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Sabah Conservation: The Bear Man of Borneo

I get the bear facts from BSBCC (Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre) founder Wong Siew Te

Malaysian biologist, Wong Siew Te, came to Borneo in the early 2000s to study sun bears as part of his research project. Realising the bears might not be there for future students to study, in 2008, he founded the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). At that time there were 7 bears. Now there are more than 35 and nearing full bear capacity.

Wong greets his visitors enthusiastically and it's clear he loves his sun bears. "They need to be saved", he says, "if for no other reason than they are cute". And they definitely do have a high cuteness factor. As Wong talks, we watch one bear play happily in the undergrowth while another lolls on a stump in the sun with his tongue hanging out.

BSBCC, Bear Man of Borneo, Wong Siew Te, Sun Bears
Wong Siew Te (R) founder of BSBCC explains the philosophy behind the centre

The Borneo Sun Bear, with its distinctive crescent of sunshine under its chin, is the smallest of all the bear species. It's also the most arboreal, able to scale the tallest of Borneo's trees in its happy search for honey and invertebrates.

Sadly, with an estimated 30% drop in their population over the last 3 bear generations and continued threats from deforestation and hunting, these Southeast Asian bears are classified as a "vulnerable" species.

Tan Tan, Wong tells me, is one of their latest rescues. An orphaned youngster found in the pet industry, which is pretty common. "When they are young they don't have their big claws so people think they can manage them like a dog, but you can't," Wong explains. They aren't man-eaters like some of their cousins but when they grow too big to handle people don't want them anymore. BSBCC also find them in restaurants. Although it's illegal to put bear on the menu there are still people willing to consume it for its exotic taste and superstitious powers.

It is far better to intervene in conserving a species before it becomes endangered

The BSBCC is not just in the business of rescue, it also aims to rehabilitate bears so they can return to the wild. The centre released their first bear, Natalie, in 2015 and they have strong hopes of releasing more. Only the best ones will be released, the ones who show the most promise in rehabilitation and an ability to survive in the wild. Others, like Fulung, will never be released. Fulung was virtually born in captivity, so young that when he opened his eyes the first animal he saw was human. Having been reared in captivity he knows no fear of humans, in fact, Fulung thinks he is human and if released would likely seek out human contact, to his detriment. The centre's attempts to reduce handler's contact with Fulung didn't really work out. He suffered stress and depression, showing just how sensitive these little bears are.

It's a balancing act to, on one hand, care for orphaned and ill-treated bears with the human intervention and contact required and yet teach them skills so they don't rely on humans and can leave the sanctuary one day. Although sun bears are naturally solitary animals, here they are encouraged to socialise more in order to learn bear behaviour from each other and reduce their reliance on humans.

In the future, Wong hopes to take this bear-to-bear relationship building a step further by starting a breeding program. Breeding in captivity is always problematic and Wong is concerned that it will prove 'more difficult to breed sun bears in captivity than it was to breed pandas'. But he is willing to give it a go. When the wild population is so decimated and isolated they can't easily find each other to breed, there is little other choice to avoid extinction.

These sanctuaries take an enormous amount of time, research and resources. BSBCC rely heavily on the contributions of volunteers and donors, but that is only part of the story. Local and government cooperation and education programs are essential in changing the attitudes and behaviours of the local population and business interests in order to protect bears from their two biggest threats: poachers and habitat loss. This can be a slow process. Animal rehabilitation programs take years to establish, by then it can be too late.

They need to be saved, if for no other reason than they are cute.

However, Wong is optimistic that by starting the sun bears program when the bears are classified as 'vulnerable' it is early enough to be successful. "It is far better to intervene in conserving a species before it becomes endangered", he tells me.

As the only sun bear sanctuary in Malaysia, the future of these bears remaining in Borneo may rest on Wong's shoulders. A tall ask for a small enterprise but one Wong is dedicated to shoulder.

Find out more about BSBCC

Visit, volunteer or donate: Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre




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