Conservation charity launches ten-year action plan to protect sun bears

© Free the Bears/Peter Yuen.

The wildlife conservation charity Free the Bears has just released a ten-year action plan to ensure the survival of the world’s least-known bear species, the sun bear.

The new Global Status Review and Conservation Action Plan is the first ever range-wide conservation action plan for a terrestrial bear species. It sets out an ambitious strategy and details priority actions to be taken up to 2028.

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 it may well have come across from there.

There are still many areas within the sun bear’s range where there is suitable habitat, but the bear’s existence is uncertain. Sun bears were thought to have been extirpated in Bangladesh, but they were recently rediscovered in a small patch in the south of the country.

The species has been classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which means that it faces a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium term. Sun bear populations are decreasing rapidly, mainly because of habitat destruction and fragmentation, commercial hunting, and human-bear conflict. Sun bears are targeted by hunters for their skin, paws, and gallbladders.

Sun bears can be distinguished by the white or yellowish patch on their chest, and they feed on sweet fruits, small rodents, birds, termites, and other insects. Their exceptionally long tongues enable them to feed easily on insects, particularly stingless bees.

The bears play an important role in the forest ecosystem and are often referred to as “forest doctors” and “forest farmers”.

Sun bears live in protected areas, in forests outside protected areas, and along the borders of plantations.

© Free the Bears/Peter Yuen.

While the sun bear has long been considered to be one species, experts now think there may be two. The sun bears on Borneo are different to those on the Asian mainland and Sumatra.

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 and the species is often referred to as “the forgotten bear”.

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

Priorities in the protection of sun bears are the elimination of illegal trading in, and exploitation of, the animals, protecting sun bear habitats and populations, and direct research to increase people’s understanding of sun bears and the threats they face.

Rescued sun bears enjoying enrichment treats at the Cambodian Bear Sanctuary, the world’s largest sun bear sanctuary, operated by Free the Bears in partnership with the Cambodian government. Photo credit: Free the Bears.

The new action plan is the result of collaboration between Free the Bears, the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Bear Specialist Group, the IUCN SSC Conservation Planning Specialist Group, and TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia.

Production of a range-wide action plan was discussed when experts got together for the world’s first international symposium on sun bear conservation and management, held in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, in September 2017.

The purpose of the symposium was to gather the most up-to-date information, identify information gaps, and discuss issues relating to sun bear conservation as a precursor to the two-day planning workshop that followed immediately afterwards.

The CEO of Free the Bears, Matt Hunt, said: “Despite there being just a handful of studies of sun bears in the wild, we were able to tap into the collective knowledge and expertise of a wide range of experts who attended the symposium and determine the actions most urgently needed and likely to achieve long-term survival of this often overlooked species.”

The lead author of the action plan and research programme manager for Free the Bears, Brian Crudge, said it had taken almost two years to develop a comprehensive strategy that would guide conservation efforts over the next ten years. “Several of the priority actions are already underway,” he said.

The five main goals of the conservation strategy and action plan are to eliminate the illegal exploitation of sun bears, to protect and restore sun bear habitats and populations across the species’ natural range, to devise and employ methods to reliably monitor trends in sun bear populations, to maximise the contribution of ex-situ sun bear populations (those living outside of their natural habitat) to conservation, and to increase cross-sectoral support and collaboration for sun bear conservation. The plan details 19 objectives and 63 specific actions.

The planned actions relate to both wild and captive sun bears and will be implemented by a wide range of people and organisations, including students, university researchers, the staff of government departments, and non-governmental organisations.

The action plan will be coordinated by a special task force operating under the auspices of the sun bear expert team of the IUCN SSC Bear Specialist Group and will  comprise “focal-point” members from each range state and representatives of each of the five working groups at the conservation planning workshop. A progress report will be submitted annually by the implementation coordinator for  publication in International Bear News, the newsletter of the Bear Specialist Group and the International Association for Bear Research and Management.

“These actions will lay the groundwork to help achieve a long-term vision for the future of sun bears in which wild bears are an ecologically functioning component of natural ecosystems, present in all 11 range countries, coexisting with and appreciated by people, and no longer threatened,” Brian Crudge said.

The aim for captive bears is that they are maintained under high standards and are contributing to conservation. “The conservation of sun bears aids in the conservation of other species and ecosystems,” Crudge added.

A rescued sun bear at the Cambodian Bear Sanctuary. Photo credit: Free the Bears.

Crudge says the main threats to bears in the tropics include forest clearing and conversion, road building, poaching, and conflict with people. “These threats are amplified because they act synergistically,” he said.

