A special EcoKnights spotlight this month focuses on Malaysian wildlife biologist Wong Siew Te, CEO of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sabah. The EK crew was very privileged to have met Wong last year during the Borneo Eco Film Festival, organized with the kind assistance of Anton Ngui.
Born in 1969 and raised in Penang (a state in the northern Peninsular Malaysia), Wong has always been an animal lover. It all started when he had a special interest in wildlife when he was studying for his animal husbandry and veterinary degree. When the opportunity came to take wildlife biology seriously, Wong jumped at the chance to work with his then academic advisor Dr Christopher Servheen on an ecological study of the sun bears. Armed with passion and dedication, his academic study on these threatened bears led to a conservation achievement in which he was then appointed as the Co-Chairperson of the Sun Bear Expert Team for the IUCN/SSC Bear Specialist Group from 2002-2005. EcoKnights salutes Wong for his amazing dedication and effort in studying and working on the ecological conservation of the sun bear for the last 13 years.
Today, Wong is the CEO of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, which he founded in 2008. He was also a fellow of the Flying Elephants Foundation, which awards individuals from a broad range of disciplines in the arts and sciences who have demonstrated singular creativity, passion, integrity and leadership and whose work inspires a reverence for the natural world
Here’s an up, close and personal interview with Wong Siew Te.
EK: Can you tell us about your background (education and career), your current position at the Conservatory and what your roles are there at the Conservatory?
WST: I work closely with animals all my life. Since I was a little tot, I kept all kind of animals as pets. After high school, I went to Taiwan to obtain a diploma in Animal Science and Veterinary. Four years later, I pursued my bachelor degree in Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana, USA, followed by a Masters degree and a PhD degree all from the same university. Unfortunately I did not earn my doctorate at the very end due to unforeseen circumstances. I studied the ecology of Malayan sun bears for my Masters degree and the effects of selective logging on bearded pigs on my doctorate. In 2008, I founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sepilok, Sandakan, Sabah and have hold the position of Chief Executive Office since then.
EK: Have you always been interested in conservation? How did it start?? Is your family supportive? Do your children understand what their dad does for a living?
WST: I love animals since childhood and have kept all kind of pets: birds, fishes, cat, rabbits, mice, turtles, civets, and many carnivorous insects. My father was the one who brought me these pets at that time and gave me a lot of encouragement to keep these pets. During my teenage years, I became a pretty successful breeder breeding birds, fishes, and dogs. However, I did not have any interest in conservation until I was 20 years old simply because I never know about conservation until then. My career with conservation started from bird watching during my teenage years before I actually know there was an outdoor activity call “bird watching.” During my first year of study in Taiwan I joined the “Bird Watching Society” in our university and started to know about conservation. After I earned the diploma in Animal Science and Veterinary program, I worked as a research assistant for a wildlife professor at the same university in Taiwan.
(Picture on the right: Dr Wong and rescued orangutan in Taiwan 1994)
During the two years as a research assistant, I was involved in several research projects on fauna surveys, setting up of a rescue centre for endangered species, and radio-telemetry studies on barking deer in Taiwan. All of these activities helped my future research and conservation works in many ways. My family has been supportive of my work although they wanted me to be with them all the time. I think there is no perfect world when you are in the field of conservation. We gain at the same time lose a lot as well. My eldest daughter somewhat understands my conservation work. She has been talking highly about my work in school to her friends. My youngest daughter who is 7 still needs a few more years to understand what her father does for a living and why I am always not around the family, especially to her friends.
EK: Please tell us about the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), a bit of history, the goals and what the centre hopes to achieve? Has the centre reached some of the goals it was set out to do?
WST: I first had the idea of setting up a centre to rescue caged sun bears back in 2004 when I did a survey of captive sun bears across Malaysia. During the survey, I encountered many captive sun bears locked up in small metal cages kept as pets, displayed to attract tourists, or some of them were confiscated by the authorities. Sun bears are a protected species in Malaysia. However, the lack of enforcement on the wildlife protection laws and lack of capacity, interest, and resources to properly house these bears has caused all of the sun bears to be housed in substandard, pathetic and disgusting condition. In addition, sun bears remain as the least known bear in the world and one of the most neglected large mammals in SE Asia. Therefore there is a need to set up a facility that helps sun bears with a holistic approach. In 2008 I set up the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) with the partnership from Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department and LEAP, a NGO base in Sabah.
