On a visit to see orangutans Anna Kaminski is confronted with bears instead. With the world’s only sun bear sanctuary opening to the public next year, she joins an exclusive tour of the centre and meets some of the adorable creatures who have been rescued by the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
Polar bears are renowned for their size and hunting prowess, grizzlies occasionally make the news for attacking hikers in the North American wilderness, and the panda has long cornered the market on ursine cuteness, yet mention the sun bear – which could easily rival the panda in the adorableness stakes – and you get blank stares, as so little is known about the smallest of the world’s eight bear species.
I’m visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, Borneo, when a friend of mine introduces me to Siew Te Wong, a Malaysian wildlife biologist who founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in 2008, and is busy supervising the construction of the outdoor bear enclosures at the site next door to Sepilok. Wong agrees to take me on an impromptu tour, so we don rubber boots and go on a muddy tramp around the site’s perimeter.
Wong explains why sun bears have the name they do ("they each have a distinctive white mark on their chest that looks like the sun”) and reveals the inspiration behind the project.
“I’ve been studying these remarkable creatures for over 13 years now and have seen them held captive in dreadful conditions: tiny cages and decrepit zoos. Something had to be done. You find sun bears throughout Asia, but Borneo is their last stronghold, and even here they face numerous threats.”
Deforestation, illegal logging inside protected areas and conversion of rainforest to palm oil plantation practices mean the sun bears' habitat keeps on shrinking and their numbers have been steadily declining over the last few decades.
“Even though they’re classified as ‘Totally Protected Species’ in Sabah, farmers see them as pests and kill them to prevent them from getting at the crops” Wong tells me.
“They’re also hunted for their gall bladders which are still – unfortunately – widely used in traditional Chinese medicine.”
Sun bears are also particularly cute when little, so poachers kill their mothers and sell the babies as pets, which then spend their lives in tiny cages, being fed an inadequate diet. With 28 bears currently in its care, I ask Wong about the goals of the BSBCC.
“We’re trying to do several things at once: raise awareness and educate people about sun bears, provide a good long-term home for those bears whom we won’t be able to release back into the wild, and a short-term home for those that can be rehabilitated.”
We suddenly notice another bear high up a tree, climbing with the grace of a big cat. Another bear is visible through the thick undergrowth, sharpening her long, capable-looking claws on a tree stump.
“They’re remarkable climbers. And this is what I’d like people to see – these wonderful creatures in their own environment.” Wong goes on to explain that once the sanctuary is completed, the visitors will be able to walk around the large outdoor enclosure and observe the bears’ interaction from several viewing platforms above. The outdoor enclosure comprises a slice of jungle, linked to the bears’ individual indoor living spaces. They are free to wander outside whenever they like and some do, whereas a few are still too traumatised to face the great outdoors.
I’m interested in the individual bears and their stories so Wong leads me inside to show me some of the residents.
“This is two-year-old Mary; she was orphaned when her mother was killed and when she was rescued, she was someone’s pet. She’s recovering though, and plays well with the other little one, Debbie. That old male is Amaco. At the moment he’s showing no interest in venturing outside.”
My visit is winding to a close. Inside their house it’s almost dinnertime, and the bears know it. A couple are languidly swinging on their tyres, while others are getting restless. Volunteers are putting food in hollow balls and other receptacles, which simulate the bears’ natural environment where they’d have to patiently extract insects from inside trees and honey from beehives.
The food containers are pushed through the slots of the indoor enclosures with almost military precision and the bears pounce on the food. Even after their troubled and traumatic pasts, contentment still reigns after a good meal.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre should be open to the public in early 2014, allowing you to see two of Borneo’s most fascinating mammals – the sun bear and the orangutan – in a single visit to Sepilok.