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About halfway through his presentation, bear researcher Wong Siew Te showed a duotone slide. Pictured was a small sun bear cub, with a rather rotund body and bright, pleading eyes. It was trussed up like a chicken. Right after the photograph was taken by a Japanese researcher in Borneo, the cub was taken to a kitchen and slaughtered as it screamed.
This is the fate of most bears that come into contact with men in this region.
Brown, black and polar bears are more than capable of eating humans and sometimes do, but these carnivores, the largest meat-eaters to stalk the earth today, still command a grudging respect from those who share their land, and even warrant some measure of concern over how the great white hunter is at peril from global warming. The smallest and probably most secretive of bears though, the Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) has no such luck despite its distinct preference for fruit and grubs rather than manmeat, and is regarded as either foe or/and food throughout its range, which historically spanned the easternmost frontier of India to southern China down to Sumatra and Borneo. But as Wong put it, the sun bear "has been extirpated in much of its range" and recent sightings suggest that the species survives in but a mere fraction of its former homestead.
The shrinking world of the littlest bearAbout the size of a large dog but with vastly greater bulk (males reach nearly 60 kg), the Malayan sun bear is the world's smallest bear species and the least known. The only true tropical rainforest bear (a ghostly subspecies of the black bear lives in Canadian rainforests), the sun bear is a big-headed animal with sleek black fur and a yellowish mark of varying size and shape on the chest that serves to distinguish individuals. Feet bearing long curved claws help create suitable openings in tree holes for the animal to search out insects and honey using its very long tongue, as evident in the casualty on the right, which was shot simply because it was seen and its existence deemed intolerable.
Wong regards Borneo as the last stronghold of the sun bear. Unfortunately the island's population offers just half a hope, as the bears have during their stay evolved into a distinctively smaller sub-species, Helarctos malayanus euryspilus. Isolation does annoying things to both people and pandas. Conservationists cringe when captive Bornean orang-utans are mated with Sumatran apes, which are distant cousins separated by a million-year gap. Sabah's pygmy elephants are to Asian elephants what African forest jumbos are to their savannah cousins, giving ivory battlers twice as many species to fight for. And the identity of clouded leopards is now muddied by mottled felines from Borneo and Sumatra.
Somewhat optimistically, the IUCN Red List that ranks species according to their risk of extinction rates the sun bear as merely "vulnerable", owing perhaps to the lack of recent data. The wildlife trade regulators do somewhat better, according the sun bear to Appendix I on the CITES list that bars crossborder trade of a species and its parts unless one has enough grease to oil the joints of otherwise tightfisted customs officials. That said, internal legal protection of bears against poaching and exploitation is as good as the ability of authorities to police forest firestarters and hardwood thieves. As Wong put it, giving an animal "protected" status in Malaysia or Indonesia simply means you need a license to shoot it.
The key habitats of sun bears are lowland tropical rainforests such as those in Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, although Wong notes that curiously, surprising populations of sun bears can be found in peat swamp forests (a habitat that is even more endangered than terrestrial rainforests in Malaysia and Borneo and home to near-extinct obligates such as the hairy-nose otter and false gharial). Unfortunately, the sun bear's preferred haunts are also where fine furniture lovers obtain their raw materials, such as Bornean ironwood, a tree so densely built that it sinks and takes nearly a thousand years to reach a harvestable size. With the additional impetus of biofuels that now drives a crazed and counterproductive frenzy to cover the region with 'climate friendly' oil palms, the sun bear and its homelands, which cover a mere 6% of the earth's surface but harbour an estimated 50% of all plant and animal species (Corlett & Primack, 2005), face a future that is bleak at best and at worst incapable of sustaining advanced life, be it human or better.
Bearly known when Wong commenced his fieldwork in Ulu Segama Forest Reserve, Sabah, for his M.Sc. from 1999-2001, the sun bear was a little known quality. Other than Wong, only two other workers are active in the field of sun bears: F. Nomura in Tabin Forest, Sabah and Gabriella Frederiksson in Sungai Wain Forest, East Kalimantan.
"Before my work, we had no idea what they eat in the forest, what habitats they prefer," Wong said of this "forgotten species." Compounding the problem for researchers is the animal's general elusiveness, be it from its nocturnal and cryptic habits, low natural population density or less happily, its sheer rarity as a result of hunting and habitat loss. During his time in Sabah, Wong recalls seeing a good number of orang-utans, but just a handful of sun bears. "How can a mammal that plays such an important role in the jungle not be studied?" he wonders aloud.
