- Sun bears are keystone species, helping sustain healthy tropical forests. Yet they’re facing relentless challenges to their survival from deforestation, habitat degradation, poaching and indiscriminate snaring; fewer than 10,000 are thought to remain across the species’ entire global range.
- A bear rehabilitation program in Malaysian Borneo cares for 44 sun bears rescued from captivity and the pet trade and has been releasing bears back into the wild since 2015. But with threats in the wild continuing unabated, success has been mixed.
- A recent study indicates that as few as half of the released bears are still alive, demonstrating that rehabilitation alone will never be enough to tackle the enormous threats and conservation issues facing the bears in the wild.
- Preventing bears from being poached from the wild in the first place should be the top priority, experts say, calling for a holistic approach centered on livelihood support for local communities through ecotourism to encourage lifestyles that don’t involve setting snares that can kill bears.
SABAH, Malaysia — The 3-year-old sun bear sits teddy bear-like in a secluded grassy glade in its rainforest enclosure. Its soft, densely furred belly vibrates as it sucks on one of its front paws, emitting a series of strange, guttural whimpers. Its head downturned, the young bear looks up at us shyly with deep brown eyes, penetrating our human instinct to care for the vulnerable.
“This is a rather sad behavior,” Siew Te Wong, CEO and founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), tells Mongabay during a visit to the pioneering rescue and education facility in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Wong says the bear, named Kipaku, was brought to the center as an orphaned cub, and what we’re witnessing is the little bear’s trauma response.
“As with all infant mammals, this bear has an urge to suckle,” Wong says. “But he has no mother; his mother was brutally killed by poachers, so he’s had no opportunity to suckle … in the end, he’s developed this self-soothing behavior.”
Like Kipaku, most of the 44 sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) Wong and his colleagues currently care for at the BSBCC were brought to them as orphaned cubs illegally taken from the wild and subsequently confiscated by authorities.
One of the goals of the BSBCC is to return some of the rescued bears back into the wild to bolster flagging local populations. Since it was launched in 2008, the center has rewilded 12 bears into remote forest reserves in Sabah. But data from satellite collars indicate as few as half of the released individuals likely survive to this day, the rest having fallen victim to the slew of perils that still pervade even the state’s most secluded forests.
Given the mixed success of the release program, Wong says rehabilitation alone will never be enough to tackle the enormous threats and conservation issues facing the bears in the wild. But the results have given Wong and his team renewed resolve to make sure that sun bears are never poached from the wild in the first place.
An alarming rate of loss
Sun bears are named for their equatorial distribution, deemed as living “close to the sun” by the scientists who first described them. The species is listed as vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Red List due to habitat loss, poaching, and indiscriminate snaring throughout its range, which extends from Bangladesh to southwest China and south to Peninsular Malaysia and the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.
Although the species has been strictly protected under Malaysian law since 1997, poaching of wild sun bears still persists, driven by demand for their gallbladders and other body parts used in traditional Asian medicines, and for cubs that are sold into the pet trade.
The dual threats of habitat loss and poaching are particularly intense in Sabah, one of Malaysia’s two Bornean states, where logging and rampant expansion of oil palm plantations has fragmented forests, dividing bear habitats and reducing population viability. Global Forest Watch data show that between 2002 and 2022, Sabah lost 385,000 hectares (951,400 acres) of primary forest cover, an area more than five times the size of Singapore. Pockets of habitable forest remain here and there, but many are carved up by webs of remnant logging roads, rendering once isolated areas accessible to hunters and poachers who set snares that can kill bears.
While biologists don’t know how many sun bears remain in Sabah — the species has been surprisingly little-studied throughout its range —the BSBCC typically receives three to five wild-born sun bear cubs each year, representing what Wong terms an “alarming” rate of loss that threatens the species’ survival in the wild.
“For every single cub I see in the pet trade, I know that two animals have been removed from the forest ecosystem: the mother and the cub,” says Wong as he ascends the steps to enter the BSBCC’s bear house facility that provides indoor spaces for the resident bears. If she hasn’t already died in a snare, “the poachers will always kill the mother … she will die protecting her cub.”
