Conservationist Wong Siew Te talks to Jacada about the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre he founded, rescuing orphaned bear cubs and their release back into the wild.
Amidst the lush rainforest of Sabah, orangutans swing through the forest canopy, hornbills sail overhead and Borneo’s distinctive Proboscis monkeys congregate by the riverbanks. But there’s a far less known endemic species that’s recently been receiving more attention, thanks to the opening of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, founded by conservationist Wong Siew Te.
“Sun bears are such a special animal from head to toe,” Wong says passionately, “When I build up a relationship with our rescued orphan sun bear cubs, they trust me 100 percent and treat me like their real mother. This feeling is so precious, yet very sad for the bears.”
“Sun bears are such a special animal from head to toe. When I build up a relationship with our rescued orphan sun bear cubs, they trust me 100 percent.”
Hailing from Malaysia, Wong first became interested in sun bears while studying at university in the United States, so on returning to his home country he started to undertake his own fieldwork on the nation’s rare sun bears. It was at this time that Wong realised the importance of protecting this species.
“I learned that many sun bears were being kept in captivity,” he explains, “all of these captive sun bears suffered tremendously. I felt their stress and fear when I saw them locked in small cages. I felt so sorry for these animals and became concerned with their welfare and future.”
Over in Sabah, Wong set out to create a charity and conservation centre that could protect Borneo’s endemic sun bear.
Overcoming the challenges of funding such a big project, Wong founded the conservation centre alongside the neighbouring Sepilok orangutan sanctuary, and since January 2014 it has been open to the public.
“When we’re walking the rescued orphaned sun bear cubs in the forest, we act like their mothers. They trust us with all of their heart and are totally dependent on us for their future. I often say to myself, what could be more meaningful than helping these poor little creatures.”
The centre focuses on the welfare of the rescued sun bears, and the bears’ eventual rehabilitation into the wild, as well as education and research. “We provide a proper facility to house and care for sun bears that have been captive,” Wong explains, “In short, we improve their welfare and their living conditions that were once very poor.”
“Sun bears are the least known of all bears,” he continues, “so many people aren’t aware of their presence in the forest and their conservation status, let alone the importance of sun bears to the forest ecosystem, and the importance of the forest to all living organisms on Earth.”
“Sun bears are the least known of all bears, so many people aren’t aware of their presence in the forest and their conservation status.”
“The very first step to conserving sun bears is to educate the public of the bears’ plight. Since sun bears are still the least understood bears in the world, we hope the centre can be an important hub for sun bear research.”
After being kept in quarantine for 30 days and having their health checked, the bears are free to move to the bear house where they start the integration process, before being released into the natural forest enclosure.
Ultimately, the centre hopes to release each bear back into the wild. “Sun bears belong in the wild and not in captivity, so we would like to give the bears a second chance.”
Visitors to the centre have the opportunity to see these sun bears in their natural environment, from an observation platform. “This is unique,” Wong says, “because sun bears are very difficult to observe in the wild. They are very rare and shy, and they live in dense tropical forest. Here, visitors can observe, photograph, and video their natural behaviour in the forest enclosure, and sometimes see the bears climb as high as 40 metres above the ground.” Around the observation platform, guides are on-hand to talk about the sun bears.
“Sun bears belong in the wild and not in captivity, so we would like to give the bears a second chance.”
Wong concludes: “I hope more and more people learn about these bears and their plight, and take more action to help them. And I hope that people no longer harm the bears or damage their habitat. I hope more people can support the work we do to protect sun bears, as well as their rainforest habitat.”
Find out more about the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and make a donation through the charity’s website.