Questions and Answers with Dr. Wong Siew Te
Founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sandakan, Malaysia
What are some of the threats to sun bear survival?
Habitat Destruction - If you look at the IUCN sun bear distribution map, you can see the regions where the sun bear naturally lives. If you explore the forest cover in these regions, you can see that the primary forests are disappearing, generally due to logging, and are being replaced by agriculture or other development. There are very few patches of primary forest left
Poaching and Hunting - Logging and habitat destruction bring in poachers and hunters to the region. The majority of the hunting that occurs is opportunistic; these hunters will hunt anything, including sun bears.
Pet Trade - Humans sometimes believe that they can keep sun bears as pets, but sun bears are wild animals and do not belong in captivity.
All three of these threats are human related, and we have it in our control to stop these threats. Other threats include:
Food Scarcity - Sun bears consume fruit, but forests do not fruit in an annual cycle. At times, there is not enough fruit for the sun bears. The Bornean sun bear is the smallest species, approximately one half the size of other sun bears, because food productivity in Borneo is even lower than Sumatra or peninsular Malaysia.
Competition Between Bears - Bears compete for food and resources. They can become violent, and even kill one another in the forest if there are not enough resources for all of them to survive.
Poor Fitness and Reproductive Ability - Only when an animal is big and healthy can it reproduce. Each individual carries a lot of weight to sustain the population, and one tiny event can have a large affect on the sun bear's ability to survive and reproduce.
Do oil palm plantations pose a threat to sun bears?
Habitat destruction can pose a threat to sun bears. Sun bears are a forest dependent species, and the lowland dicopterous forests they are native to are very complex. These forests are vulnerable to logging of hardwoods. Once logging is complete, then oil palm plantations become prevalent. Prime sun bear habitat is being converted into oil palm plantations.
Habitat fragmentation causes forest productivity to decrease. Sun bears will then learn to exploit oil palm fruits as a source of food. If sun bears enter an oil palm plantation, they can be vulnerable to poaching and hunting. Other animals, such as wild boars, can also be attracted to the oil palm fruit, which can in turn bring poaching and hunting. If poachers and hunters happen to come across a sun bear, they may shoot it, too.
*Some oil palm companies, such as Wilmar International, have taken a stance to stop deforestation. You can read about Wilmar's pledge here. Pledges such as these will help end habitat destruction and forest fragmentation, and help wildlife species.
What can people do to protect sun bears?
Stop Deforestation - We must stop deforestation and land conversion. We must reforest regions that have experienced forest loss. Humans cannot recreate the rainforest that exists now, but if we begin planting trees and work to expand the degraded forests now, perhaps in many generations there will be more habitat.
Protect Forest Corridors - Forest fragments must also be linked so single isolated populations of sun bear can create meta-populations.
Stop Poaching and Hunting - Poaching and hunting must be stopped all costs because it is very devastating for the sun bear population. One or two poachers can wipe out a population that is already under stress from habitat destruction. Government agencies must follow through with the laws and punish poachers. Wildlife laws are relatively new - in 1997 a law was passed to protect sun bears. The public needs to be educated that sun bears are protected species, and that no one is allowed to hunt and keep them as pets.
Public Support for Conservation - The public must support initiatives led by governments and researchers to conserve forests and sun bear populations. More people must be encouraged to work with sun bears. More groups can do what the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is doing, but in other locations such as Sarawak, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Places such as the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre can only exist with your help.