Over the last four year we have been working hard to raise funds to set up the centre. Although the centre is not yet fully established and not yet open to the public, we have achieved several goals such as rescuing and housing 27 rescued pet sun bears, conducting many education outreach programs for school groups who wish to learn more about the sun bears and their habitat.
EK: I understand fundraising is always a tough part of conservation. How has it been in terms of support from the public, corporate organizations and government? Who are your supporters and/or funders so far?
WST: The supports from the public, corporate, and government has been moderately encouraging over the past few years. Majority of our construction funds were provide from tax payers money through government funding, whereas our operation fund come from public support and corporates. Our funders include Sabah State Government, the Ministry of Tourism Malaysia, several zoos in US, and many individual online donations and Facebook funds raised from small donors across the world.
EK: What kind of manpower and financial requirements does the centre take to sustain itself? Is it sufficient? How can a reader of this article help?
BSBCC so far has four full time staff- 2 animal keepers, a project manager, and me as the CEO. Our typical monthly expenses range from RM15, 000-RM20, 000. Over the past four years we have over 700 volunteers helping us on various tasks to taking care of our bears and setting up the centre. All of these man power and expenses seems a lot but it is at the minimum level. It is not sufficient. When we open to public, the staff capacity will increase from 4 to 17 staff, this mean that we need more funds to pay salaries and other relevant expenses.
Like all conservation programs in the world, the amount of conservation works we can achieve to help save any species is dependent on the amount of funding we can generate. Our efforts to help save sun bears in Malaysia are no exceptions.
EK: Can you share some of your successful, emotional/sad and difficult moments at the centre? The challenges you and the centre had to face?
WST: To me, the setting up of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre from nothing to what it is today is the biggest success story. In addition, rescuing every pet sun bear and bringing them to our centre are all successful stories. Imagine all of our rescued sun bears were capture from the wild since they were cubs after their mother were probably killed by poachers. They were then being locked up in small metal cages for a long time until they were rescued by the Sabah Wildlife Department and sent to us. At our centre, these sun bears are no longer confined to small cages and no longer displayed the very serious stereotypic pacing behavior. They have access to the forest enclosure where they can climb the tress, dig the soil and break decayed woods to look for insects and other invertebrates. Last February I came back from US and saw these rescued sun bears foraging in the forest enclosure for the first time. I broke into tears seeing them live like wild bears. I am so happy all the hard work finally pays off. No one has any idea how much effort I put in and how much sacrifice I have made to make this happen. This is the first step for BSBCC- to improve their welfare. I have done it. No, WE have done it!
The challenges that I and the Centre have face since the beginning have always been funding. Excluding the operational expenses, the capital or the funding on buildings required more than RM 5 million. These are by far the biggest challenge that I have to face when I decided to found this project almost four years ago. Luckily thanks to many very dedicated person and partners, we are more than half way to raise the funds and heading towards the right direction. Looking at the fact that the global economy took for a negative turn when the Centre was set up, I must say we have pulled through one of the most difficult times.
EK: What gives you strength?
WST: laughs*). I do not know what gives me strength. However, what I do know is that I love animals, I love bears. I feel very happy if I can help them when they are in trouble and needed helps. Or perhaps my nature of optimism and tenacity gave me strength to do what I have accomplished. Last year I “walked” our rescued orphan sun bear cubs: Natalie, Fulung, and Mary, in the forest. They treated me like their mother and trusted me to protect them. At that time I was thinking what would be a more meaningful career to do in my life than helping these orphan cubs return to the forest? After all these years in this field, I felt like the closer I work with animals, the more strength and energy I have to help them. Perhaps the wildlife and the forest give me the strength and energy to continue working closely with wildlife. This is like a positive feedback loop that fuels me do more and more work in conservation.
EK: What are the threats and issues the sun bears are facing in this country? What are some of the ways that need to be emphasized and/or enforced? What is the reality/future of sun bears in Malaysia? Globally?
WST: Sun bears in Malaysia face the threats from habitat lost, poaching for their body parts, and keeping bear cubs as pets. The threat from habitat lost accelerated since the 60″s when vast lowland rainforest in Malaysia were cleared for agriculture and development until recently. Over the last few years, poaching has been a serious threat to sun bears in Malaysia, partly fueled by the international wildlife trade. Keeping sun bear cubs as pets was exacerbated by both forest clearing and poaching activities when loggers and poachers killed mother bears and captured their cubs.
