Interview: Gloria Ganang – Environmental Education Officer – Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre – Sandakan, Sabah
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is a sun bear rescue and rehabilitation facility being developed in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. We spoke to Gloria Ganang – Environmental Education Officer at the centre, and asked to tell us more about these intriguing and beautiful creatures.
The Sun Bear is only found in Southeast Asia. It’s the smallest bear species of the eight species of bear in the world, and in Borneo, they are even smaller. It’s a different sub-species, weighing about 60kg maximum. It is the second rarest bear species, after the giant panda. These bears continue to be threatened by forest degradation, illegal hunting for bear parts and poaching to obtain young cubs for pet trade. The result is that young sun bears are sometimes found to be living in unnatural captive conditions in Sabah, with no access to outdoor areas.
There are currently 46 rescued ex-captive sun bears residing at the BSBCC. The facility includes large forest enclosures to provide a natural environment suited to the needs and welfare of the sun bears and facilitate their rehabilitation back into the wild.
Work on the rescue centre began in 2008. The centre was set-up by Dr (Hon) Wong Siew Te, in collaboration with two government agencies – the Sabah Wildlife Department and the Sabah Forestry Department. NGOs such as Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP) are also involved in the centre as well. Dr Wong studied wild Sun Bears, visiting centres and zoos, seeing the terrible conditions in which Sun Bears were being kept – in cramped cages – and as the population was dropping he felt it was important to launch a project to start to conserve Sun Bears before it’s too late. In 2014, the Centre opened to the public, enabling visitors to learn about the bears and observe them in their natural habitat.
Why are they called “sun” bears?
Their name comes from the pale horseshoe shape on their chests, which is said to resemble the setting or rising sun. No two markings are the same. They have a very long tongue at 20 – 25cm. This helps them extract honey from bee hives, earning them the alternative name “honey bear” or “beruang madu” in Malay and Indonesian. Sun bears live in tropical lowland forests and are only found in Southeast Asia. They are mainly diurnal and do not hibernate but build nests in trees to sleep in. They are omnivores and primarily eat invertebrates, fruit and honey.
Why is it important that these bears should continue to thrive in the wild?
Their natural behaviour helps ensure the health of the forest. They help disperse seeds and keep termite populations down, helping tropical tree species. They dig for invertebrates in the soil, which enhances the forest’s nutrient cycle through the mixing of rich and poor soil. And they create nesting sites for animals such as hornbills and flying squirrels, by tearing open tree trunks to reach the honey inside.
Tell us a little more about the threats to their numbers…
The total sun bear population has declined by at least 30% in the last 30 years contributing to sun bears being classified as “vulnerable” in 2007, meaning they are at high risk of extinction in the wild (IUCN 2007). Sun bears face three main threats:
Habitat loss – Like many species, deforestation and degradation of habitat has dramatically decreased their numbers. The main causes in Borneo are plantation development, unsustainable or illegal logging and human-caused fires. In Sumatra and Borneo, large-scale conversion of forest to oil palm or other cash crops is proceeding at a rate of 1,000s of km² per year (Holmes 2002).
Commercial hunting – Sun bears are primarily hunted for their gall bladders (for use in Chinese folk medicine) and bear paws (as an expensive delicacy). In China and Vietnam, bile is milked from bears while they are still alive. Bears are routinely restocked as they do not live long. Killing sun bears is illegal in all of their native counties but is largely uncontrolled.
Pet trade – Sun bears are the smallest bear in the world. As such, their cubs are considered incredibly cute and there is a high demand for them as pets. The mother is killed and the orphaned cub is removed from the wild and commonly kept in small cages with inadequate care.
What makes this place so special?
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is the only sun bear conservation centre in the world. It was founded in Sabah, Malaysia in 2008 with two aims:
- to provide care and rehabilitation to rescued sun bears; and
- to increase awareness of sun bears internationally.
These aims work to ensure the absolute right of every bear to live in the forest.
What’s your mission?
The mission of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is to promote sun bear conservation in Borneo through animal welfare, conservation, rehabilitation, education and research – giving captured sun bears a better home and restoring their right to live in the wild, by:
- Creating the capacity to confiscate, rehabilitate and release suitable orphaned and ex-captive bears back into the wild.
- Providing an improved long-term living environment for captive bears that cannot be released.
- Educating the public and raising awareness about this species.
- Achieving increased protection for sun bears and their habitat through ongoing research, increased knowledge and awareness, and further protection of habitat.
Within these larger goals, we want to fulfil the following specific objectives:
- Serve as a half-way house for confiscated/orphaned bears before release back into the wild; provide rehabilitation and training/survival skills for individual release.
- Serve as a permanent home for confiscated/orphaned bears that cannot be put back into the wild.
- Provide a humane, comfortable, and stimulating environment for captive sun bears over both the short- and long-term.
- Provide a much-needed location for the care and housing of newly confiscated/rescued bears.
- Assist the government in enforcement efforts by providing a place for confiscated animals and a program for successful reintroduction.
- Present captive bears as wildlife ambassadors for Borneo and for conservation of wild sun bears and their habitat.
- Provide a memorable visitor experience to promote awareness of sun bears and threats to their survival.
- Promote tourism around Sepilok as well as wild areas in Borneo by raising awareness of a new charismatic flagship species.
- Promote further research on sun bears, including sun bear breeding patterns, social interactions, use of the forest, health and genetic status, behaviour, captive breeding, rehabilitation and enrichment.
- Provide capacity building for further research and conservation of sun bears in the wild.
What’s new at the centre?
Our second observation platform opened in 2016, enabling people to have a better view of the bears. Importantly, we also have wheelchair access, and people with baby strollers can also visit easily.
Is there any plan to expand?
There are no plans to expand, but we will be setting up a base-camp in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, which will be used as a research base-camp and a soft-release base-camp. Young cubs will be sent there for soft release, meaning that our keepers or staff will walk them out to the forest and get them used to the area, and they will finally be released once they get used to that area. The keeper works like the surrogate mother of the bears, training them how to survive in the wild. But as we don’t have the base camp yet, right now we are doing hard release, using a helicopter to transport the bears to the core area of the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. So far, we have released four bears back into the wild in this way, and next year, probably another three bears will be released that way.
So, the end goal is to get them all back out into the wild?
Yes. But unfortunately, not all the bears can be released. Some of them arrive here at an old age – eight or ten years old. The oldest was 17 years old. They cannot be released, because they have been traumatised by what they have been through in the past, and we also have bears that are very tame, that are too comfortable with humans, so it’s not safe to release them, even though they are good with climbing. They would tend to approach humans, or approach a village, and that would place them in danger, as there are a lot of hunters still out there. We have to make sure the bears we release are totally independent. It is actually a challenge for them not to be used to humans, because many were pets before.