Make sun bears ‘totally protected’

Wong presenting his talk on sun bears.

KUCHING: The protection status of sun bears in Sarawak should be elevated from ‘protected’ to ‘totally protected’, said Dr Wong Siew Te, chief executive officer and founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sabah.

Wong Siew Te

“In Sarawak, in theory, licensed people are still able to hunt sun bears, but the Forest Department Sarawak (FDS) has not issued licences for the hunting of sun bears in a long time,” he said.

He said those without licences were not allowed to keep sun bears as pets or hunt them.

He said the sun bear is a totally protected species in Sabah and is classified as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, as the sun bear population has declined by at least 30 percent over the last 30 years.

“Last year, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks said that there are only 300 to 500 sun bears left in West Malaysia — this is very concerning,” he said during a virtual talk on sun bear conservation in Sarawak and Sabah, hosted by World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia (WWF-Malaysia) on Saturday (Nov 28).

Wong said the Matang Wildlife Centre here could be further developed as a centre for wildlife education, research, rehabilitation, and animal welfare.

He commended the bear enclosure at the centre as among the best, adding that there was a lot of potential to help bears in Sarawak.

“The Matang Wildlife Centre is a very good resource and needs some serious management and improvement in facilities. It has so much potential as it is in a forest reserve,” he said.

He said that among the biggest threats to sun bears were deforestation, poaching, pet trade and exploitation, and climate change.

He said sun bears played numerous important ecological roles in the forest, including acting as ‘forest planters’ by aiding the dispersal of fruit seeds away from the mother tree.

“They are also ‘forest engineers’ which can create nests for many wildlife species in the forest.

Sun bears feeding on fruits during the virtual tour of the BSBCC.

“Sun bears love honey and when they find a bee hive in the trunks of tropical hardwood trees, they use their claws and canines to chew apart the tree trunks to get to the honey. This cavity can be used later by hornbills, flying squirrels, and other cavity nesters,” he said.

Sun bears’ third role, Wong said, was as ‘forest doctors’ as they helped to naturally control termite populations to prevent them from growing out of control and killing many trees at one time.

“They are also ‘forest farmers’ because in the process of digging for earthworms and other invertebrates for food, they plough the soil and make it easier for seedlings to germinate while enhancing the soil nutrient cycle,” he said.

He added that sun bears were ‘food providers’ as well, explaining that other animals in the forest such as pigs and birds would often tag along for feeding opportunities as there was always some food left behind when the bears dug up decayed wood or termite nests.

He said sun bears are the smallest bear in the world and feature a unique chest marking, adding that there are two theories behind the name ‘sun bear’ — one being that they are found in areas with plenty of sun and the other that their chest markings sometimes resemble the shape of a solar eclipse.

“Sun bears are found across South East Asia. They are a forest-dependent species and their prime habitat is lowland forests where there is a lot of food for them such as fruits and insects,” said Wong.

He said that years of deforestation due to agricultural expansion and development had created another type of habitat for sun bears, namely secondary forests.

“They do live in secondary forests, as long as they are not being hunted down. They are extremely robust — as long as they can find food, they can thrive. Some are even distributed in the mangrove nipah palm forests,” he said.

He said sun bears, as omnivores, ate a variety of foods such as invertebrates, fruits, honey, clams, and even tortoises.

As part of the programme, Wong also conducted a virtual tour of BSBCC to show the sun bears during feeding time. The centre currently houses 45 sun bears.