Instincts kick in, wild skills develop
Inside the bear house, the kitchen is bustling with staff chopping vegetables and meticulously weighing rations to meet the specific nutritional needs of each of the 44 hungry resident bears, who are currently roaming among 10 outdoor enclosures that encompass 2.5 hectares (6 acres) of natural rainforest.
For most of the bears, stepping into the outdoor enclosures is their first experience of their natural habitat since they were stolen from the wild at infancy. The setting is impressive. Here and there, gigantic Shorea trees shoot boldly 40 meters (130 feet) or more into the sky. In between these monoliths grows a lush profusion of forest that enables the bears to live as naturally as possible, giving them the chance to learn wild skills like foraging and climbing.
With tree fruits and honey from stingless beehives among the favorite items on the sun bear menu, the ability to climb trees is critical to their survival in the wild. But they also sleep with complete ease high in the canopy.
In one of the forested enclosures, a female bear, named Romolina, is just waking from a slumber in an impossibly precarious nest she had created the previous evening at the very tip of a 15-m (50-ft) tree. “They make nests in trees, just like orangutans do … with all their dense fur, they need to keep it dry and free from leeches and other parasites that live on the forest floor,” Wong says.
As we watched, Romolina raises a front paw into the air in a lugubriously regal gesture before pouring her sleek but well-rounded body over the edge of her nest and descending the tree down to the ground. “She can climb well,” Wong says, “but because she’s very habituated to humans, we can’t risk releasing her into the wild.”
Bears have to meet three criteria to be deemed fit for release: they must be able to climb; they must forage well; and they have to naturally avoid people. The latter is essential to avoid conflicts, especially since bears are naturally drawn toward oil palm plantations where there’s an abundance of high-energy fruit available year-round. It’s around the plantations that the poaching risk is highest, Wong says.
When the cubs have access to the forest enclosures, he says, their natural instincts kick in and they begin rooting out termites and prizing apart wood in search of larvae. They also have the chance to develop the musculature that enables them to climb. However, for bears that come to the center as adults having grown up in captivity on cement floors or in small cages, there’s less hope.
“Those instincts just disappear,” Wong says. “None of the bears that come to us as full-grown adults can be released, they don’t have the skills to survive in the forest and it’s too late for them to learn. So the hope is on the cubs.”
The instinctive foraging activity of the sun bears makes them a keystone species; or, as Wong puts it, “forest doctors.” By eating fruit, they disperse tree seeds, and their penchant for termites and other insects makes them a natural form of pest control, keeping a check on critters that can otherwise hollow out and kill trees. Their digging and wood scraping also turns over soil nutrients and creates nesting cavities for a suite of other animals. Consequently, although they’re the smallest of the world’s eight bear species, they have outsize effects on their forest ecosystem.
Nearby, in the veterinary surgery that the BSBCC shares with the adjacent Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, a young bear named Itam is being fitted with a radio collar. “This bear can forage, climb trees, build nests, and she’s also avoided people since she was little,” Wong says, adding that Itam will likely be the next bear released.
Several veterinary specialists busily work around the sedated bear that’s lying prostrate on the operating table, her fleshy upturned paws tipped with powerful claws. The team take scrupulous measurements of each body part and measure her vitals before carefully fitting a radio collar around her brawny neck to track her movements in her enclosure to assess whether she’s behaving naturally and ready for release. Similar procedures were conducted for all of the 12 bears released so far, each of which was fitted with a radio collar prior to release.
Into the wild
“That’s it. Good luck,” Wong sums up as he plays back the recording of the release of one of the 12 bears he and his colleagues have put back into the wild, mostly in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, a 120,000-hectare (296,500-acre) swath of mature forest in east Sabah. It all happened in an instant: no sooner had the metal gate of the transportation crate been opened than the bear shot straight out, bounding into the tangled undergrowth and out of sight. The culmination of five years’ rehabilitation and round-the-clock care in the case of this particular bear.
The moment of the release is “a relief,” Wong says. “But there’s always a worry, because [the bears] are not under our care anymore. Whether they will make it or not is all on them. Even a wild sun bear would have a lot of challenges to survive in the forest all by themselves.”
The fates and behavior of the 12 released bears was recently the topic of a study led by the BSBCC in collaboration with researchers from the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, the NGO Panthera, and the Sabah Wildlife Department.
