely roaming, lions and their prides, a cheetah, wildebeests migrating to fresh pastures and the cunning of crocodiles in attacking zebras as they crossed the Mara River. The fact that I was nearly trampled to death on a footpath by three hippos is another story. In such reserves in parts of Kenya, the wildlife is protected by former poachers turned gamekeepers and now government-paid employees protecting the game animals they once mutilated.

Yes, humans must, in some situations on our planet, hunt to survive but not at the cost of capturing and selling on live animals or their skins to unscrupulous exporters of ivory, reptiles, birds and shark’s fin for the avaricious pleasure of overseas buyers.

It is heartwarming to learn of Sabah’s recent stance in banning shark fishing. We have come a long way from Victorian times when overseas naturalists collected dead animals to be stuffed as effigies in museums worldwide but we have yet more to achieve in the 21st century.

On one journey, years ago, from Kudat to Kinabalu in Sabah, I stopped at a roadside vegetable stall to buy some bananas. As a Mat Salleh, I was ushered behind the facade of fruit and vegetables displays to see if I would like to purchase animals.

To my horror, I saw cages housing a mouse deer, pangolins, macaque monkeys chained to beams, a slow loris, baby sun bears, a baby orang-utan and numerous species of caged birds – all for sale. I looked in my wallet and needed 5,000 times the amount of cash I had to purchase them all and to release them from their misery or the butcher’s knife. My heart sank.

We frequently read in the press of Cites upgrading or downgrading so-called protected species of animals, reptiles, and birds listed in Appendices I, 2 and 3. Cites simply stands for the 1973 multilateral negotiations at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, signed, then, by over 170 countries worldwide.

The Bornean orang-utans have international recognition and global funding. Crocodiles have been highlighted recently due to selective culls, but what about the protection of our other endangered Bornean species of fauna competing with man in a constant struggle against man’s encroachment into their natural environments? The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has produced a red list of such threatened animals all critically endangered.

Sun bear (Helarctos malayanus)

Sometimes called the Malay bear, honey bear or dog bear, those of you who have read AA Milne’s ‘Winnie The Pooh’ can see this bear in your minds. It is the smallest member of the bear family and found in lowland rainforest. Nocturnal, it is rarely seen by day for it is an excellent tree climber.

Weighing in at between 27kg and 64kg and around one to 1.2 metres in length, it has large forepaws with sickle-like claws, long and curved, to dig out insects’ nests, especially those of termites and bees.

Truly a honey bear with its short sleek black fur and an orange-yellowish crescent on its chest, supposedly representing the sun, whilst shy and intelligent, it is also the most aggressive of all the bear family.

Owing to the year-round plentiful supply of honey, termites, fruit, berries and small vertebrates in Borneo, unlike temperate climate bears, it does not need to hibernate.

Clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa)

Its Latin name literally means the new nebulous (cloudy) cat because of the cloud-like shaped markings on its body. This is one of the most fearsome of night predators and again rarely seen apart from its close set eyes in torchlight.

In breed it is not dissimilar from the extinct sabre-toothed cats of prehistoric times for, of all present members of today’s cat families, it has the largest canine teeth in relation to body size.

Living essentially in the tree canopy, the clouded leopard is the most agile of all cats with headfirst running down tree trunks and climbing on the underside of branches as well as the ability to hang upside down on its hind legs. With the longest cat’s tail in the world, this is no surprise.

Sadly this animal is no longer a frequenter of lowland forest as those forests have been removed and humans have reduced the populations of its prey, such as deer and wild pigs due to hunting. Let us pray for the survival of the clouded leopard.

This is but a glimpse of the other endemic species of animal life we have here in Borneo and we must protect them all.

To learn more read ‘Maliau Basin: Sabah’s Lost World’ by Dr Hans P Hazebroek, Tengku Zainal Adlin, and Waidi Sinun, Natural History Publications (Borneo) Kota Kinabalu.