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New project works to raise the profile of the world’s littlest bear

The world’s least-known bear also happens to be the smallest: sun bears (Helarctos malayanus), so called for the yellowish horseshoe mark on its chest, are found across Southeast Asia. But despite their telltale markings, super-long tongues, and endearing cuteness, sun bears remain little-studied and little-known compared to many of the region’s other large mammals. Now, a new project is working to raise the profile of the sun bears of Borneo—Survival of the Sun Bears—which are a smaller subspecies of the mainland animals.

“Bornean sun bears are endemic to the tropical forests of Borneo, which is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet. This makes sun bear survival intrinsically linked to the survival of thousands of other unique species as well,” says Jocelyn Stokes who is heading up the new organization. “With all of their natural charisma, sun bears have the potential to represent their forest home and bring a necessary awareness to the dire need for wildlife conservation in Borneo.”

Working at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC) in Malaysian Borneo, Stokes is filming sun bear rehabilitation efforts while studying the wild creatures. On the island, sun bears are hugely imperiled by deforestation, largely for palm oil plantations. While on mainland Southeast Asia, the bears are targeted by poachers for their body parts, which are used in Chinese traditional medicine.

In a December interview with, Jocelyn Stokes talks about discovering sun bears, their vital role as ecosystem engineers, and her burgeoning efforts to raise the alarm of the bear’s plight.


Sun bear at BSBCC. Photo by: Jocelyn Stokes.

Mongabay: What’s your background?

Jocelyn Stokes: I grew up in dusty Arizona, chasing lizards and dreaming about tropical rainforests. In middle school, I used to say I wanted to be a ‘Rainforestologist,’ and made my first ‘film’ about protecting the rainforests of the world. I spent much of my school years in the darkroom, where my passion for the ‘science of light’ evolved. This is also where my focus on wildlife conservation began to develop, as much of my photography work was meant to honor fascinating elements of the natural world. Although my professional photography was mostly art-based after graduating with a degree in photography from Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Oregon, my interest in wildlife science was still present. Eventually this interest grew into an undeniable desire to utilize the power of photography as a tool to bring urgent awareness to environmental conservation issues. Now, I am living in Sabah, Borneo photographing sun bears and working at a conservation centre, while pursuing a graduate degree in wildlife management to integrate conservation science, film and photography.

Mongabay: How did you become interested in sun bears?

Sun bear eating at BSBCC. Photo by: Jocelyn Stokes.

Jocelyn Stokes: My research and conservation-photography work with the ‘Moon’ bears of South Korea (Asiatic black bears) led me to contacting L.E.A.P, a non-profit organization focused on ecologically sustainable projects. I was then introduced to Mr. Wong Siew Te, who is the founding director and CEO of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC), based in Sabah, Malaysia. I offered my photography services and was welcomed into the centre as their first on-site photojournalist in 2009. After spending a month photographing the rescued bears everyday, I was hooked. This is how I began to fall in love with these extraordinary bears.

Mongabay: Compared to other bears, sun bears are not widely known. Why are they important?

Jocelyn Stokes: Sun bears are the smallest of all eight bear species, and Bornean sun bears are the smaller of the two sub-species of sun bear, which makes them especially unique. Sun bears are a keystone species within their ecosystem, which means they make up a small biomass yet they influence a wide variety of other species. For instance, they are critical seed dispersers because they inhabit a large territory, eat many wild fruits and disperse the seeds far away from the mother trees. They also enhance the nutrient cycling of the forest soil by digging for insects and churning the nutrient- rich soil, similar to the soil preparation farmers use. Sun bears are often considered ‘ecosystem engineers’ because they use their extremely long claws to dig for insects in tree trunks, thereby creating a cavity that becomes habitat for various other arboreal creatures. Sun bears also maintain balance in their forests by controlling termite populations, which sustains tree health. In these ways, they play a vital role in propagating the forest.

Bornean sun bears are endemic to the tropical forests of Borneo, which is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet. This makes sun bear survival intrinsically linked to the survival of thousands of other unique species as well. With all of their natural charisma, sun bears have the potential to represent their forest home and bring a necessary awareness to the dire need for wildlife conservation in Borneo.

Mongabay: What are the major threats to this species?

Adept climbers, sun bears enjoying the heights at BSBCC. Photo by: Jocelyn Stokes.