Using ground surveys and data from the satellite collars fitted to each of the bears, teams recovered the bodies of two of the bears that perished after only a few weeks of release. GPS transmitter malfunctions and inaccessible terrain made tracking the remaining 10 bears tricky, but sufficient evidence exists for the researchers to believe as few as half of the released bears remain alive today.
The final transmissions of six of the bears’ radio collars was a “mortality signal,” which is emitted when the wearer stops moving for a period of 24 hours or more, indicating it might be dead. While the bodies of two of these bears were recovered, precisely what happened to the other four remains largely unknown.
According to the study, however, it is “likely that many bears died within weeks of release,” due to starvation or fatal injury from confrontations with resident bears. These are the probable causes of the two confirmed deaths, the study says. The researchers believe one bear wasted away, whereas the other, a male, fell victim to a territorial dispute with a wild sun bear, populations of which likely still roam the high-quality release site.
Among the other six bears, three of their collars malfunctioned, rendering their movements untraceable; two were last tracked somewhere in the thick of the forest reserve; and one ventured into an adjacent oil palm plantation before disappearing without trace in an area known to be frequented by hunters and poachers. The study says the likelihood that the bear was poached “is high.”
Although all of the released bears were skilled climbers capable of rooting out food in their enclosures at the rescue center, the authors suggest their lack of knowledge of food sources in their unfamiliar new surroundings might have thwarted some of them. The fact that the forests of Borneo are suffering from the effects of climate change, which affects the fruiting cycles of trees, couldn’t have helped the bears, Wong says.
Sun bear release programs in other regions have had similar issues. In Cambodia, for instance, two bears released back into the wild in 2012 were both trapped in snares within two months of release, despite prior anti-snare patrols. A third bear released at a later date was killed by a resident bear.
Lessons learned in Sabah will be vitally important to improving released bear survivorship in Cambodia and across the species’ range. This is particularly pressing given the Sun Bear Global Action Plan, an international conservation strategy outlined by the IUCN’s Bear Specialist Group, identifies among its five goals the need to maximize the contribution of ex-situ sun bear populations to conservation.
Wong and his colleagues recommend affording rewilded bears a period of “soft release” by providing them with some food and care in the wild while they learn about their new surroundings. They also say more information is needed on existing wild bear populations to minimize the risk of conflict between released and resident bears.
To this end, the BSBCC is now planning an in-situ rehabilitation and release program, comprising care of freed bears within the release site and research into Sabah’s wild sun bears.
‘Stop bears being poached in the first place’
Orchestrating the release operation itself is “exhausting,” Wong says. It involves mounting a full-scale expedition into one of the deepest, remotest corners of forest in Sabah, all with a sun bear in a crate in tow. The event calls for a helicopter, support teams, and seemingly endless contingency planning. When considered on top of the time, expense and effort it takes to rehabilitate the bears, and their low survival odds when released, it poses the question: Is it all worth it?
Wong is pragmatic in his response: “As a wildlife biologist, I always believe that bears should live in the wild; they shouldn’t be in captivity, not even here.” Recovering the bodies of released bears that could otherwise have lived long lives at the center is “very painful,” he acknowledges, but those bears deemed capable of contending with the risks still deserve a second chance at life in the wild.
Nevertheless, the mixed success of the release program demonstrates that it’s simply not possible to restock declining wild populations with animals rehabilitated from captivity and trade — especially when threats to wild bears, such as tropical forest loss, poaching and the pet trade, continue largely unabated.
This is why Wong and his colleagues in their study call for prioritization of alternative conservation measures to prevent further wild sun bear declines and reduce the need for rescue centers to begin with.
“We must do everything possible to stop bears from being poached in the first place,” Wong says, adding this can be achieved through a holistic approach to conservation.
He advocates safeguarding sun bears in place by fully protecting forests and working with communities to educate and develop livelihoods that discourage poaching, while calling on authorities to back up existing wildlife legislation with strengthened law enforcement.
For a holistic approach to work, however, he says that everybody must be engaged, from the rural communities living near bear habitats all the way to the government departments responsible for enforcing wildlife laws and the politicians who have the power to make decisions. “We need everybody to do their part to help conserve wildlife,” he says.
