One of my earliest memories of bears has to do with advertising. Do you remember that of the White Goliath together with Licia Colò and the great white polar bears? Well, this advertisement has greatly influenced my imagination and since I was a child I have always wanted to meet these extraordinary mammals. When I arrived in Borneo I finally realized my dream, meeting for the first time a cute little bear with awkward movements and with a particular sign on his chest in the shape of a necklace, that is the sun bear. Unlike their arctic relatives that have influenced my imagination, these mammals differ in both their size and color.
But let’s get to know them better!
THE TWO DIFFERENT TYPES OF SUN BEAR
The sun bear is a species that can be found in several countries of Southeast Asia including: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Malay peninsula, eastern India and southern China. They live most of the time in subtropical and montane rainforests, at an altitude that varies between 500 and 2700 meters above sea level. There are two species of sun bears: the Malaysian ones that live in the wooded areas of the Southeast Asian peninsula and in Sumatra, and those of Borneo which, unlike the first ones, are about half the size; this is a characteristic that according to scientists is the result of an evolutionary adaptation due to lack of food.
THE CHARACTERISTICS OF BORNEO BEARS
With a height ranging from 120-150 cm and with a weight between 30-60 kg for males and 20-40 kg for females, those Borneo are the smallest bears in the world and are a “totally protected” within the scope of the wildlife conservation of Sabah, thanks to a decree of 1997. They are shy and solitary animals that form a herd only if a female is with her cubs or during the mating period. Their coat is short, dark brown to black in color, their ears are small and round but their distinguishing feature is a collar-shaped cream-colored patch they have on their chests, varying in size from bear to bear. Their soft paws are similar to the palms of our hands and this allows them to walk easily on the forest floor. Furthermore, their limbs are short and curved inwards with 5 cm long nails which make them de facto skilled tree climbers. Sun bears use their nails and also their long tongue which can reach 20-25 cm, to dig deep in search of the large colonies of termites and ants of which they are very greedy, but their diet also includes the consumption of fruits such as figs, acorns, wild durian and many more. Sun bears also feed on tree shoots and use their claws to open the hollow trunks of coconut palms in search of oil-rich seeds, such as acorns.
THE DECREASE OF SUN BEARS
Despite the 1997 decree, the sun bear is still a very vulnerable species. In fact, it is believed that in the last 30 years, their number has decreased by 30% due to the severe deforestation of their habitat that has taken place throughout South-East Asia in recent decades. Commercial poaching is another major threat as their bile is in high demand in traditional Chinese medicine; the poor beasts are tied up in small cages and attached to IVs that pump bile out of their gallbladders. As if that weren’t enough, their lives are constantly threatened by the fact that their paws are considered, especially by the Chinese, an expensive delicacy and by the illegal trade in their puppies, first orphaned and then sold to lovers of exotic animals. To combat the risk of extinction of sun bears and prevent the trade of products created thanks to the sacrifice of their lives, there has been the promulgation of a series of national laws to protect the wildlife of Borneo but despite this, illegal poaching continues .
Sun bears can be seen at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center in Sepilok on Malaysian Borneo.
IL BORNEAN SUN BEAR CONSERVATION CENTRE
The bears can be seen at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC), founded in 2008 and opened to the public in 2013 by Wong Siew Te, one of the few wildlife biologists studying and working with the sun bear. The desire to open this center came to him after seeing the dangerous situation of the poor bears. At the time of opening, the center was able to treat and rehabilitate a maximum of seven specimens while today, thanks to subsequent expansions, it is able to accommodate 46. These numbers have made it one of the best facilities in the Sepilok area.
The bears that arrive at the BSBCC are animals that have a high level of stress due to their condition of captivity in small cages, which has thus fueled trauma and suffering that condition their behavior, such as walking nervously back and forth without stopping. Once a bear arrives at the center it receives a thorough health check to check for contagious parasites and potentially dangerous diseases. After the health check, the bear is quarantined for a month after which it is transferred to an internal enclosure close to other bears, so that it can get familiar with the places, smells and sounds of its fellow bears. Before he can enter the forest, he must first be placed in a training program so that he can learn to avoid the electric wire fences that surround the center to prevent the guests, who are very curious animals, from escaping. At the end of the program, the bear is introduced into a fenced hectare of forest, where it learns to climb, look for food and build nests for the night or sleep in the hollows of logs. If all this happens, it’s a good sign! It means that the bear is regaining its healthy wild habits. Bears that successfully complete this stage of rehabilitation make excellent candidates for release into the forest.
THE VISIT TO THE BSBCC
Thanks to two elevated walkways and telescopes arranged on various viewing platforms, it is possible to admire the daily activity of the bears present in the centre, i.e. go in search of food, climb trees and build nests in the rainforest. Here the bears develop the skills needed to survive in the wild and can be seen at various levels of rehabilitation. The center is open every day from 9 to 15.30 at a cost of RM 30, and gives you the opportunity to see other species of animals as well. I wholeheartedly recommend you to come to the BSBCC and make a donation, especially to learn more about the life of the sun bear. The center also gives you the opportunity to adopt one! A choice that can light up her life and also your smile, like the one Licia Colò had when she was holding a polar bear cub in her arms.