Roads and shrinking forest patches provide greater access for poachers. Diminished or degraded habitat reduces food availability for bears and increases their interface with humans and agriculture. Bears are prompted to seek human-related foods and this increases the likelihood of them being killed.

Some studies have indicated that sun bears are reliant on primary forest, but a number of recent camera trapping studies (not specifically directed at sun bears) have detected them in relatively high numbers in secondary (regenerating) forests.

In the southern parts of the sun bears’ range, widespread forest conversion to oil palm has been a paramount concern.

The authors of the new action plan say that expansive oil palm plantations have clear adverse effects on sun bears such as reducing the availability of useable space, shade, cover, and food diversity. In these plantation areas, the bears are more likely to come into contact with humans and are potentially more at risk of being killed by poachers. It has been shown that bears consuming abundant oil palm fruits along plantation edges are often atypically heavy.

“Some direct killing of sun bears may occur incidentally while hunters are seeking other species with guns or snares, but targeted killing also occurs,” Matt Hunt said.

“Sun bear cubs are sold as pets, and the gallbladders and bile of sun bears is a valuable commodity that is illegally traded on a global scale.”

Sun bears have not had the same long history of exploitation for bile as Asiatic black bears and when the farming of bears to extract bile to produce medicine began in China sun bears were not included in the industry. (It is illegal to farm sun bears in China.)

However, more recently, there has been a significant trade in sun bears’ gallbladders and bile, despite no studies confirming the medicinal effectiveness of sun bear bile.

It is possible that sun bear bile is akin to rhino horn in having no pharmacological benefit, but trade is sustained through cultural beliefs, the action plan authors say.

The medicinally active ingredient of bear bile is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA). In controlled, clinical trials, this compound and its associated conjugates have been shown to have many of the medicinal properties claimed in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as some other medical benefits.

In western societies, synthetically produced UDCA has been approved as a drug to treat certain liver diseases and it has been shown to prevent retinal degeneration, protect against Type 1 diabetes, and to have therapeutic effects in the case of several neurodegenerative diseases.

Asiatic black bears produce particularly high levels of TUDCA (tauroursodeoxycholic acid), a conjugated form of UDCA.

Evidence suggests that the UDCA in bear bile may serve to protect bears during hibernation. Sun bears, who do not hibernate, have low levels of TUDCA but high levels of a different bile acid, taurochenodeoxycholic acid (TCDCA), which may have some anti-inflammatory properties, but is found in other animal species besides bears.

Numerous factors have led to the over-exploitation of Asian bears, mainly for their bile, the authors of the new action plan say. There is an increased demand that stems from burgeoning human populations and increasing wealth, and this is coupled with more efficient hunting of wild bears. It has also become much easier to sell and transport bear bile products.

Trade in bears is further fuelled by the increasing demand for bear parts for the consumption of wild meat, particularly bear paws in the form of an expensive soup.

“Bear paws are considered a delicacy and health tonic when soaked in wine and are reportedly in high demand in countries like China and Vietnam. Other bear parts – their claws, teeth, skin, and skull – are coveted as trophies or souvenirs,” Crudge said.

Bear bile farming is still going on in Vietnam, China, Korea, and Laos. There are about eight hundred bears, mainly Asiatic black bears, on farms in Vietnam. In China there are many more: an estimated 10,000 black and brown bears.

The authors of the new action plan for sun bears say that poaching for consumption and the commercial use of sun bears is a much greater threat than retaliatory killing.

“Snaring is widespread across Southeast Asia and impacts sun bears either indiscriminately or through targeted poaching,” Crudge said. Sun bears have been found with missing paws (a typical snare injury) in both high priority conservation areas and in plantations.

The prevalence of snaring is often significantly underestimated and the effectiveness of anti-poaching patrols is overestimated, Crudge said.

A sun bear maimed by a wire snare trap.

In a paper in 2016, Harrison et al. described what they called “a wave of unsustainable hunting that has spread across Southeast Asia over the past 20–30 years.”

They asserted that government agencies and the international conservation community “fail to appreciate the scale and extent of overhunting, much less respond appropriately”.

Research has shown, however, that, if poaching can be alleviated, via well-thought-out, locally adapted community outreach programmes and/or better patrolling, wildlife populations can quickly bounce back, as has been shown with tigers in some areas.

The new action plan is not only aimed at ensuring that illegal hunting and trade are prevented. Its goals also include ending the consumer demand for sun bears and empowering governments and local communities to protect their sun bear populations from illegal activities.