To study bears, the animals have to be captured (preferably alive), tagged or radio-collared, released and followed as they pursue their daily activities. Culvert traps made from aluminium, makeshift drums and logwood traps baited with 3-day old chicken entrails were used to lure the bears. The latter two methods had to be abandoned when the animals proved more than capable of clawing their way out of solid wood and metal. Bycatches were common, with civets, mongooses, pangolins, porcupines and monitor lizards making frequent appearances. The bears, as noted, were scarce; only 6 were captured from 1999-2000 and a stint from 2005-2007 yielded only 4 animals. Some animals had gunshot wounds and during the 1999-2000 study, the animals were severely emaciated, with two later found dead after release.
By tracking the collared animals, Wong estimates that a male sun bear needs about 15.5 square km of territory, with females making do with less. Favoured bedding sites include large tree cavities, cavities under large tree roots, big logs (both in and under) and exposed tree branches. Ground level cavities and hollow logs are believed to be especially important as dens for breeding females, suggesting that retaining some mature trees, including dead and hollow ones, is vital for their survival in disturbed or logged forests.
Wong showed images of animals wedged on trees 45 m from the ground, proving that climbing trees is probably of little use in eluding a nosy sun bear.
The bears' food habits were studied by analysing fresh scats (bear shit), examining feeding sites and, where the subject permitted, gawking at the animal. Evidence of bears at work include damage at the nests of termites and stingless bees, claw marks on tree trunks and fallen logs. Camera traps at known feeding spots such as mature fig trees also recorded bears rolling about on the ground, pulling faces, other creatures such as clouded leopards, marbled cats and the elusive bay cat. At times, elephants took offence to flash-in-your-eye primate paparazzi, stomping on barrel traps and shutting down cameras.
In order of decreasing importance, beetles, figs, beetle larvae, termites and interestingly enough, ants, topped the bears' menu. The bears primarily fed on insects (59% of diet), plant material (30%) and occasionally on other vertebrates, which in Wong's sample included pheasants, lizards, fish and a Burmese brown tortoise. In turn, adult bears are known to fall prey to reticulated pythons.
A little aside on figs. Known as "wu hua guo" or flowerless fruit by the Chinese, Ficus is a most curious genus of trees, stranglers and climbers. Besides the banyan, the bough most beloved of Buddhists is also a fig with the appropriate name of religiosa. Most plants produced flowers before the fruit, but figs fruit and flower at the same time, with the tiny inflorescences lining an internal hollow in the unfertilised fruit. Through a minute hole at the base of the fruit, fig wasps just millimetres long make their way in and lay eggs in the ovaries of some of the individual flowers. These egg-laden galls are their bounty for fertilising the rest of the fruit-flower with pollen from the figs where they emerged mated and moribund. From their collective brood, male wasps mature and begin an insemination spree before helpfully chewing a small hole to allow their mates passage through a shower of pollen and dying thereafter. Each fig species has a unique fig wasp adapted to fertilising it, so the absence of the wasp (as early fig fans found out) leads to barren trees. So the next time you chew a fig, just think about all the little wasps that grew and died (and probably still remain in traces) to provide this most nutritious of fruits. For forest creatures, figs are also a matter of life and death. Animals from hornbills to howler monkeys rely on the near omnipresence of fig fruits for sustenance in jungles that are often dietary deserts for frugivores due to the extreme seasonality of most other fruit trees. Hence, like elephants in Africa, figs are keystone species in rainforests. A single tree may have 2 million figs that feed browsers in the canopy down to ground level foragers such as bears and bearded pigs.
It turned out that extreme weather patterns are just as bad for sun bears as their arctic kin. Wong's initial study followed the most severe El Niño-induced drought known, in 1998. The dessication, plus widespread forest fires, caused fig wasps to become locally extinct in many parts of Borneo on a scale vast enough to trigger mass abortion of fruit by unfertilised trees. With neither fruit nor the wasps to pollinate the figs, a period of scarcity occurred. Highly fruit reliant species such as bears and bearded pigs were found starving or dying. Over time, fig wasps from areas where they survived would have recolonised the decimated regions and trigger a recovery, at least until manmade outbreaks of peat fires and sun-blocking haze wipe up every year's crop. But the broader lesson from this episode is that mature fig trees are vital to the survival of many rainforest animals, and in turn the animals and plants that they feed or pollinate.
