Borneon Sun bears – cuddly and under threat.
Just across the road from Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok is the Borneon Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
The sun bear is the smallest, most arboreal and least studied bear. It is the second rarest bear species, after the giant panda.
The name sun bear comes from the pale, horseshoe shape they have on their chest. No two sun bears have the same pattern – so from this you can distinguish each bear.
The sun bears have very long claws, which are ideal for digging (for food – invertebrates are an important part of their diet) and climbing (they are excellent climbers). They also have long tongues, around 20 cm to 25 cm, which prove useful for extracting honey from bee hives. Sun bears live in tropical lowland forests and are the only bear in SE 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.
These bears are endangered due to a number of different factors.
- The largest impact to their existence has been the ravaging of their natural habit through the practices of logging (both legal and illegal) and forest clearing to make way for palm oil plantations.
- Sadly, they are also hunted, primarily 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.
- Lastly, these bears suffer from being small and cute. They have been captured and kept as pets and exhibits in small, local zoos.
The conservation centre was founded in 2008 to provide care and rehabilitation for sun bears recovered from captivity and to provide education on the plight of these wonderful creatures.
Our visit to the centre happened just a couple of days after a storm had passed through damaging some of the enclosures and the raised board walk and observation platforms. Luckily, the main observation area had escaped damage so we were able to get in to see some of the sun bears.
Before we even got to see the bears we came across a local guide, who had stumbled across a large spider. We spent about 10 minutes whilst our guide and his compadre argued about the genus of the spider – all I cared about was that it was big, hairy and scary.
Soon, we managed to drag our guide away to see the sun bears. Currently there are 44 bears in the Rehabilitation Centre and we were lucky enough to see half a dozen who we happily roaming around their enclosure foraging for food.
The centre looks to reintroduce bears into their natural habitat and works with the bears to develop the skills necessary – foraging, climbing trees, nest building and self-defence – for independence in the forest. It is the only place in the world that offers potential release candidates the chance to naturalise to forest life before they are released. Sadly, sometimes our bears are too traumatised for release to be possible, so the centre provides these bears a dignified permanent home.