In Bangladesh, habitat destruction is a bigger threat to the sun bears than hunting and, for more than a decade, there has been a big increase in slash-and-burn clearance for rice cultivation.

A sun bear cub. © Free the Bears/Peter Yuen.

Domestic hunting and trade in sun bears is illegal throughout its range states, but there is weak enforcement of domestic and international wildlife laws.

During the 2017 symposium, the founder and CEO of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Wong Siew Te (pictured left), pointed 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,” Wong said.

Wong points the difficulties of releasing rescued sun bears back into the wild. Only three sun bears have been released to the wild from the Bornean conservation centre, which is in Sabah, Malaysia. One was released in 2006, one 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 rescuers have to be sure that the bears they release will be able to find wild food, and they have to wait until the released animals are big enough to defend themselves against other bears living in the forest.

“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,” Wong told the symposium delegates. “All of this is extremely challenging.”

Few rehabilitation attempts have been monitored over a sufficient period to judge their success, or assess the reasons for their failure.

Hunt says that, in most rehabilitation attempts that have been monitored so far, sun bears were either killed by resident bears, found starved, or moved out of the forest and were killed after coming too close to settlements or orchards.

In Cambodia, a pilot project to rehabilitate two sun bears that were confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade ended after both bears were trapped in snares within two months, despite more than two years of intensive snare patrolling in the area prior to the release.

Wong says efforts are now underway in Sabah to assess the fate of the sun bears released there.

An unknown number of sun bears are held in captivity across their natural range outside of coordinated programmes. This includes animals held as pets, bears kept in roadside zoos and in other tourist attractions, and the bears kept in bile farms.

Sun bear cubs, often captured when adult bears are killed, are still popular as pets in many range countries.

The expert conservation biologist Gabriella Fredriksson, who founded a sun bear education centre in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, and was one of the co-organisers of the 2017 symposium, pointed out during the symposium that there were hundreds of sun bears in captivity in Indonesia.

She said that close to one hundred of the animals were in orangutan rescue centres, a “by-product” of orangutan confiscation.

“All of the centres are full,” Fredriksson said. “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.”

Photo credit: Free the Bears.

Monitoring of sun bear populations is currently almost nonexistent. A few efforts have been made to assess density, relative density, or the bears’ presence or absence via camera trapping, sign surveys, and interviews of local people, Matt Hunt says. However, no real monitoring programme has been implemented to date.

“Evaluations of population trend have generally been gleaned from expert opinions and interviews with local people, or a subjective assessment of the threats and how they must be affecting the bears,” Hunt said. “Consequently, even if conservation programmes were implemented, it would be difficult to ascertain their effectiveness with such sparse baseline data.”

Population monitoring is therefore a vital goal in the new action plan, Hunt says.

The first field studies about sun bears were only carried out in 1997. The bears are elusive and live in areas that are tough to work in and often hard to get to, Brian Crudge explains.

“Many field techniques used for other bear species have shown limited success with sun bears because they are hard to capture. They are wary of traps and are difficult to radio-collar, and no reliable technique has yet been developed to snag their short hair for DNA-based population estimates.”

Also, much of the sun bears’ range overlaps with that of Asiatic black bears and often the signs of these two species cannot be reliably distinguished from each other, unless they are very fresh.

Sun bears are rarely seen, and even then are confused with Asiatic black bears, so interviews with local people have rarely yielded definitive information, the authors of the action plan point out.

Because sun bears are rarely the direct focus of camera trapping studies, the data obtained about them are usually “by-catch” results from studies of more high-profile species such as tigers and elephants.

“Likewise, conservation efforts for sun bears often tend to be the by-products of initiatives directed primarily at these other species,” Hunt said.

The chairman of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, Jon Paul Rodríguez, says he encourages all responsible government agencies, researchers, donors, and practitioners to examine the recommended actions summarised in the new conservation action plan and put them into practice.

The sun bear, Rodríguez says, is an umbrella species of Southeast Asia. “Conservation strategies to aid this species are likely to benefit many others in the region. Hence, the development of a conservation action plan for sun bears should be relevant to many conservation activities in the region,” he said.

Hunt (pictured below) says that implementation of the action plan will require adoption by range countries, and some range countries may develop their own country-specific plans. “The aim is that this plan will prompt national and local stakeholders to take actions that align with our strategy,” he said.

“It is our hope that with such a comprehensive plan, and the commitment of a dedicated group to implement it, we will be able to coordinate a set of actions that will drastically improve the status of sun bears as well as our understanding of them.”