Jane Goodall and me: a 25 years of inspiration on my works to help sun bears

On October 29, 2016 I finally got to see Jane Goodall in person during her talk “Finding Life’s Passion” in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I use the word “see” instead of “meet” because I do not have the chance to meet her in person but my excitement was truly off the chart and touched. Like other 2000 audiences who attended the talk, Jane Goodall is my wildlife hero. Unlike others, Jane Goodall was my wildlife hero for the past 25 years and her quote in Through   Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe: “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall they be saved.” has deeply inspired me and influenced me during the past 20 years of work with the sun bears. It was Jane who make me believe that we have to first understand sun bear, follow by care for the sun bear and help the sun bears, and eventually we can save the sun bears from extinction.

In this blog, I would like to share two personal statements that I wrote in 2002 and 2009. Both of these statements were written in Missoula, Montana, when I was a M. Sc student and a Ph. D. student respectively in University of Montana. These statements were required for me to apply the university’s scholarship. I hope you can also be inspired by Jane’s quote and working hard to understand, to care, to help, and to save the endangered wildlife on the Earth:

“Only if we understand, can we care.
                  Only if we care, will we help.
                  Only if we help, shall they be saved.”
                                                                                  --- Jane Goodall           

Ever since I read this quote many years ago, I set up a goal for myself, a goal to understand, care, help, and save wildlife.

I recalled since I was a first grader, “animal expert” was what I wrote in the ambition column of my student personal record until the very last year in high school. My ambition remains unchanged, despite being sneered by classmates and teachers, because I love animals. Not surprisingly, my childhood was companioned by various pets, and later I became a successful pet breeder. Studying abroad in Taiwan was the turning point in my life. Although I was studying animal husbandry and veterinary, I had begun to appreciate wildlife more than domestic animals when I joined the Bird Watching Society. Unfortunately, through my binoculars, I saw not only beautiful birds, but also unlawful mist netting and killing of wild birds. I saw my first orangutan in Taiwan being displayed at a night market and my first gibbon being hugged by a motorist on a busy street.

Back home in Malaysia, the situation did not get any batter. Vast forests that were once home to magnificent wildlife and plants were cleared to make ways for plantations and developments. Many wildlife such as baby orangutans and gibbons were captured and sold to Taiwan as pets. People here care less about it because they are illiterate in conservation and environmental awareness.  The passion and commitment to help wildlife multiplied inside me as I witnessed what had happen around me. At the same time, I learned more about wildlife conservations through various wildlife projects I involved in Taiwan and Malaysia. Studying abroad again in University of Montana has put me on a right track and a good start. My graduate work on sun bear ecology in Malaysia has convinced me that a higher level of education and knowledge is needed, if I wish to improve conservation practices in Malaysia. 

Today, conservation in Taiwan improves significantly because of the efforts by growing numbers of conservationists and awareness from the public. In many Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia and Philippine, the tropical forests are disappearing rapidly along with its flora and fauna, to a point where too late to do anything. In contrast, Malaysia still has a chance for conservationists to save the last stronghold of Southeast Asian forests and wildlife due to the economical and political stability. We need distinguished biologists to train local students as conservationists, to educate public about conservation, and to study the flora and fauna to better understand its functions. This is where I come into place. I am/was trained as an “animal expert” or wildlife biologist for all these years, but I know that is not enough. This is the reason I wish to continue my education to a doctorate degree so that I can do a batter job in conservation for my country in the future.  Perhaps for Jane Goodall, the “they” in her quote referred to chimpanzees in Gombe, for me, it refers to the wildlife in Malaysia.

Jan 29, 2002
University of Montana
Missoula, Montana, USA


Siew Te Wong

Personal Statement

The first personal statement that I wrote many years ago started with a quote from Jane Goodall (1990) “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall they be saved.” This is one of the very important forces that keep me going and working hard to study, to conserve, and to save wildlife. Today, I am half way there.

