First international sun bear symposium gets underway in Malaysia

© Free the Bears/Peter Yuen.

The first international symposium about sun bear conservation got underway in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, yesterday (Monday). Attendees shared information about the plight of the animal, which has been listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and began developing a conservation action plan.

The sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), which is also known as the honey bear, dog bear, or small bear, and the ours des cocotiers (coconut bear) in French, and is the world’s smallest bear species, is present in 11 countries: mainly in Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, India, Vietnam, and Laos. The recent presence of one sun bear has been recorded in China, but it was close to the border with Myanmar, so may well have come across from there.

Sun bears were thought to have been extirpated in Bangladesh, but there is evidence that they are present in a small area in the south of the country.

David Garshelis from the IUCN’s Bear Specialist Group told symposium attendees that there are possibly two sun bear species.

The sun bears on Borneo (Helarctos malayanus euryspilus) are different to those on the Asian mainland and Sumatra.

Sun bears can be distinguished by the white or yellowish patch on their chest. They feed on sweet fruits, small rodents, birds, termites, and other insects.

Populations are decreasing, mainly because of habitat destruction and fragmentation, commercial hunting, and human-bear conflict.

There is widespread snaring throughout the sun bear’s range.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, most of the forest clearing is for palm oil plantations and pulpwood.

With most public attention being paid to the keynote species such as the orangutan, the tiger, the elephant, and the rhino, the plight of the sun bear is rarely front-page news. The attendees at this week’s three-day symposium aim to raise the animal’s profile and spread awareness of the need to conserve the species.

Matt Hunt from the organisation Free the Bears, which was set up in Perth, Australia, and runs sun bear sanctuaries in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, said of the sun bear: “Compared to the other bears, it doesn’t really appear to have inspired anything like the level of cultural relevance or reverence that other bear species have across the globe.

“Even today the vast majority of visitors to Southeast Asia, and probably the vast majority of residents of Southeast Asia, don’t seem to realise that they are living in bear country.”

Gabriella Fredriksson, who founded a sun bear education centre in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, said: “The sun bear is not a high-profile species. There are a lot of other species that are considered more important.”

It is not widely known, for instance, that sun bears are excellent climbers and spend a considerable amount of time in trees.

One big problem, Garshelis says, is that there are not enough people researching in the field. “For other bears, there are more.”

For Hunt, a main challenge is how to increase awareness, but not end up encouraging illegal trade. Sun bears are sold on markets and via Facebook, Hunt says, and such trafficking is a growing threat.

Hunt cites one survey carried out in the Laotian capital Vientiane. A total 12 percent of those questioned said they had purchased wildlife in the previous 12 months and 28 percent said they wanted to purchase wildlife.

Heidi Quine from Animals Asia – which has offices in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Hong Kong, Vietnam and several countries in Europe –  talked to symposium attendees about bear bile farming, which is now illegal in Vietnam.

“Animals Asia has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding that means that the government will be in a position where they need to follow up and make sure that all bears that are in private residences are removed from farms by 2023 and they’ve committed to working with Animals Asia to make sure that that happens,” Quine told Changing Times.

In Vietnam, since 2005, all bears kept by farmers have had to be registered and microchipped, under the agreement that they wouldn’t be harvested for their bile, which is used to treat numerous ailments, including eye problems, liver diseases, and kidney malfunction.

“Because of a lack of law enforcement by the authorities, and a lack of resources, there has been a loophole and we know that the bears are still being farmed; they are still being kept in these private residences,” Quine said.

“The MoU means that they are going to remove all of those bears from private residences, thereby collapsing that loophole.”

Bile farming is still going on in Vietnam, China, Korea, and Laos. There are thought to be about 1,000 bears, including Asiatic black bears, on farms in Vietnam. In China there are many more: an estimated 10,000 black and brown bears. Sun bears are much rarer.

The founder and CEO of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Wong Siew Te (pictured below), also points to the need for more action to implement laws.

“Sun bears are protected across their range, but there is very little interest in law enforcement.”[tweetquote]


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Fredriksson told symposium attendees that, in 2008, percentages of the sun bear’s overall distribution range were 46.3 in Indonesia, 18.5 in Myanmar, and 15.4 in Malaysia. In Thailand, it used to be 13 percent, but now is 3.3 percent.

She said that four of the sun bear range countries were among those most responsible for deforestation: Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos. The land clearing was mostly for palm oil, she said. There was then trading in sun bears after the clearing.

Sun bear populations are decreasing in almost all range countries, Fredriksson told symposium attendees.

She said that, according to sun bear experts in each range country, the biggest future decrease will be in Vietnam (between 50 and 80 percent in the next thirty years).

The overall prediction is a decrease of 39 percent in the future as compared with 42 percent in thirty years overlapping with the present and 30 percent for the past. If there is a 30 percent decline in any time window, a species is considered to be vulnerable.