Sun bears are a totally protected species in Malaysia. No one is allowed to kill, to harm, to sell, to keep and to harass sun bear. However due to the lack of interest to enforce wildlife protection laws by the authority and lack general conservation awareness of sun bears by the general public, unlawful activities of killing and harming sun bears persist.
In order to save sun bears, the wildlife authority and law enforcement agencies MUST enforce wildlife protection laws seriously. Any offenders MUST be prosecute and punish with maximum penalties in order to deter any illegal activities of killing and harming sun bears. General public and wildlife conservation NGOs must work closely with the authorities to give information, be the watch dog, and unsure enforcement is carry out properly in favor of the protected wildlife such as sun bears.
The sun bear is a forest dependent species. The amounts of forested lands remain in this country reflects the amount of habitat available for the sun bear. In Malaysia we have lost about 50% of our forested land. Much of these forests were prime sun bear habitat from the lowland dipterocarp forest. Therefore deforestation in this country has to be halt completely at any cost if we were to save sun bears and important wildlife species in Malaysia.
The future of sun bears in Malaysia and in the world is pretty challenging. There are two inherent reasons that make the future of the sun bear bleak if the current trend that threatens sun bear continues. First, the natural density of sun bears in the forest is always low in the first place. In Borneo the density of sun bear is relatively much lower than the endangered orangutans. Second, the reproductive rate of sun bear is very low. Female wild sun bears are estimated to produce 4-5 cubs in her life time. With the low density and low reproductive rate, additional killing of any sun bear individual in the wild may bring serious consequence to the population.
In Malaysia, about 50% of our forest covers remains after several decades of deforestation and human development. This also means that the sun bears have lost at least 50% of their habitat. However, compare to other Southeast Asian countries where sun bears are found, the deforestation and the poaching activities in Malaysia is relatively mild. Because of this reason, Malaysia is the last stronghold for the survival of sun bears in Southeast Asia. In Borneo, Sabah is the last stronghold for the Bornean sun bear also for the same reason.
EK: How does the Conservatory contribute to the conservation of the bears and how far ahead in terms of efforts does the centre have?
WST: As mentioned earlier, Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre aims to conserve sun bears through improve animal welfare, raise conservation awareness through education, conducting research to know more about this little known bears, and help sun bear cubs returning into the forest through rehabilitation program. All of these activities contribute toward the conservation of sun bear and they all have to act side by side through a holistic approach, so to speak. So far we have rescued 27 sun bears from the fate from being locked up in small cages and improve their animal welfare issues through our animal husbandry and facilities. Although BSBCC has not yet open to the public and start our education program in full swing, we have worked with many school groups and outreach programs over the past three years. Right now as we speak the construction work for the observation platform and boardwalk that link the entrance to the platform is ongoing. We still lack the funding to construct the visitor briefing area. Once the construction for these two components is done we will open to the public and launch a full education program to educate the visitors on the plights of sun beats and their habitat. We hope the centre will be partially open to public by later this year and fully open early next year. Several research projects are on planning and will conducted later this year as well. All and all, we are not far to achieve what we plan to achieve for BSBCC.
EK: What is your advice to students who are in university studying environment or conservation? And especially if they want to take the path you took? What does it take to be you? What are some of the attitudes or philosophies one has to adopt in this field?
WST: This question can have a very long answer. For myself I have been through a non-typical path. For example I love animals pretty much all my life; I have many animal experiences since I was a kid; my ambition when I was 7 year old was to be an “animal expert”; I started bird watching before I know there was an activity call bird watching; I have two years of field and veterinary experience before I started my bachelor degree in Wildlife Biology. All of these shaped me of what I am today. However, other students should not be discouraged if they do not have the experiences I had. Everyone is unique and has their own back ground to do well in the field of conservation. My advice to students who are in university studying environment or conservation is that what they are studying is important to the entire humanity, entire world and all living organism on Earth. I know many of the students who study environmental study or conservation may have been “assign” to study the course or these courses are not their first choice.