A fragile interplay
While education and strengthened law enforcement can go some way toward reducing people’s desire to set snares, consume bear products, or keep the animals as pets, such measures can only go so far, Wong says. The key, he says, is in livelihood support through ecotourism to get the money to local people so that they don’t need to set snares to hunt wildlife to get by.
Ecotourism, or nature-based tourism, is promoted across the world as a way to raise awareness around conservation issues while providing local communities with a source of income that’s contingent on the protection of ecosystems. As such, it demonstrates the monetary value of forest that remains standing.
As in other parts of the world, the fragile interplay between livelihoods and wildlife conservation came into stark focus in Sabah during the lockdowns imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic . The pause in tourism meant businesses struggled and people were laid off in their thousands, Wong says. “Many [people] had to start collecting natural resources to put food on the table.”
The sudden surge in dependence on forest resources led to a spike in bears in need of rescue, he says. “In 2019 and the first half of 2020, we didn’t receive any new bears, which we thought was a good sign. Tourist numbers were at a record high. People had jobs. [But] then the lockdowns happened.” During the latter part of 2020, the center received three cubs.
With a constant stream of new bears coming into the center, Wong says visitors often ask him why he doesn’t just build another bear house to increase capacity. “I reply that I don’t want to build another bear house, because it will just be filled up as well. I’d rather use the resources to stop bears being poached in the first place, by [helping] people improve their livelihoods.”
And Wong and his BSBCC team are not alone in their journey. Many other conservation groups in Sabah are making livelihood support a central theme of their programs. HUTAN is a 25-year-old nonprofit established to reduce pressure on wildlife populations in the Kinabatangan region of Sabah by helping rural communities gain skills and opportunities to derive sustainable incomes from ecotourism.
Marc Ancrenaz, scientific director of HUTAN, tells Mongabay that when people understand the value of wildlife to attract visitors and sustain local economies, they typically want to cooperate. Not only is this approach assisting people, but it’s generating tangible benefits for wildlife by reducing hunting and poaching pressure because people have other means of getting by, he adds.
“Better livelihoods always relieves human pressure on natural resources,” Ancrenaz said in an email. “It is difficult for people to manage and protect what surrounds them when they are below the poverty line. A lot of people go hunting when they need food. If they had enough resources to go to the market rather than to hunt in the forest, they would prefer to go to the market.”
The cycle continues
For Wong, he says the resilience of nature is a continual inspiration: If we simply give wildlife undisturbed forest, it will be fine. “The wildlife has no problem,” he says; the problem, and therefore the solutions, lie with our actions as humans.
“At the end of it all, we need to work with people,” Wong says. “The holistic approach is challenging. But as long as we don’t give up and stay positive, one day we will achieve our goals.”
Back at the rescue center, a tiny 3-month-old cub, named Tenom, is the latest arrival. Found as an orphaned cub in a village market, her background reflects that of self-soothing Kipaku. Upon her arrival, her caretakers noticed a few old wounds on her body, but these have since healed and she now seems to be full of energy and curiosity, as a young bear should be.
Might she be a candidate for release in the future? Only time will tell.
What is certain, however, is that, at least in the near future, Tenom won’t be the last bear cub in need of rescue.
Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on 𝕏 @CarolynCowan11.
Banner image: A three-year-old sun bear at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. With small eyes but a large snout, sun bears have a largely olfactory picture of the world, relying on their sense of smell far more than their eyesight. Image by Carolyn Cowan for Mongabay.
Brunton, E. A., Levengood, A. L., Lee, T. L., Wong, S. T., Chew, L., Tuuga, A., … Yeoh, B. N. (2023). A window into the forest: Post-release behaviour of rehabilitated Bornean sun bears (Helarctos malayanus euryspilus) in Sabah, Malaysia. doi:10.21203/rs.3.rs-3271147/v1
Marx, N., Leroux, N., & Roth, B. (2020). Release of rescued Malayan sun bears Helarctos malayanus in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. Cambodian Journal of Natural History, 2020(2), 42-50. Retrieved from www.researchgate.net/publication/348443967
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with ‘Eight Bears’ author Gloria Dickie about the status and conservation of the world’s bear species, listen here:
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