The Malayan Sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) is listed as Vulnerable to Extinction by the IUCN, and is threatened by habitat loss and hunting for traditional medicine. Its range once extended across mainland Southeast Asia, to Sumatra and Borneo, but the animal now occurs only patchily throughout.
Sun bears are a keystone species, vitally important to seed dispersal, pest control and nutrient cycling, so their extinction would likely bring major, though largely unstudied, impacts to tropical forests.
Killing Sun bears is prohibited under international and national wildlife protection laws, but these laws are often poorly enforced, while international trade in bear bile to serve the traditional medicine industry continues to boom.
Conservationists in Indonesia and elsewhere are studying Sun bear behavior to improve rescue and restoration efforts. Others want to eliminate commercial bear farms where bear bile is extracted, and end trafficking by creating strong national legislation, improving enforcement, and raising public awareness.
The Malayan Sun bear may not be the most famous animal in Southeast Asia, but it is undoubtedly one of the most endearing — though its charm hasn’t served to protect it. These gentle, inquisitive residents of the Asian mainland, Sumatra and Borneo, are threatened by poaching for traditional medicine. They’re also fast losing their tropical forest habitat to agricultural expansion for oil palm plantations and other crops.
Currently listed as Vulnerable to Extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Sun bear global populations have declined by more than 30 percent over the past three decades (three Sun bear generations). And although a number of organisations are working to study and protect Helarctos malayanus across its range, there is still much we don’t know about the species’ biology, behavior and conservation.
Sun bears are the smallest living bear species, weighing just 35-80 kilograms (75 – 175 pounds). Still, this little omnivore possesses a big appetite, feeding on anything from fruit to termites; from earthworms to eggs, turtles, birds and beetle larvae. They have a particular soft spot for figs, and, living up to Winnie the Pooh stereotypes, also love honey. They’re aided in this obsession by their prestigious tongues — at 18 inches, the longest for any bear — enabling them to dexterously delve into tree trunks and steal honey straight from the hive.
Unfortunately for the aptly nicknamed “honey bear”, that sweet tooth often gets them into trouble. It causes them to wander onto farms and into villages, where conflicts between Sun bears and local communities are common.
A 2015 study found that 46 percent of farmers in west-central Sumatra had experienced conflict with Sun bears — mostly due to crop raiding. The researchers found that crop damage and livestock depredation “positively correlated with rainfall and peaked when important cash crops reached maturity”, causing farmers to not see the species as at all that “endearing”, and wanting the troublesome animals removed permanently from local communities.
Such conflicts are only expected to increase as logging and climate change further reduce the availability of wild fruit, and as expanding agricultural lands and a booming Asian human population push up against Sun bear tropical forest habitat.
A keystone species
H. malayanus is crucial to its environment. “Sun bears play many important ecological roles in the forest ecosystem,” reveals Siew Te Wong, founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
They are a keystone species, and their loss can drastically alter an ecosystem. The Sun bear’s love of fruit makes it an excellent seed disperser, providing a vital service to forest trees. Sun bears also control forest pests such as termites. When hunting for ants or bees, they engineer new tree cavities with their ultra-sharp claws — inadvertently creating homes for hornbills, flying squirrels and other tree-dwellers. Sun bears also help drive the forest nutrient cycle, digging for food among the leaf litter, and leaving scraps for scavengers such as pheasants and partridges.
They also have cultural value; Sun bears provide opportunities for responsible ecotourism, and “symbolize the wildness of the tropical forest in Southeast Asia”, says Siew Te.
Slow to reproduce
Sun bears nest in hollow logs and tree cavities, and are solitary with the exception of mothers and young cubs.
The species has a minimum gestation period of 90 days, but evidence from captive Sun bears suggests that time period can last much longer. Pregnant females are capable of a rare feat known as “delayed implantation”, in which a newly fertilized embryo is kept dormant for a period of time before being implanted in the uterus. This can extend gestation by up to 130 days, and is thought to allow female Sun bears to put off pregnancy until habitat conditions are favorable.
Once born, cubs suckle for around 18 months, and remain with their mother until they are fully-grown. This slow reproductive pace, which the species shares with other bears, makes it difficult for populations to quickly recover from hunting and habitat loss.