May 16 this year will mark my 40th birthday. More than three quarter of my life I have been working closely with animals, starting from pets when I was a kid, follow by livestock during my early collage years, and wildlife for the past 17 years. I was considered as a rare individuals studying abroad in Taiwan and later in USA for my tertiary education majoring on a field that was not heard of by most Asian family-Wildlife Biology.

I stared my undergraduate degree in 1994 at University of Montana as a non-traditional student at the age of 25 with a diploma in veterinary and animal husbandry science and two years of experience working in the field on few wildlife research projects in Taiwan and Malaysia. My first year of study at UM I met my then future advisor and mentor Dr. Christopher Servheen, who was at that time looking for a Malaysian student to conduct the first study of sun bear in Malaysia. The meeting with Dr. Servheen has connected me with sun bear, the least know bear in the world and one of the most neglected large mammals in Southeast Asia. Over the last 10 years or more, my studies and works have been focusing on understanding, caring, helping and saving sun bears in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia where I am from. The path is very similar to what Jane Goodall did to the chimpanzee in Gombe in Africa, summarized perfectly with her quote above.

Dr. Servheen gave me a tusk to study the basic ecology of sun bear as my M.Sc project that took me spending two years in the rainforest of Borneo to complete the tusk. For the first time, the illusive life history of sun bear has been revealed. The study solved our queries on sun bear ecology and biology, but it also created more urgent questions of how they survive in a human modified landscape across Southeast Asia. I therefore decided to continue studying the effects of logging on sun bear as the main focus of my doctorate works under the supervision of Dr. Servheen in UM of the second time.

From years of continuously working with sun bears, I also understand and care more about the future and survival of sun bear. I learned there is very little conservation attention on this still poorly known bears but face tremendous threats. Many sun bears are kept as pets in captivity that live in the most disgusting condition you can ever imagine. They are poached across their distribution range for exotic meat, body parts and medicinal purposes. Their habitat, the tropical forests are disappearing fast to make way for human development and expansion oil palm plantations to meet the world demand for oil products. All of the problem and threats that sun bears face need urgent conservation and education actions. Therefore, I decide to do more to help and to save them by founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo last year. The center is one of the first of its kinds and will focus on the conservation, education, rehabilitation and research of sun bears.

Today, sun bear is better known than when I started my first sun bear project 10 years ago. My passion and persistency to understand, care, help, and save sun bears received recognition by awarded the Fly Elephant Foundation Fellowship. Other follows who received this award including Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, and Dr. Alan Rabinowitz. I was also appointed as the first co-chair of the Sun Bear Expert Team- IUCN/SSC Bear Specialist Group from 2002 to 2005. And, Malaysia government is allocating significant funds and show commitment to conserve sun bears for the first time.

This year is the last year for me as a student. Upon completion of my doctorate study, I will use the training, knowledge, and experiences I gained all these years as a wildlife biologist and conservationist to understand, to care, to help and to save sun bears and other wildlife in Malaysia and other part of Southeast Asia. Time is running out for many endangered species in this region that face tremendous threats. However, there is still hope for sun bear as long as we act now and act together.    

April 2009

Missoula, Montana, USA.


Poh Swee Hiang said...

We, Malaysians, are fortunate to have you to teach us about the Sun Bear; as Malaysians are more exposed to polar bear and panda than our own bear... Keep up the good work!

liow_shenyan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
liow_shenyan said...

Thank you Dr. Wong for your generosity, sharing of words & wisdom. Meeting you have truly cemented my passion for conservation in my mother land. You'll be pleased to hear I'll be returning to SE Asia next year to represent my organisation's (Marine Stewardship Council) work in the region. I'll be based in Singapore and will be sure to pay you, your bears & your work many regular visits. Stay in touch, Shen Yan Liow (芯彦)

Siew Te Wong said...

Hi Shenyan,
Thanks for your message. I am looking forward to see you again in the future. It is time for us to do serve our country and wildlife who share the planet with us. Keep up the good work.