However, if they start to develop the interest when studying the course they still can do well and contribute to this field. One characteristic that allconservations and environmentalists have is that they all have very strong interest and passion on this field, regardless of when they started to develop their interest or passions. For me I develop the interest and passion when I was very young. However, I met many great conservationists and wildlife biologists who developed their interest when they did their Master degree or even later in life. The important thing is to follow your heart. This field may not necessary bring you glamour or high financial rewards. However, it will make you contribute to the society, humanity and make your life “worth it” at the end. In this field, environmentalists and conservationists put the fate of environment or wildlife that they are fighting for before their own personal benefit and agenda. They do not expect a “reward” from what they are doing and sacrificing. What they want is to improve the situation and condition of the issues that they are working hard and fighting for- a better tomorrow for the environment, wildlife, and planet Earth.
EK: Why is it important doing what the centre does and what you do?
WST: Like mentioned earlier, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is working on the conservation issues of sun bears through improving animal welfare, education, research, and rehabilitation of sun bears. All of these conservation issues that the sun bears faced are very urgent, meaning someone has to help sun bears desperately to solve the problems such as pet sun bears, poaching issues, and habitat destruction issues. Unfortunately sun bears are a forgotten bear species. Very few organizations in the world aim to conserve sun bear and working on their conservation issues. In Malaysia, the plight of sun bears received very little conservation attention. In view of that, BSBCC develops unique tasks to help and conserve sun bears in many ways. The final mission is to save sun bear from extinction, preserve the rainforest habitat of sun bears and much other wildlife, and educate the public about the sun bear and wildlife conservation issues. Without BSBCC, captive sun bears will continue to suffer in captivity and wild sun bear population is likely to decrease to a point where there is too late to anything- brink of extinction.
Although BSBCC is focus on the conservation of sun bear and its habitat, I am not and I will not. It is true that my work has been focusing on sun bears for many years; however, my interest in conservation and research is not restricted to sun bears. My interest is very broad. It includes the conservation of all wildlife especially mammals and birds, tropical forest ecology, human disturbances in rainforest ecosystem, and climate change. I hope my work can inspire younger Malaysians to love and to conserve nature, environment, and wildlife.
As a local Penangite, I hope I can be a role model for other Malaysians to involve and supports conservation because conservation needs all of us working together to make a big difference for our wildlife, nature, and environment. Eventually conservation in our own country has to depend on our own countrymen, our own resources, and not foreigners and foreign resources.
EK: What are some of the special moments you had with the bears? Please describe it.
WST: There are a lot of special moments I had with wild sun bears which I studied and the captive sun bears at BSBCC. I will mention few of these special moments here:
a) The first time I saw one of my radio-collared wild sun bear on a tree was when he was feeding on wild figs in a fruiting fig tree about 45 m above the ground. Together with him on that tree was a female orangutan with baby, a female binturong with baby, a family of gibbons, many squirrels, and hundreds of birds. All of them were feeding and roosting on the same tree. It was a SPECTACULAR sighting which I will never forgot! That was also the first time that I learn the sun bears are very arboreal and good climbers.
b) The first time I caught an emaciated sun bear in August of 1999 was a special moment too. That was the first time I learned about the tough life of sun bears living in the wild. The famine episode where many bears and wild pigs died from starvation has change the perception of what and how we think about the tropical rainforest.
c) The first time I “walked” a sun bear cub in the forest was very special moment. In 2007 we filmed BEARTREK the movie in the rainforest of Danum. I took Cerah (an 8 month old female sun bear cub) into the forest for the first time for the filming. Cerah was an orphan cub rescued by Sabah Wildlife Department and her mother was probably being killed by poachers. I have no idea what her respond will be at that time when I let her out from her cage. Surprisingly she decided to “follow” me in the forest like a well trained dog, just like she would follow her own mother. Sun bear cubs are programmed to follow their mother for obvious reasons. They are totally dependent on their mother for food, safety, knowledge of finding food, and establishing territorial. It was really special to see her treated me like her own mother.
d) “Big tree, little bear and tiny termites” was a special moment when I walked Mary another female sun bear cub in the forest. It was a scène where Mary stopped at the base of a big dipterocarp tree and fed on termites in a decayed wood. The scene made me think of the inseparable relationships between big trees, sun bears, and termites in the forest ecosystem. All of them have evolved for millions of years in this forest ecosystem and in need of each other to survive. However, human activities in recent years have disrupted these unique relationships and jeopardize the integrity. Whether or not sun bears will make it to the next millennium will very much dependent on the human activities and how we treated our nature and the environment.