Sun bears under pressure
Habitat loss is the most serious threat to Sun bears in Indonesia and Malaysia, where commercial logging and clearance for agriculture are destroying lowland forest habitat at an alarming rate. Since 1990, more than 3.5 million hectares (13,500 square miles) of tropical forest has been cleared for oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia; Indonesia now has the highest rate of forest loss in the World.
Forest fires also pose a major threat to Sun bears and other wildlife. Record-setting peat wildfires in Indonesia and Malaysia destroyed vast swathes of tropical rainforest over the last year. In one of the worst environmental disasters in decades, annual dry season fires were enhanced in 2015 by the widespread draining of peatlands for agriculture (especially for oil palm plantations), and by a strong El Niño event which delayed monsoons leading to severe drought — likely worsened by climate change.
Nearly three million hectares (11,500 square miles) burned between June and October 2015. Though no one is certain of the full extent of ecosystem damage, the peat fires “may have destroyed habitat for Sun bears that live in peat swamp forest”, says Siew Te.
However, the 2015 fires’ biggest impact on Sun bears could be yet to come. When peatlands burn they release between three and six times more smoke particles than other types of soil, so they generated a dense haze last year that blanketed parts of Southeast Asia for months.
“The haze and smoke could kill millions of insect pollinators, like fig wasps”, Siew Te explains. Fig wasps, as their name suggests, pollinate the Sun bear’s favorite fruit. If the peat smog decimated fig wasp populations in 2015, Sun bears in Borneo and Sumatra might go hungry this year, something that could also increase crop raids. More bad news: though it is still early, 2016’s fire season is off to a fierce start.
A deadly trafficking toll
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the biggest threat to Sun bears is the bear bile trade. The use of bear bile in traditional medicine — first described in the year 659 during China’s Tang Dynasty — is still a popular cure prescribed throughout China and mainland Asia, despite attempts to replace it with synthetic bile. Bear bile is prescribed to treat a range of ailments, including hemorrhoids, sore throats, sprains, epilepsy, fever, inflammation, and to clear the liver of toxins. Unlike some traditional medicines, there is evidence that bear bile may be effective in treating many of these conditions, however research has shown similar results with synthetic bile.
The farming of Sun bears and other bear species to collect their bile began in the late 1970s, and was initially sanctioned by the Chinese government as a conservation measure to help protect wild bears from hunting.
By the mid 1990s, as many as ten thousand bears were being commercially farmed for bile in China, often under horrific conditions. Farmed bears were, and are, reportedly kept in tiny cages, their teeth and claws broken and removed to prevent them from attacking handlers, and the animals left in constant pain due to the bile extraction catheter.
The main component in bear bile, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), can be synthesized, and is available commercially for purchase throughout Asia. But that hasn’t put a stop to the bear farms, or to trafficking: many traditionalists feel only real bear bile will do, and bile harvesting from several bear species, including Sun bears, continues today.
Although outlawed in 20 of China’s provinces, nearly one hundred farms housing between 7,000 and 10,000 bears, are thought to remain. Elsewhere, bile farms are growing in popularity. In Laos, for example, the number of bear farms tripled from just 40 farms in 2008 to over 120 in 2013.
Though one might imagine that such farms take the pressure off wild bears, that isn’t the case. The bear farms are restocked with wild-caught, not captive-bred, bears. This puts severe pressure on wild populations already threatened by habitat loss. In Thailand, an estimate by local hunters suggests that commercial poaching may have reduced Sun bear populations in one area by as much as 50 percent in the last 20 years.
Products made form bear bile — along with other bear parts such as paws — are exported and sold illegally throughout Southeast Asia. A 2011 report by TRAFFIC found that bear bile products were on sale in 12 out of 13 countries surveyed.
“The trade in bears is a lot worse, and a lot more widespread than people think”, says Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s Southeast Asia Regional Director. “Cross-border trade in these products is [illegal and] a violation of the CITES treaty”, he explains, but “these regulations are clearly being ignored, and farms continue to supply the illegal trade”.
Although much bear bile and other bear byproducts come from other bear species, such as the Asiatic bear (Ursus thibetanus) and the brown bear (U. arctos), Sun bears are the main source in some parts of Southeast Asia. A 2015 TRAFFIC study reported that nearly 60 percent of gall bladders for sale in Malaysia were from wild Sun bears. Around half of the 356 traditional medicine shops surveyed were selling bear gall bladders or medicinal products containing bear bile.
