Borneo bears get help from Montana alum
Published: Friday, October 1, 2010
Updated: Friday, October 1, 2010 05:10
Across the Pacific Ocean, 19 of Borneo's Sun Bears, enclosed by high chain-link fences, root about the forest floor, seeking termites.
Protected from poachers and deforestation, these bears are the smallest in the world. They live in the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, an organization in Borneo founded and managed by University of Montana alumnus and doctoral candidate Siew Te Wong. Working from his office in Main Hall, Wong strives to protect the Sun Bears.
Poaching is the primary way that bears end up in the Sun Bear Centre. They are often captured when young and sold as pets. When fully grown, he said, Sun Bears are about the size of a Rottweiler, making them a desirable house animal.
"In Borneo, it's illegal to keep Sun Bears as pets," Wong said. "Government officials will confiscate the animal and then the bears are turned over to this facility."
"Only a small number of the bears that come to the Centre ever make it back out into the wild," he said.
The bears tend to lose their instincts as a wild animal because of captivity at an early age, Wong said. They forget how to forage and fend for themselves.
Wong began studying Sun Bears in the wild in 1996. He often visited the government facility in Borneo where confiscated bears were kept.
"They had only one bear house," Wong said. "The animals were kept in small, cramped cages."
Wong began managing that facility and turned it into a nonprofit organization in 2008. He has since initiated numerous renovations to the site.
The facility sits in a protected forest, donated by the Bornean government. The Sabah State wildlife and forestry departments, which own the bears and the land where the Centre is located, partnered with the BSBCC to aid in continuing its work.
Another bear house is being built at a secondary location. When completed, the Centre will be able to support 50 animals.
To ensure there is space for those discovered in illegal captivity, many bears are sent to zoos around the world. Since 2008 the center has transferred 20 bears to North American zoos.
At the moment there are 19 bears living in the Centre, Wong said.
Those bears spend the night in a building called the "den," and in the morning they are given a breakfast of grains, fruit and greens, then released into the forest enclosure for the day.
Operational costs for the BSBCC are around $60,000 and will increase to $90,000 in 2011. This includes maintenance of the facilities, salaries for the permanent staff as well as care for the Centre's bears.
There are three staff members caring for the bears in Borneo and six other staff members on the management side of things who are based in the United States and the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Wong primarily does public relations, manages donations and works on fundraising for the centre from Montana. "The money we raise through grant-writing and fundraising is matched by the Sabah state government," Wong said. He said this should secure the Centre's future for the next couple years. One fundraising gala held in Borneo raised $400,000 for the BSBCC.
Wong will defend his thesis in November and plans to be back in Borneo by December after he completes his doctorate in wildlife biology at UM.
"I'm very ready," Wong said. "It's time to go back."