Paws for thoughtWhatever the cause of their famine, many bears end up scrounging for food at the fringes of agricultural land and human settlements, where nutritious oil palm fruit and garbage heaps abound. And with that, the killings shoot up as plantation managers seek to control a lumbering pest. Those with a taste for "xiong zhang", fancying themselves latter day emperors, will seek out bears as they wander away from the heart of shrunken forests into private estates and paw-filled stews. Meanwhile, the gall bladders are sought for their bile and despite an apparent surfeit of farms filled with milked bears, the hunting still goes on in the wild, suggesting that the notion of farmed beasts saving their free mates is as wild as the demand that fuels the killing.
Some affluent Indonesians, on the other hand, like their bears alive, be it as puppy-sized cubs (captured by shooting their mothers) frolicking in the backyard or full grown adults caged in filthy concrete cubes in which they can barely move. "You have no idea how cute a baby sun bear can be," quipped Wong. (Pictured bear cub adapted from the Wildlife Friends of Thailand)
But by far the greatest threat to the future of sun bears in Borneo is the sheer rate of deforestation that is taking place on the island. Malaysia, it seems, is a bigger culprit than its larger neighbour when it comes to clear-cutting its lumber resources without a thought of what will be left after every forest concession is used up. According to the UN FAO, Malaysia has lost 0.65% of its forest area every year since 2000 and Wong reckons that only 11.6% of the country consists of pristine forests, even though woodland officially covers 60% of the nation. Satellite maps of Sarawak and Sabah depict vast stretches of logged and cultivated lands that lie pale over sorry islets of primary growth. He also revealed that economic ingenuity is already finding a solution to scarcity, as timber markets are demanding not just traditional hardwood trees but also softwood and pioneer species that can be turned into chipboard and fibreboard. So the term "selective logging" may in fact mean choosing every usable sapling and leaving behind a forest with neither a canopy nor understorey.
Conservation priorities for sun bears therefore hinge upon an unwieldy blend of distribution mapping, ecological research, public outreach and logging practices that preserve forest elements essential to bear survival such as mature fig trees and decaying logs that harbour grubs and provide denning shelters. And in stark contrast to the international attention lavished on other charismatic megafauna, sun bears seem to have gotten a raw deal, if you could call it a deal at all. No latter-day Theodore Roosevelt looms over the horizon to cast a sympathetic light on the solar ursid. It may well be that the sun will continue to set on these small, chunky carnivores until the day they appear more frequently on pretty posters than in cooking pots.
More on sun bears:•
The Future of Asian Bears: Country Reports and Pictorial Summary by the Japan Bear Network
• Sunbear Research & Conservation at the Land Empowerment Animals People website
• Support Wong's sun bear research in Ulu Segama Malua Forest Reserve
• Friend of Bears in The Star, 8 Aug 2006
• The Singapore Zoo is a supporter of Wong's research on sun bears and bearded bigs and will be opening a new exhibit for its existing sun bears soon.
• Wong Siew Te's M.Sc thesis, The Ecology of the Malayan Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus) in the lowlandd tropical rainforest of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. M.Sc. thesis, The University of Montana, 2002
• Wong Siew Te et al. Food Habits of Malayan Sun Bears in Lowland Tropical Forests of Borneo. Ursus 13
• Wong Siew Te et al. Home range, movement and activity patterns, and bedding sites of Malayan sun bears Helarctos malayanus in the Rainforest of Borneo. Biological Conservation, 199 (2004).
• Wong Siew Te et al. Impacts of fruit production cycles on Malayan sun bears and bearded pigs in lowland tropical forest of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo (abstract). Journal of Tropical Ecology (2005), 21.
• Augeri, David M. On the Biogeographic Ecology of the Malayan Sun Bear. Ph.D. thesis, Darwin College, Cambridge University, June 2005. (Besides sun bears, the paper also shows many other camera trapped animals including the first wild photos of bay cats)
• Meijaard, E. Craniometric differences among Malayan sun bears (Ursus malayanus); evolutionary and taxonomic implications, in the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 52 (2), 31 Dec 2004.
• G. M. Fredriksson. Predation on sun bears by reticulated python in East Kalimantan, Indonesian, Borneo, in the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 53 (1), 29 June 2005.