“Tackling this trade effectively is going to require a three-pronged approach”, Shepherd says, involving strong legislation, effective enforcement, and perhaps most importantly, raising awareness and changing behavior. That educational component is particularly important among traditional medicine practitioners and retailers, who are “potentially the most powerful force in this effort.”
Hope for the bears
Many Almost Famous Asian animals are little studied and suffer from scientific neglect, but Sun bears have gained some attention and strong advocates in the conservation community. In Malaysia, for example, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) rescues and rehabilitates captive and orphaned Sun bears, while also running educational outreach programs in schools.
“BSBCC aims to conserve Sun bears though a holistic approach that incorporates improved animal welfare, education, research and rehabilitation”, explains Siew Te. Where possible, the organizational aim is to release rehabilitated Sun bears back into the wild; the BSBCC released their second rehabilitated Sun bear, named Lawa, just last week.
But if such release programs are to be effective, they must also take the behavior and biology of the bears into account, which is why fundamental Sun bear research is one focus of Dr. Marina Davila-Ross’s work at the University of Portsmouth, UK. Marina hopes to “improve our understanding of how the rehabilitant Sun bears behave… in order to better support their needs when released back into the forest”. She collaborates with the BSBCC, and wildlife departments in Sepilok and Sabah, Malaysia, to put her results into practice.
“One of our studies, for instance, showed that Sun bears have the ability to remember food when it is out of sight, suggesting that knowledge of the food resources in the forest is a central component for their survival,” says Davila-Ross. Providing recently released bears with a regular food supply while they learn about their new environment may help ensure their long-term success and survival.
Sun bears are also the focus of international conservation efforts. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) works with local communities and NGOs to protect vital Sun bear habitat, as well as targeting the trade in bear parts through their TRAFFIC monitoring network.
“TRAFFIC has been monitoring the bear trade in Southeast Asia for a number of years, looking particularly at availability of bear parts (mostly bear bile) in retail outlets and open markets across East and Southeast Asian countries”, reports Shepherd.
“Malaysia has emerged to be among the countries of highest priority”, he adds, where illegal bear products are widespread and openly available. “We are therefore working with enforcement agencies, and practitioners alike, to tackle the issue front on”.
TRAFFIC is currently working with the Federation of Chinese Physicians and Medicine Dealers Association of Malaysia, and the National Pharmaceutical Control Bureau of the Ministry of Health, to educate the Malaysian people about the urgent need to end the illegal trade in bear products.
In 2010, the IUCN Bear Specialist Group updated the range map for Sun bears, identifying important habitat blocks where anti-poaching measures could best be directed. They also recommended the development of a network of bear recovery zones located within key protected areas to help reduce the illegal trade in bear parts. These recovery zones could offer a manageable solution to the problem of patrolling and monitoring very large protected areas.
“In the Sun bear team, our most important role over the last couple of years has been updating the range maps — a monstrous job that combined information from experts across 11 range countries”, notes Lorraine Scotson, who co-chairs the Sun Bear Expert Team with researcher Gabriella Fredriksson. The team has also conducted a comprehensive re-assessment of the conservation status of Sun bears, which will be used to update the IUCN Red List later this year.
While all this work is important, the top priority in Indonesia and Malaysia for Sun bear conservation will be to protect the remaining tropical forests from conversion to agricultural land, as well as preventing the forests’ continued degradation through unsustainable logging and wildfires.
“Sun bears need protected habitat — protection from hunting and protection from destruction — but it’s no simple feat,” says Scotson.
“Measures to reduce habitat loss and poaching throughout the entire Sun bear range are key actions needed to conserve them”, notes Fredriksson.
The good news: there are already some promising success stories: “In Cambodia, for example, a dedicated Wildlife Protection Mobile Unit, run by forestry officials and the military, and funded by international NGOs, has confiscated more than 100 Sun bears and Asiatic black bears since 1998,” reveals Fredriksson.
Still, the combined double punch of deforestation and poaching, aided by weak law enforcement, “does not bode well for the future of Sun bears”, concludes Fredriksson. There is a long way to go before the species will be safely out of the woods.