Friend of bears

By Tan Cheng Li

The Star, 8 Aug 2006

WONG Siew Te can talk for hours on end about sun bears. His passion for his study subject is genuine and apparent; so it comes as a surprise to hear that he never actually chose to study them.

“It was by chance,” says the gregarious researcher from Bukit Mertajam, Penang, who had always wanted to work with animals and had bred dogs, fish and birds as a teenager.
As a student of wildlife biology at University of Montana, United States in 1994, he had attended a talk by Dr Christopher Servheen, the co-chair of the IUCN (World Conservation Union) group on bears. Wong later enquired about projects on sun bears out of curiosity and co-incidentally, Servheen was looking for a Malaysian to study the animal. A decision was pretty much made there and then; Wong will research into sun bears for his Masters programme.

In preparation for the project, he spent summer breaks as a field assistant with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in research on grizzly and black bears, a routine which continued even after he started his doctorate programme in 2002.
Wildlife biologist Wong Siew Te taking the measurements of a Malayan sun bear, checking its health and getting blood and hair samples. – Photo by WONG SIEW TE

His experience in handling over 100 wild bears, mostly black bears in the Cabinet-Yaak Wilderness in Montana, proves invaluable for his fieldwork in Sabah.

A typical day at Danum Valley sees Wong checking traps for successful captures. When he gets a bear, he first sedates it and then spends up to 90 minutes taking measurements, checking its health and getting blood and hair samples (for future population genetic studies). Wong is adept at this, backed up by a diploma in animal science and veterinary and tenure as wildlife research assistant in Taiwan.

He also tattoos an identification number on its inner lip and attaches an ear tag, before attaching a radio transmitter collar. A nylon “spacer” attachment prevents the collar from staying on permanently. Once frayed, the spacer tears, allowing the collar to drop off for retrieval.
“Because of their shy, secretive nature and dense tropical forest habitat, it is impossible to study sun bears from direct observation like studying primates or Africa’s wildlife. So I use radio-telemetry and camera traps for my research,” explains Wong.

While he tirelessly stalks the roaming of sun bears in Sabah, his Taiwanese wife and two daughters, age five and one and a half, remain in Taipei. “I last saw them during Chinese New Year (February) but we talk on the computer every day,” he says with a hint of longing in his voice.

Such sacrifices aside, Wong is thankful for the opportunity to study the species. “The more I learn about sun bears, the more I know they need help and the more I worry for them. They will remain my focus for now since no one is working on them and I have accumulated much experience and knowledge about the species.”
For the sake of the long-ignored sun bear, one certainly hopes that he will maintain stewardship of protecting the world’s smallest bear.

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