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Empire of the Sun Bears
Published on: Sunday, August 13, 2017

FOR the aspiring naturalist, ecotourist or wildlife documentary fan, Borneo is not short of animal heroes.

Its jungles contain a greater diversity of living things than anywhere else on the planet; from delicate flowers unseen elsewhere, to its own subspecies of elephant.

But inevitably, it's tough to stand out in a crowd, especially when that crowd comprises 10 species of primate, 222 mammals, around 150 amphibians and reptiles, and 688 birds – not to mention the 394 species of fish and 15,000 plants.

No wonder then, that among its bigger, noisier neighbours, the sun bear holds a strange record: it is both the smallest and least-researched bear in the world. Perhaps being big brings attention; perhaps these cutest of caniforms have simply slipped the notice of many nature lovers.

But like so many species in the Bornean jungles, sun bears are in need of ever-greater care and attention, as their homes are threatened by the advance of industrialisation, climate change and illegal pet trade.

These are the concerns that the Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) respond to. Founded by the Sabah Wildlife Department in 2010, the WRU exists primarily to respond to Human-Wildlife Conflicts, such as rescue and relocate animals found in human habitations and industrial areas.

However, that role has swiftly grown and the WRU is working together with contributors to research, education, monitoring and enforcing the protection of Borneo's charismatic animal species. One of the projects they have a key role in is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), Borneo's first and only specialist sun bear centre.

BSBCC is the culmination of a lifetime's work for its founder, the charismatic sun bear specialist Wong Siew Te.

Having devoted his career to studying the sun bear, in 2008, Wong took the opportunity to forge a partnership with the Malaysian government and Sabah advocacy group Leap to establish a specialist rehabilitation centre that could also function as a tourist attraction.

"BSBCC addresses the conservation issues faced by the sun bears," Wong said, adding that its functions include "a rescue centre for all rescued captive sun bears in Sabah and is also an education centre to raise awareness on sun bears".

Beyond the public eye, Wong said BSBCC is a research facility that also rehabilitates and releases rescued sun bears into the wild. "With the creation of the centre, ordinary people can learn about sun bear conservation issues."

Over 10 years of studying Bornean sun bears, Wong discovered that the bears were burdened by a number of threats: not only did they face the same habitat-loss issues as other animals, but they were in particular demand as medical and culinary ingredients.

Traditional Asian folk remedies call for powdered claw and bile milked from the bear's gall bladder, whereas bear paw is an expensive delicacy in some countries.

On top of this, sun bears had become widely trafficked as illegal pets, with a reputation for being small and cute – epithets that are quickly dispensed with when a bear reaches maturity. Sun bears become instinctively aggressive when threatened and are utterly unsuited to life as a pet. The bears Wong came across were housed in appalling conditions.

Furthermore, sun bears lacked well-established conservation efforts that other high-risk creatures had in place.

Seeing the work of the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan, Wong realised that a specialised centre to improve bear lives and conservation efforts were needed and to provide "a holistic approach that incorporate improved animal welfare, education, research and rehabilitation".

Such centre would need expert staff, accessibility for local communities and tourists alike, and a pre-existing infrastructure in order for Wong's partners, including WRU, to incorporate work with sun bears into their existing operations.

In fact, it was a small tract of land at Sepilok that became BSBCC's home. Alongside the world-famous Orang Utan centre, Wong and his partners set about transforming a disused rhino rehabilitation unit into a modern, minimalist visitor centre.

Working at Sepilok allows BSBCC to care for rescued bears while affording them a wild space of their own – funded in part by the footfall of tourists, quietly seeking the bears out from a network of raised walkways.

The walkways are the most recent development in the centre's development, allowing tourism and conservation to flourish hand-in-hand.

The other advantage of the Sepilok site was its proximity to the WRU's eastern base of operations.

Whilst Sepilok is first and foremost an Orang Utan centre, it is also a general veterinary hospital for rescued wild animals, and home to a number of senior WRU vets – including Dr Pakee Nagalingam, who acts as lead vet for the 44 sun bears currently living next door.

"The WRU plays an indirect supportive role in BSBCC," Pakee said, adding that the rescue unit leads rescues and confiscation of illegally captured bears. "WRU veterinarians based in Sepilok provide veterinary assistance to BSBCC when needed."

Beyond the day-to-day care of the bears, WRU's other frontline role at BSBCC is an educational one.

Pakee said WRU also joins educational programmes organised by BSBCC to engage the local young community on wildlife conflicts.

"Our roles intersect (whenever) there is a sun bear in need."

Perhaps the greatest fruit of the WRU-BSBCC collaboration, Pakee reflects, was "the release of Natalie, the first rehabilitated bear in BSBCC".

"Confiscated sun bears that can't be released just yet are brought to BSBCC for further captive management and possible rehabilitation."

However, it is rare that a bear that has endured captivity can readjust to the demands of life in the wild.

"Many rescued sun bears were held captive for a long time. They lost their instinct to find wild food, habituated to people, associate human with food, and cannot climb trees," Wong said.

So in 2015, after four years and one escape, it was a momentous occasion for Wong to see the first of "his bears" return to her rightful home in the jungle.

"The release of Natalie in 2015 has a bittersweet feeling. I am glad that she was released and live like a wild bear… at the same time I cannot see her again. She is now all on her own.

"The mission of BSBCC is the ensure the survival and conservation of sun bears in Sabah and the world," Wong said, adding that such effort start from home.

The first few steps to address the long-term future of this oft-overlooked ursid are taking place here, at BSBCC, thanks to the work of Wong and his partners.

What future do you see for the sun bear? I ask. Will a day come when, for better or worse, there are no more bears to rescue?

"Yes!" Wong said. "And at this time all bears will be living safely in the forest."

SZtv is the original productions from Scubazoo, based in Kota Kinabalu.

For over 20 years, Scubazoo has been making world-class wildlife documentaries about Sabah, its inhabitants and its uniquely luscious landscapes – above and below the water!

In series two of Borneo Wildlife Warriors, we rejoin presenter Aaron "Bertie" Gekoski as he continues his journey into the heart of wildlife conservation in Borneo, training to become a ranger with the Wildlife Rescue Unit.

In their latest episode, Bertie joins Wong and Dr Pakee at BSBCC, to give Sigalung the Sun Bear his annual medical check.

This 6-part series premieres Aug 16 with new episodes released every Wednesday on SZtv's website, YouTube and Facebook.

All episodes have Bahasa Malaysia subtitles and will also be aired on Daily Express and Malay Mail.

For more information, check out Borneo Wildlife Warriors on SZtv.

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