GREEN: Where bears roam free

New Straits Times, 22nd February 2014

By Evangeline Majawat

he Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre recently opened its doors to the public. Evangeline Majawat was there

ON the last tracts of remaining forest at the edge of Sandakan, some of Sabah’s best conservationists gathered to celebrate six years of hard work and congratulate each other on a job well done.

The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), the fruit of their labour, is finally open to the public. Located next to the famed Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, it serves as a sanctuary and rehabilitation centre for the world’s smallest bears or beruang madu (Helarctos malayanus).

“Getting the centre up and running is a big achievement. But the real work starts now,” said BSBCC founder Wong Siew Te at the soft launch recently. “Now, we have to work even harder.”

The not-for-profit centre is significant, not only because it is the first and only such facility in the country but it is also the first institution which was borne out of the successful collaboration between two State government departments — Sabah Wildlife Department and Sabah Forestry Department — and non-governmental organisation Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP). Before this, conservation projects in Sabah were undertaken by the respective departments.

The hulking figure paced uneasily before it stopped to sniff the air. Its nose twitched furiously as it sauntered to the nearest tree. With surprising speed and dexterity Wan Wan, an 8-year-old sun bear, scaled the tree. Below it, Wan Wan’s loyal companion Mamatai inspected a pile of leaves.

Wan Wan and Mamatai are among the 28 rescued bears that live in BSBCC. Their stories are similar: They were either rescued from poachers or people who kept them as pets. The bears are usually found in dire conditions — malnourished and imprisoned in small cages.

Like the orang utan, sun bears are listed as totally protected species under Sabah’s wildlife laws. Despite a blanket ban on hunting or owning the animal, or any of its parts or products, illegal hunting and poaching are rampant.

Bear bile is popular in traditional medicine and its parts, the paws, especially, are considered a delicacy. Due to its relatively small size, people have attempted to keep these mammals as pets. One bear was found straying in the affluent suburb of Damai, about half an hour’s drive from Kota Kinabalu. The bear named Damai was believed to have escaped from her cage, and was discovered when a resident got up to check on his pet dog that had been barking incessantly. At the centre, the sun bears get a taste of life in the wild in one hectare of tropical rainforests, an area slightly bigger than a football field. The sun bears roam the forest and learn skills that their mothers would have taught them in the wild. There are many trees to climb and dead logs to explore.

When Sabah Forestry Department director Datuk Sam Mannan said in his speech that he was “really, really most impressed” by the centre, he echoed the thoughts of those present at the soft launch.

Unlike the standard government building designs that feature tinted windows, endless tiles and air-conditioned rooms, BSBCC’s visitor centre is spacious, naturally lit and well ventilated. Arkitrek, the architecture firm behind the plans, applied passive design theory to keep the building naturally cool at all times. The BSBCC office is the only air-conditioned space.

Arkitrek also recycled timber from the old rhinoceros enclosure which is now the site for the bear houses. The timber posts and planks were turned into counter tops and furnishings in the visitor centre. One particular timber post is a poignant memorial for Gelugob, one of the last 10 Sumatran rhinos in captivity, which died on Jan 11. The post, polished smooth by Gelugob and the other rhinos’ constant rubbing, stands tall by the entrance boardwalk.

Award-winning Singaporean landscape architecture firm Salad Dressing was roped in to beautify and create a welcoming atmosphere.

There are four key pillars to sun bear conservation according to Wong. The first is to get the centre up and running.

“The second is education. Then there is research and rehabilitation of the sun bears.”

He says the BSBCC team will engage schools, corporations and traditional medicine practitioners as well as shop owners this year. “We will reach out to these medicine men one by one, and via their associations. We must convince

them not to sell bear parts or products. We must tell them how bad the situation is,” says Wong. “We want to educate them and the public about sun bears and their role in the jungle. It’s about giving people the big picture about protecting our environment.”

“My bid is to protect the (wildlife) habitat so we don’t need another sun bear conservation centre. It serves a great purpose but it is because somewhere along the lines, we didn’t do better,” says Mannan.

LEAP executive director Cynthia Ong struck a chord when she emphasised that sincerity about conservation efforts is of utmost importance.

“Some of us get lured by being heroes and martyrs and getting funds and fame from the purpose. This is a reminder to myself and to all of us that that is losing the plot,” she says.

“(When) you see the bears in the forest, (you will see) that it is about them, how we’re coexisting together and what has happened to their habitat so that we need this centre. We didn’t need it in the past.”

Visitors will be able to observe the rescued sun bears from the observation platform. Picture courtesy of Cede Prudente

(From left) Sabah Wildlife Department director Datuk Dr Laurentius Ambu, Ong and Manna. Picture courtesy of LEAP

Sun bears are the smallest of the eight bear species in the world. Picture courtesy of BSBCC.

The visitor centre. Picture courtesy of LEAP

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