Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is a sanctuary based near Sandakan, Malaysian Borneo. It acts as a rescue centre for sun bears, visitors centre and conservation initiative. BSBCC lies next to the world renowned Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre – both fantastic causes, the sun bear is often overlooked next to the orangutan as a flagship species, so we thought we’d share the wonderful story of this brilliant organisation. In 2016, whilst living in Sabah, I had the chance to go and visit the organisation and meet Wong Siew Te, the founder and director of BSBCC.
What is a Sun Bear?
The sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) is the smallest bear species worldwide. They are found in parts of Southeast Asia, with their range rapidly declining. Mostly jet black fur, the name comes from the yellow/white patch of fur on their chest, and sometimes they are referred to as ‘moon bears’. Their other name, ‘honey bear’ comes from their love for honeycomb, and sun bears have a long tongue which can be used to extract honey and insects from crevices. Other than this they eat mainly fruit, but sometimes vertebrates, from the tropical ecosystems they inhabit. Their extremely powerful jaws are believed to have evolved to open tough tropical hardwood stems.
Sun bears are generally solitary, but can be social when made to live together, for example in the rescue centre. They are important in tropical forests for many reasons:
- ‘Keystone’ Species – Although usually consuming insects and fruit, sun bears also have been known to eat vertebrates such as lizards and deer. Removing sun bears from an ecosystem would result in an upset to the environmental balance, with overpopulation of sun bear prey.
- Soil Mixing – Sun bears regularly dig for earthworms and insects, this mixing of rich and poor soil types is very important for nutrient cycling in a tropical forest, as it speeds up the process.
- Seed Dispersal – The spreading of seeds is incredibly important in tropical forests. It allows foliage to cover a larger area, and be moved a distance away from their parent, which would otherwise outcompete them. It also keeps the food of the sun bear growing near to where they live, if they gradually migrate.
- Home builders – When sun bears rip open trees and logs to find food, they leave behind ideal habitats for some species. These can be hideouts for small mammals, or nesting sites in tree trunks for birds.
Sun bear populations have declined dramatically in the past few decades, and are now classed as ‘Vulnerable’ according to IUCN. All of their main threats come from anthropogenic (human) disturbance:
- Deforestation – Their habitat is simply being cut down for commercial purposes and also illegal timber trade. Pristine jungle is being replaced by oil palm, timber plantation, cattle ranches and other crops – this is happening at an alarming rate.
- Pet Trade – Sadly, some people want to keep sun bears as pets. The baby bear is seen as cute, and people cannot care for a fully grown bear. Still, the mother is killed and the cub illegally sold – it will no doubt later too die or be killed when it cannot be cared for.
- Hunting – It is illegal to kill a sun bear as they are CITES Appendix 1 listed. Sadly this is not well enforced and they are killed for their gall bladders (Chinese medicine) and for their paws (food delicacy). Often, bile is drained from the animals when they are still alive, they have to regularly be ‘restocked’ as the bears in this situation soon die.
The role of BSBCC
BSBCC is the only rehabilitation centre in the world specifically for sun bears. They fulfill a wide number of important process, both direct and indirect, to encourage the ongoing survival of the sun bear as a species.
Directly BSBCC :
- Allows for safe follow up for bears after rescue from illegal operations or orphaned individuals.
- Provides care and rehabilitation for rescued bears that may/may not be suitable for release back to the wild.
- Provides a comfortable and stimulating environment for bear development until those that are ready can be released back to the wild.
- Provides a unique tourist experiences and the chance to see one of Borneo’s most elusive animals.
Indirectly the work that BSBCC does:
- Promotes sun bear research as the centre acts as an excellent place to study the animals’ ecology.
- Promotes conscious and worthwhile eco-tourism around Sabah.
- Assists the government by providing a safe follow-up for bears confiscated during operations involving illegal activities.
- Promotes awareness to the public of sun bears and the threats they face.
The conservation centre is a fantastic example of how eco-tourism works. The presence of the bears encourage visitors, which in turn provides income for the development of the centre and care of the bears. BSBCC is a home for around 40 bears, having started out in 2010 with just 12 animals. The aerial walkway opened in 2014 and allowed spectacular and intimate viewing of the bears. Their work and progress is only expected to snowball with continued support from locals, tourists and the government alike. It is therefore up to us to help spread the hopeful message of this wonderful and giving organisation.