Making a difference for the Malayan Sun Bear
Few people know more about the Malayan Sun Bear than Wong Siew Te, CEO and Founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. In conjuction with our 12 in Trouble featured creature, he writes this special piece for TRAFFIC Southeast Asia about his life’s work – saving sun bears.
Wong Siew Te and Natalie © BSBCC
In 1994, I was a first-year undergraduate student in US and I’d just started given the oppurtunity to study the ecology of sun bears in Sabah for my M.Sc project. I scoured book after book looking for information on these bears but often ended up disappointed – there really wasn’t very much written about them.
So whenever I was home in Southeast Asia and had a chance, I visited places where captive sun bears could be found: local zoos, mini zoos, menageries, crocodile farms, private collectors, government facilities, etc. What I saw broke my heart. While a handful of zoos had proper facilities, the vast majority of captive sun bears were kept in very poor conditions, small spaces, and facilities were badly managed.
Sun bears are the smallest among the eight living bear species in the world and baby sun bears are by far the cuties baby mammals (at least I think so!). Their small size and cuteness make them attractive to people who mistakenly think they make suitable pets. And these babies aren’t difficult to obtain, no thanks to habitat destruction and poaching.
Though sun bears are protected under wildlife conservation laws in all countries where the bears are found, the lack of interest in enforcing wildlife laws renders them almost non-existent. As a result, sun bears are among the most common large wild mammal kept in captivity in this region.
Sun bears are equipped with long, strong claws and teeth, powerful arms and jaw muscles. In the wild, these features help them get at bee hives or pry open termite nests, decayed wood and hard woods in search of termites, ants, beetles. In short, they are design to destroy. Pet sun bears are cute and harmless only in the first few months of their life. As they grow, they quickly turn into destructive beasts that are impossible to control.
When too difficult to control, pet bears are locked in small metal cages by their owners for the rest of their life. They develop all kinds of abnormal behavior and psychological problems; their claws were surgically removed and canine teeth are filed down to stumps, to reduce damage and danger to owners.
I’ve been urging conservation NGOs and authorities to help captive sun bears for a long time, but a lack of interest, resources, and capacity in these organizations has meant limited action. Sun bears also compete for attention with other more charismatic species of high global conservation interest such as tigers, orangutans, rhinos, and elephants.
I realized that the only way forward was to set up a centre that focused on the conservation, education, rehabilitation, research and welfare of captive sun bears. And that is how the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) came to fruition in 2008. It was set up in partnership with LEAP, Sabah Wildlife Department, and Sabah Forestry Department, near the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok in Sabah, Malaysia. BSBCC’s primary goal is to promote Malayan Sun Bear conservation by building capacity to rehabilitate and release suitable orphaned and once captive bears into the wild. It also aims to provide an improved long-term living environment for captive bears that cannot be released, and to raise awareness about this species.
The centre now has 21 bears – orphaned and formerly kept as pets – that live in a new bear house with six state-of-the-art forest enclosures within the Sepilok Forest Reserve. It also has an office, visitor briefing area, and bear holding area. We hope to build an observation platform with a boardwalk for visitors to view sun bears in their natural surroundings. A second bear house with forest enclosures is also being planned for the future to double our rescue efforts. BSBCC is a non-profit organization. The number of bears we can help depends on the funds we can raise. Please visit our blog (
Don’t let the Sun Bear become the forgotten bear.