PETALING JAYA: Located next to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan, Sabah, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is the only sun bear conservation centre in the world.
It aims to provide care and rehabilitation for rescued sun bears, as well as increase awareness of these animals that are native to the forests of Southeast Asia.
Now the centre is conducting virtual tours so you can watch the sun bears live in action from the comfort of your own home.
“It’s nothing like visiting the centre here in Sandakan and seeing them for yourselves, but it’s the best we can do given the restrictions,” Dr Wong Siew Tew, who founded the centre in 2008, tells FMT.
Sessions are at 10am and 2pm daily and are hosted by Wong, who is fondly known as “Papa Bear”. Each session costs RM40 and runs for up to 90 minutes, including Q&A time.
The tour will start at the visitor centre and will proceed to observation platforms 1 and 2, where Wong will feed the bears and discuss their behaviour, ecology and conservation.
“You’ll get a closer look at the sun bear’s movement, their natural habitat, and how they interact with one another.
“I will also share information on local flora and fauna such as orangutans, macaques, squirrels, and diverse tropical tree species.”
Covid and the critically endangered
BSBCC is currently home to 44 bears. Having opened its doors to visitors since 2014, it has been generating revenue via ticket sales instead of relying on grants and donations.
“Our ticket sales were increasing every year until we had to close because of the pandemic,” Wong says.
The centre reopened briefly in June last year but was forced to close again in September after the spike in Covid cases following the Sabah elections.
He adds that he is nevertheless grateful for grants and donations, especially from Sime Darby Foundation and Khazanah Foundation, that helped keep BSBCC afloat.
Of the eight species of bears, the sun bear is the smallest, weighing anywhere from 20kg to 70 kg. They get their names from the orange or cream horseshoe patches on their chests, which, according to legend, are said to resemble the rising sun.
No two bears have the same marking.
Besides facing habitat loss due to deforestation, sun bears are hunted for their gall bladders, paws and bile. And because of their size, bear cubs are illegally kept as pets – the mother is often killed, while the cub is kept in cages with inadequate care.
Sun bears are labelled “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, which means they are at risk of being extinct in the wild.
But, according to Wong, “they really should be listed as critically endangered, since there are fewer of them than the orangutans”.
Prior to June last year, BSBCC went a year and a half without any new bears. “Then we received three rescued cubs over a short period of time, between June and August.
“This worries me as I suspect poaching could be on the rise since many have lost their jobs due to the pandemic,” Wong says.
Then, in May this year, a new sun bear was brought into the world: baby Luna was born – “unexpectedly”, according to Wong, since nobody knew her mum was pregnant and it is difficult for these animals to breed in captivity.
The centre will soon be receiving an additional bear rescued by the Sabah Wildlife Department, and will also be releasing a successfully rehabilitated bear back into the wild once movement restrictions are relaxed.
So how can Malaysians help the sun bears?
Besides donating money, merchandise such as shirts, caps, canvas bags, books and soft toys can be bought from BSBCC’s online stores.
You can also “adopt” a bear or buy “gifts” for them in the form of food, toys and medication, via the centre’s website.
“When things are better, do come and visit us,” Wong encourages, adding that the centre also has programmes for volunteers.
He says collective effort is needed to make a difference in regard to crucial issues such as wildlife conservation, climate change and environmental sustainability.
“It’s very easy to get information on the internet, so we need to educate ourselves and take action,” he says. “Because at the end of the day, humans can’t survive without the forest, wildlife and a stable climate.”
By : Shalini Jay – FMT Lifestyle