Fredriksson (pictured left) says there are hundreds of sun bears in captivity in Indonesia.

She says close to one hundred of the animals are in orangutan rescue centres; a “byproduct” of orangutan confiscation.

“All of the centres are full. Nobody wants any sun bears anymore. The government is looking at solutions to deal with this without wanting to invest money into it as there is little public pressure on the government within Indonesia to start dealing properly with displaced wildlife.”

Since 2012, Fredriksson says, it has been legal for private organisations like those running petting zoos, to keep protected species like sun bears in captivity. This, she says, is a way of using sun bears that many would consider to be exploitation; and the conditions in which the bears are kept are often substandard.

Nearly eighty licences have been given out to private “conservation organisations”, Fredriksson says.

© Free the Bears/Peter Yuen.

Heidi Quine told symposium attendees about work being done in the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre in the Tam Dao National Park, which covers eleven hectares and has a capacity for two hundred bears, including black bears. Eleven sun bears are currently being cared for at the centre. The bears arrive with a “suite of psychological and physical trauma”, which takes significant investment and time and patience to sort out, Quine says.

Quine also says there needs to be much more rescue centre capacity for sun bears.

Robert Steinmetz, also from the Bear Specialist Group, talked about the sun bear’s possible resilience in the face of poaching pressures. He said that black bears tended to be poached more than sun bears. They had a more predictable behaviour than sun bears and hunters could target them more easily.

Garshelis (pictured left) says the sun bear is the bear most commonly raised as a pet.

The longest running Free the Bears programme is in Cambodia, where there are 125 sun bears in the sanctuary. All the Free the Bears sanctuaries are government owned.

Wong Siew Te says a major challenge is getting sun bears back to the forest. This is important, he says, not least because of the roles they play in the ecosystem. “Forest doctor and “forest farmer” are just two of the terms used to describe the bears.

One bear was released from the Bornean centre in 2006. Another was released in 2015, and another in 2016. The process is not easy, Wong says, and involves gaining knowledge about sun bears’ biology and life history.

“The bears that we release have to be able to find wild food, and one of the threats for the bears that live in the forest is other bears, so we have to wait until they are big enough to defend themselves before we release them.”

In rehabilitation, Wong says, bears need to be trained to climb trees.

“Finding a big chunk of forest that is free from hunting and poaching, and is not going to be cleared in the near future, is very difficult. All of this is extremely challenging.”

Wong says that two sun bears were literally helicoptered in to the Tabin wildlife reserve in Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, so that they could be released in the middle of the forest.

© Free the Bears/Peter Yuen.

Shahriar Caesar Rahman from the Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA) in Bangladesh says studies have indicated that there is no viable sun bear population in the country, but the CCA has been working with local tribal people to collect data and there are photos showing that the animals are still there.

Rahman says that, too often, wildlife conservative projects are implemented by outside organisations. “People who don’t know the area come and take a snapshot of the situation. They do not really see the whole picture.

“They often come up with one-size-fits-all projects that don’t work. There needs to be more of an exchange with local people. You learn from them, and you teach them something.”

In Bangladesh, Rahman says, habitat destruction is a bigger threat to the sun bears than hunting and, over the past 12 years, there has been a big increase in slash-and-burn clearance for rice cultivation. “We are trying to work on protecting habitat and reducing hunting pressure.”

The CCA has helped build schools in rural areas and is assisting local people so that they can develop alternative livelihoods that do not endanger wildlife or the environment.

“The sun bear doesn’t need management; people do.[tweetquote]

“Ultimately, if we want to save the sun bears of Bangladesh, it’s very simple; we just need to save the forest,” Rahman said.

© Free the Bears/Peter Yuen.

Roshan Guharajan from the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota says that, in Sabah, sun bears are living in a landscape dominated by oil palm plantations.

“It is a remarkable species,” he said. “There is high hunting pressure, but, despite this, they have learned how to survive and have even managed to breed.”

The future survival of sun bears, Guharajan says, depends on how successful anti-poaching methods prove to be.

In Sarawak, the other state in Malaysian Borneo, sun bears are not fully protected.

Hunt says a main aim of the symposium is to produce a range-wide guide for sun bear conservation interventions over the next ten years. “Probably the next step will be to create national action plans.”

Free the Bears will take the range-wide guide to the Cambodian government to show the authorities what is being recommended for the species and hopes it will then be able to work with those authorities to create a national action plan.

“Realistically, our hope is that, within the next five years, we will be able to get national action plans drawn up in three range countries.”

Hunt (pictured below) says sun bears are the Jack Russell terriers of the bear world. “What they lack in stature they certainly make up for in personality.”


The symposium was organised by Free the Bears, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, and the IUCN Bear Specialist Group.


Full symposium round-up to follow.