Jocelyn Stokes: Sun bears are faced with a triple threat: they are threatened by illegal poaching, the illegal pet trade, and rapid habitat loss. The primary cause for habitat loss in Sabah is currently agricultural development that eliminates native forests for plantations, such as palm oil. Illegal poaching is most often linked to demands in the Asian Traditional Medicine market, where people use bear bile, or other parts, for medicinal purposes. The pet trade is often linked to poaching because baby bears will not leave their mother even if she is killed, and baby sun bears are arguably one of the cutest baby animals, making them an easy target for capture and profit.

Mongabay: Will you tell us about a favorite personal encounter with a sun bear?

Jocelyn Stokes: My favorite sun bear experience thus far is taking my first photograph of a sun bear climbing a tree in the forest!

My introduction to these sun bears was before BSBCC had raised the funds to create a rehabilitation forest sanctuary for the rescued bears, so I was only able to photograph them in small, dark enclosures from behind bars. Nearly four years later, after a lot of concentrated effort, I have returned to the Centre and I am finally able to have my first experience seeing these bears in the forest where they belong! It brought tears to my eyes. Bearing witness (no pun intended) to the incredible progress Wong Siew Te and the BSBCC Team has accomplished, in their mission towards sun bear rehabilitation, brings a sense of hope that is rare in wildlife conservation today.

Mongabay: You’re planning to do a documentary film on sun bears. Will you tell us about this project?

Jocelyn Stokes: This film project goes hand-in-hand with the sun bear awareness campaign that I have initiated called Survival of the Sun Bears. The aim of the campaign is to bring light to these unique bears and their plight for survival. Products of this project are to be used in collaboration with the BSBCC in their mission towards sun bear conservation, education and awareness. 
My hope is to help inspire a global awareness about sun bears in Borneo and share the story of the work being done to conserve them.

Mongabay: Where will you be filming the sun bears? Will you focus on rehabilitated bears or wild ones for the film?

Jocelyn Stokes. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Stokes.

Jocelyn Stokes: Sun bears’ elusive behavior in the forest makes them almost impossible to observe in the wild; therefore, observing and capturing imagery of the bears being rehabilitated in the BSBCC forest enclosure is actually quite a rare opportunity, that is available nowhere else in the world. The rehabilitation process is a critical aspect of conserving sun bears, so that reintroduction into the wild may be possible. Sharing this experience with a wider audience is a prime opportunity for sun bear awareness.

Mongabay: What research are you planning to undertake as well?

Jocelyn Stokes: I will be focusing on research that examines different aspects of sun bear behavior. Little research has been done on sun bears or their behavior, which is why sun bears were considered a “data deficient” species (by the IUCN red list) until recently. Therefore, regular observation of sun bears in a forest environment provides an abundance of behavioral study opportunities. Pilot behavioral studies are critically important for enhancing our understanding of these bears and what they need to survive, so that we have the knowledge necessary for sufficient conservation strategies. I feel privileged to be given the support of the BSBCC, as well as Oregon State University, to be involved in this unique opportunity to perform such vital research.

Mongabay: Why do you think sun bears have been so little studied?

Sun bear at BSBCC. Photo by: Jocelyn Stokes.

Jocelyn Stokes: There is no one answer. Perhaps the array of Borneo’s biodiversity is so vast that it has overwhelmed scientists to the point where even such a charismatic species as the world’s smallest bear has gone widely unnoticed. Perhaps the orangutans, pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinoceros’, proboscis monkeys and hornbills gained notoriety before the bears. Perhaps Borneo’s wildlife as a whole has been widely overlooked or undiscovered for too long. I believe sun bears are just beginning to gain some of their due recognition, which is a trend that I hope to see advance as quickly as possible!

Mongabay: What can people do to help sun bears?

Jocelyn Stokes: A simple and effective way most people can help sun bears is to spread the word. Sun bears are the least known bear, which is one of the greatest challenges in sun bear conservation. Supporting our efforts to promote sun bear awareness through social media is a great way to join the conservation crusade! You can start by visiting Survival of the Sun Bears and our facebook page, as well as, BSBCC’s website.

An equally important way for people to help sun bears is by contributing to conservation efforts that promote environmental education for local communities; push for ecological-responsibility of government and corporate agencies; and engage in critical wildlife research and conservation-oriented management.

Most people can also choose is to be ecologically-aware consumers. Palm oil plantations are the primary factors for rapid destruction of sun bear habitat in Sabah; therefore, deciding to avoid products that contain unsustainably-grown palm oil is a powerful step in the right direction.

Sun bear showing off his tongue at BSBCC. Photo by: Jocelyn Stokes.

Sun bear at BSBCC. Photo by: Jocelyn Stokes.

Sun bear climbing high at BSBCC. Photo by: Jocelyn Stokes.

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