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The bear guardians at Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) are on a mission to rescue the world’s smallest bear from the perils of extinction. Sun bears are highly sought after in the illegal pet trade, and are being hunted for use in traditional Chinese medicine as well as food. From rescue to rehabilitation, BSBCC provides a sanctuary and refuge for these orphaned bears with hopes of an eventual release back into the wild.
One sunny day
In a tropical rainforest in Borneo, bear keeper Jeniur “Boboy” Justin is standing on a watching platform 20m above the dense forest floor. He is observing Logan, a young male sun bear who’s busy trying to crack open a coconut. Logan’s claws and powerful jaw make short work of the tough shell, and after a refreshing drink, Logan lays on his back for an afternoon siesta.
“Logan loves to eat, he will steal other bears’ food. He has become chubby,” says Boboy with a laugh.
Logan and his keeper, Boboy are in the forested area of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sandakan, a district in Sabah, East Malaysia. The only centre in the world solely dedicated to the conservation of the sun bear. This has been a refuge for Logan since he was rescued in 2018 as a young cub.
“When Logan first arrived, I could see that he was scared. We found that his left paw had a problem. It got injured in a poacher’s snare,” says Boboy.
Being a young cub without his mother, and with an injured paw, Logan was in need of critical care, and it was Boboy who took on the responsibility of looking after him.
“It’s not easy being a surrogate to Logan,” Boboy reflects. “There are a lot of things we need to know, like how bears, especially babies, can survive in the jungle, how we should teach them to be wild.”
It took months of dedicated care from Boboy for Logan to become confident and capable of fending for himself.
Photo: Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
A dark cloud
Logan’s plight is far from an isolated incident. Since BSBCC was set up in 2008, the centre has worked with the state wildlife department, to rescue over 60 bears.
“On average, we have five to six bears being sent to our centre every year; half of them are adults and half of them are cubs. All of these animals are all orphaned, because their mums were killed by poachers,” laments Dr Wong Siew Te (who goes by Wong), founder of the BSBCC.
Sun bears, which are the world’s smallest bear and found all across Southeast Asia, are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Though the exact numbers of sun bears remains unverified, studies have shown that their population has fallen by over 30 per cent in the last three decades.
Habitat loss has been a major factor in this, but the biggest threat that the bears currently face is from poaching for industries like the pet trade and food. Despite being a legally protected species in Malaysia, poaching activities still persist.
One of the biggest current threats, comes from their use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). For centuries, bear bile and gall bladders have been sought after for treating a variety of ailments. A recent report by TRAFFIC, stated that almost 70 per cent of all TCM shops in Malaysia were found with some form of bear products. Up from 2012, when it was at 48 per cent.
But while the use of bear products in TCM has increased, so has knowledge of TCM over the years. There is now a realisation that there are viable and healthy alternatives to using wildlife products. The Federation of Chinese Physicians and Medicine Dealers Association of Malaysia, is advocating for the use of medical herbs instead.
“We can completely use medicinal herbs to replace animals” states Ng Kean Hwa, a second-generation TCM practitioner. “With a clear diagnosis, and when used appropriately, it can directly help achieve the curative effect and is a good form of protection towards the natural environment.”
The value of looking after sun bears and not exploiting them isn’t just for the benefit of the bears. Sun bears provide a very tangible benefit to the welfare of people as well.
Sun bears help maintain a healthy diversity of trees by keeping termite populations in check, and dispersing seeds. These trees are essential resources that people use for medicine, building infrastructure, and other needs that are important to the well-being of society.
“For us as humans, we need a healthy forest ecosystem to provide us with clean air, clean water, stable climate, genetic resources like medicine. All of these matter to us,” says Wong.
To help educate the public on the need to conserve sun bears, Wong has opened the centre for the public to view the bears in a forested enclosure, and to raise public awareness about their plight through education and eco-tourism.
Here, the bears are fed their natural diet and have regular medical and dental check-ups. Rehabilitation is a critical component of BSBCC’s work, and when the bears are suitable for release, they are returned to the wild. To date, BSBCC has successfully released seven sun bears into protected forests.
“My hope for all sun bears is that they can survive for a long, long time in Southeast Asia,” declares Wong. “I really hope that the sun bears can live forever in this world.”
Rays of hope
Back at the platform, Logan has woken from his nap and is climbing a tree in search of something else to eat. Boboy smiles as any proud parent would, and shares a story of when he had to teach Logan the art of tree-climbing.
“There was one time I climbed a small tree, and the tree wasn’t able to support me, and the branch almost broke. What I was most afraid of was that Logan was just below me, and I feared I would be crushed along with Logan,” he shares with a laugh.
“Logan’s hand was weak when it came to climbing trees, but he still challenged himself and refused to give up. That’s why I like Logan. I have spent all this time working with him and our relationship is so close.”
Today, Logan is a master tree climber, despite having a deformed paw. But Boboy has bigger hopes for his "adopted" bear. “In time, we will try our best to fix Logan’s paw… so he can be like other bears, and be released into the wild.”
The desire for the sun bears to see a new dawn, is one that Boboy wishes all Malaysians will come to embrace. “I hope that everyone can work together to protect and care for the wild animals we have. I hope that one day, my children will have the opportunity to see the sun bear in the wild.”
Before he returns to look after the rest of the bears under his care, Boboy has one last story to share. “We gave him the name Logan because of his left paw. It looks like the comic superhero Wolverine’s claw,” says Boboy with a smile.
High up in the trees, Logan has found a comfortable spot, and like a true hero, has fallen asleep once again.
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About Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
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