KOTA KINABALU: The smallest bear in the world, the Bornean sun bear, is more endangered than the orangutan and also the least studied.
According to Wong Siew Te, the founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sepilok, Sandakan, it was estimated that there were less than 11,000 of the bears found in the wild of Sabah today.
“I cannot give the exact number, except that the population is smaller than the orangutans,” he said.
Among the threats to their survival are deforestation, forest conversion and poaching.
“Poaching still occurs and sun bears are hunted for their gall bladder, claw, canine…well, every part of the sun bear has commercial value,” he said.
Aside from that, sun bears are prone to be affected by forest conversion as they reside mainly in the low land tropical forest, which unfortunately are areas most suited for agricultural activities, he said.
And another reason why they are becoming endangered is because they are one of the species that is least known and very much ignored.
“Unless we do something quick, we are going to lose them,” he said.
During the interview, Siew Te also mentioned how he became engrossed with the Bornean sun bears.
“I studied them, and the more I knew, the more concerned I became for their wellbeing. They are an important element of the forest system and if we lose them, the system can fall apart – well, at least some species that depend on the sun bears, like the hornbills which depend on the sun bears to dig holes in tree trunks, will not be able to make their nests. Sun bears are forest engineers, and the forest will be off-balance without them,” he explained.
Fortunately, there is still hope for the sun bears, as their numbers are still more than the Sumatran rhinocerous, of which there are probably 10 or less left in the wild of Sabah, today.
“As long as we minimize poaching and protect the forest…fortunately, Sabah still has a lot of forest as compared to Sumatra. The forest cover is still great but I need to emphasise that forest protection has to be a priority,” he said.
He also said that they still find sun bears kept as pets by people.
“When we confiscate the bears, the people complain that their family has always had bears as pets – their fathers had them, and so did their grandparents,” he said.
Some people also shoot the mother bears to acquire the cute and cuddly cubs and keep these as pets.
“But the cubs are only cute and cuddly for eight to nine months. After that, they become a nuisance because they are natural born destroyers with their strong claws and jaws. In the end, they remain caged up in a small cage, which is a pity for them as they need to roam large areas. Most of the bears we confiscate have this pacing behavior because of the stress of being caged,” he further explained.
The centre in Sepilok has encountered difficulties rehabilitating the confiscated adult sunbears back into the wild.
“They are scared to go out, and they have problems wandering out the door. The young ones fare better and are more adventurous.”
Further enlightening this reporter on the future endeavors of the BSBCC, Siew Te mentioned that they were in the midst of raising funds which will go towards creating facilities that would help future researchers and students keen on studying the mammal at the centre.
At the same time, they also hope to make the centre self-sufficient by allowing visitors, namely tourists, to visit the facility.
Since the centre was incepted in 2008, it has taken in 28 sun bears, which exceeds its holding capacity.
“Our centre is designed for 20 bears. But we’re hoping to raise funds to construct another bear house which will enable us to house another 16 bears.”