Five days after I returned to the BSBCC at Sandakan, I was on the move again. This time, my mission was to visit Cheryl Cheah, a Malaysian doctorate student from the University Putra Malaysia (UPM), who is studying wild sun bear ecology at the Krau Wildlife Reserve, Pahang State, West Malaysia.
I first met Cheryl in 2008 when I was invited to the UPM to give a talk on my work on sun bears. Professor Dr. Reuben Sharma, Cheryl’s advisor at that time, was starting an ambitious research project with his students on the various aspects of the sun bears’ ecology, genetics, and occupancy. These students visited us at BSBCC in April 2009 to learn more about the sun bears and sun bear research. Cheryl’s study is focusing on the home range, habitat use, and activity patterns of the wild sun bears in this forest reserve.
Studying the wild sun bears comes with challenges and obstacles. Since 1998, I have gathered many facts, information, and developed methods to study wild sun bears from trial and error (so to speak, the “hard way”). This is probably due to the difficulties (or lack of interest, I wonder) that there has been no other researchers studying sun bears in Malaysia besides me. Knowing Cheryl and her colleagues have the interest and taking the challenge to study sun bears was truly good news for the species. We are desperate to understand and know more about our own bear species in order to use the scientific information gathered from these research projects for wildlife management and conservation actions. Therefore, passing on the knowledge to the younger generation of sun bear researchers is critical so that they do not have to “learn it from the hard way.” This was the main goal of my trip to the Krau Wildlife Reserve.
Situated in the Pahang state, central Peninsular Malaysia, the Krau Wildlife Reserve is about 602 km of almost primary forest. The reserve is an island reserve with no connectivity with the massive Titiwangsa Main Range where tigers and Asian elephants are found. However, many large mammals such as Malayan tapirs, gaurs (impressive-looking forest cattle), sun bears, leopards, and many other wildlife species are still found within the reserve. The forest reserve is surrounded by orang asli (Aborigines) villages, plantations (mostly oil palm and rubber), and roads.
It was really good to be back doing field work in the rainforest again after spending 2.5 years in the United States where I did not sweat as much due to the mild American weather. The humid and warm climate here, accompanied with numerous blood-sucking leeches and mosquitoes, are a few things everyone who works in the rainforest including myself, must endure. Cheryl obviously passed this first test by working in this forest for almost a year. After 3 months of trapping with barrel and culver traps, she finally caught the first wild sun bear on January 25th. This bear was an adult male, weighing a solid 80-kg. She named him “Sato” – meaning “gift from God” in the Ethiopian language. Sato was fitted with a Global Positioning System (GPS) collar that collects location information every 6 hours from the GPS satellites. His radio-collar also emit VHF signals, which can be pick up by a receiver and location of the bear can be determined from “triangulation” method.
On this morning, the first thing we did in the forest was trying to pick up the VHF signals from Sato, but we had no luck from doing so. Instead, Cheryl’s orang asli field assistant called (Cheryl’s study area has cell phone signals coverage so they use cell phone to communicate – how nice!) to inform us that one of the traps caught a bear! We then quickly rushed to the site of the trap. Apparently, this bear was trapped in another smaller barrel trap about 20 m away a few hours earlier but the bear “chewed” through the trap, escaped, and entered the second trap and caught in the second bigger and stronger trap. Cheryl later went back to her field house to pick up a radio-collar and handling equipment. At the same time, we informed the veterinarian from the Wildlife Department and Dr. Sharma to sedate the bear. The two orang asli field assistants then went to check the other traps that had yet to be checked, while I stayed at the trap site to “look after” the bear that was in the trap. About 30 minutes later, one of the field assistant rushed back with another surprise: another bear was caught in another trap, BUT the bear was in the attempt of chewing through the trap and trying to get out! We quickly rushed to the second trap site. We were too late, however, and the bear already chewed a big hole on the metal trap and escaped!
A few hours later, the vet from the Wildlife Department and Dr. Sharma arrived at the study area. They sedated the bear without complication. This bear was a big male bear, tipped the scale at 77 kg!
The handling and radio-collaring of the bear went well. After the hour-and-a-half handling procedure (fitting radio-collar, taking measurement, collecting parasite and blood samples, and treating a trap wound), the bear was left in the trap to recover from sedation. That marked the end of our first day in the field.
Over the next two days, Cheryl and I were practicing a lot of radio-telemetry techniques and trying to locate the two radio-collared bears. We hiked up to a few hills with higher elevation, hoping to have a better reception of Sato’s signals. We had no luck locating him. We could locate the second collared bear easily, however, which has yet to be named, as he was wandering near the trap site.
Keep up the good work, Cheryl! This project is the first of its kind to study sun bears in the Peninsular Malaysia. The data collected in this study is crucial for the understanding of the species, especially on how sun bears use the modified landscape of forested area adjacent to oil palm plantation. In addition, the high poaching/snaring rate in this protected forest raises a serious threat, not only to the local sun bear population, but also to the other important wildlife in this wildlife reserve as well. I sincerely hope the Wildlife Department can do something effective to eliminate illegal hunting and poaching activities in this forest.