The sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) is the least known and least studied bear. Indeed, they are one of the most neglected large mammals in Southeast Asia. They are the only tropical bear species inhabiting lowland tropical forests throughout much of Southeast Asia – found in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. They are also distributed as far west as Bangladesh and northeastern India and as far north as the southern Yunnan Province in China. They are now occurring very patchily through much of their former distribution range, and have been extirpated from many areas, especially the mainland of Southeast Asia. Two subspecies of sun bears are recognized: the sun bear found in Borneo (H. m. euryspillus) are sufficiently different and smaller than those from the Asia mainland and Sumatra (H. m.malayanus).
The sun bear is the smallest among the eight living bear species. The mainland subspecies is a bit larger, with the adult male weighing up to 100 kg, than the male of the Bornean subspecies which can weigh as little as 50 kg in the wild. They have short, sleek, back hair, with a variable orange-yellow horseshoe-shaped chest marking and small round ears. They have extremely loose skin that reputedly allows them to turn around and bite back, which aids in escape from predators. Sun bears, like other bears, can stand bipedally and may carry their young in a human-like fashion in captivity.
Although sun bears are largely terrestrial, they are also arboreal foragers, with bare soles on all four feet and highly developed, long curved claws to aid climbing. Their bowed legs and inward facing paws also are well adapted for climbing activities, such as foraging from fruits on trees, going after bees nests in tree cavities, sleeping or resting on tree branches or even making a tree nest.
The sun bear’s habitat is tropical forest. Two ecologically distinct categories of tropical forest are found in the sun bears’ range: i) the aseasonal tropical evergreen rainforest in Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo, and ii) the seasonal tropical forests interspersed in mosaic patterns that include semi-evergreen, mixed deciduous, dry dipterocarp (<>1,000 m elevation) in mainland Southeast Asia. Sun bears occur from near sea level to over 2,100 m elevation, but appear to be most common in lower elevations. Besides tropical forest, they also reported in mangrove forest, peat swamp forest, and limestone/karst hill forest. The home range of male sun bears studied in Borneo is 5.2 – 20.6 sq.km, with an average of 14.8 sq. km, and female range is 4 – 5 sq. km. It is typical that male bears tend to have larger home range sizes then the female bears.
Like other bears, sun bears are opportunistic omnivores that consume a wide variety of food in the forest. Their long and curved claws, together with a long narrow tongue and light-colored mobile snout or lips, are well adapted for feeding. Their diet includes termites, ants, beetles, beetle larvae, earthworms, bees nests (honey), small animals, wild fruits (especially figs), mushrooms, succulent plants and flowers. Although they eat a wide variety of food, they rely heavily on termites and figs when they are available. It has been suggested that sun bears, like other bear species, have developed a dietary niche specialization (i.e., pandas for bamboo, polar bears for seals, sloth bear for ants and termites), where they have evolved to fill a primate-like niche relying heavily on fruits such as figs. The bears may be able to gorge themselves on these fruits when they are available and store fat for a leaner time.
Little is known about the lifespan of sun bears in the wild. However, based on evidence of starvation, fighting marks, natural mortality and sun bears killed by other bears in the wild, the average lifespan of wild sun bear could be little over 10 years. However, under optimum living conditions and environment, the longest recorded lifespan of a female sun bear was up to almost 36 years in a zoo. Sun bears are known to be preyed upon by tigers, leopards, and even by reticulated pythons, in addition to humans.
The sun bear is a threatened species listed as Vulnerable under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. The two major threats to sun bears are habitat loss and commercial hunting. These threats are not evenly distributed throughout the range of the species. In areas where deforestation is actively occurring, sun bears are threatened mainly by the loss of forest habitat and forest degradation arising from clear-cutting for plantation development, unsustainable logging practices, illegal logging both within and outside protected areas, and forest fires. These threats are prevalent in Indonesia and Malaysia on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, where large-scale conversion of forest to oil palm (Elaeis guineenis) or other cash crops is proceeding at the rate of 1,000s of km² per year.
Commercial poaching of bears for the wildlife trade is a considerable threat in most countries, and is the main threat where deforestation is currently negligible. Killing bears is illegal in all range countries but is largely uncontrolled. In some countries, sun bears are commonly poached for their gall bladders (i.e., bile) and bear-paws; the former is used as a Traditional Asian Medicine, and the latter as an expensive delicacy. Sun bears are also killed due to preventing damage to crops, subsistence use, fear of bears near villages, and capture of cubs for pets (the mother being killed in the process). Due to their small size and cuteness when little, sun bear cubs are kept as pets. As these pet bears grow larger and begin to pose a danger to the owners, they are often locked up in small cages under very poor living condition for the rest of their life. In addition, many of these pet bears end up being slaughtered and sold for bear parts for consumption and bear gall bladder for medicinal purposes.
How to save sun bears?
The first thing we can do to save the sun bear is to know that the sun bear is an endangered species, classified as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red Book Listing of Animals. However, unlike most endangered species, as mentioned in the beginning, sun bears are the least known bear species in the world and the most neglected large mammal in Southeast Asia. Thus, there has been very little conservation effort and study on the sun bear until very recently. To date, there are only five researchers who have ever studied sun bears in the wild. The fact that very few people know about this little bear and its plight presents a major challenge to the conservation of the sun bear due to lack of support, interest, and commitment from the general public, scholars, and governments. This lack of interest stems from the fact this species is rare and elusive, inhabits tropical forest where research is difficult, and competes for conservation attention with other charismatic species such as Asian elephants, Sumatra rhinoceros, tigers, and orangutans.
Once understanding and recognizing the plight of sun bears and the urgency to conserve them, there are several ways to help:
All conservation projects require funding to conduct their conservation programs. You can support and donate fund to sun bear conservation projects and NGOs who are working to conserve sun bears, such as:
· Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre , Sabah, Malaysia Borneo http://www.leapspiral.org/new/content/project07.htmlhttp://sunbears.wildlifedirect.org/
Sun bear is listed as a protected species in all countries where they are found. It is unlawful to sell, trade, kill, or eat sun bear body parts, and to keep sun bears as pets. Refuse to purchase any bear products and report to the authorities when any of these unlawful activities are encountered.
Sun bears are forest dependent species. They rely on the tropical forest for their survival, but these forests have been harvested to meet the demand for the tropical timber market. Refuse to purchase products made from tropical hardwood, or purchase only certified timber products that were harvested sustainability.
Over the last 20 years, much of the tropical rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia has been converted to monoculture oil palm plantations to meet the ever-increasing oil demand from the world. The impact of this land conversion is great and irreversible. A Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSOP) initiative has been created to produce sustainable palm oil. To reduce impacts on wildlife and environment, minimize the use of palm oil products or purchase only palm oil products labeled RSOP to reduce impacts on wildlife and environment.
The sun bear is a forgotten bear species and not well known by most people. Help us promote sun bear conservation and knowledge of their plights. Learn more about sun bears at http://sunbears.wildlifedirect.org/, http://wongsiewte.blogspot.com/ or other resources from the internet and tell your friends about them. Help spread the news about sun bears.