Protecting the sun bear – the smallest bear species in the world!
This is Siew Te Wong, a wildlife researcher from Malaysia, who has dedicated his life to protecting the sun bear – the smallest bear species in the world. When Siew was a University student, he came to Sabah, a state on the northern part of island Borneo, to study these animals. Over that period, he noticed that the population was declining by as much as 30%. This pushed (spurred) him to found the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre known as “Papa Bear”. Since 2008, Wong and his team have quietly cared and rehabilitated for more than 50 bears that were orphaned by poachers or seized from those keeping them illegally as pets. Also, now the nonprofit educates the public about these animals.
“I want to be the voice of the sun bear, to fight for the sun bear, to ensure the survival of the sun bear. But my ultimate goal is to save the entire forest ecosystem … that is so important to the survival of mankind” says Wong.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself (your background, education, and career)?
In 1989, I went to Taiwan’s National Pingtung University of science and Technology and received my diploma in Animal Science and Veterinary. After, in 1994, I went to the US to study Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana. At my university I met a professor who was looking for Malaysian students to do study on sun bears. And I was interested as I was qualified and had a background experience in wildlife work. So, in 2002, I graduated my Master of Science with the thesis “The ecology of Malayan sun bear in the lowland tropical rainforest of Sabah, Borneo”.
Why did you decide to study and work with animals?
When I was seven years old, I always wrote down under ambition column that I want to be an animal expert or veterinarian. I would say that I have always wanted to work with animals since my childhood.
Why did you establish the Sun Bear Conservation Centre and what is its purpose?
The first reason is when I was doing my research about sun bears, I came across that many sun bears have been kept as pets by people. Also, sometimes the wildlife department confiscated the sun bears that people were keeping. But the center where the sun bears were brought wasn’t appropriate for them as the facility was initially established for orangutans. So, I felt that I had an obligation to help the wildlife department to set up a proper facility. Secondly, I noticed that sun bears were little known across the world. Since I studied about these types of bears and I knew more about them than other people, therefore, I felt that I had to help them because if I didn’t do it, no one would do.
Most people don’t know about sun bears. Can you give us an introduction to these animals, telling us briefly about their characteristics, habitat and behavior?
First of all, it is their size. Sun bears are the smallest among all other species. The second difference is their hair as they live in tropical regions their coat is very short and they don’t have an undercoat that protects from cold. The next difference is that they are very kind and friendly.
What kinds of threats and issues are the sun bears facing today?
Today, the threats to sun bears are habitat loss, poaching for their meat and body parts, and keeping bears as pets. Among these threats, habitat loss is by far the biggest threat to the survival of sun bears in Southeast Asia. Over the last 50 years, the majority of lowland forest in this area has been cleared and converted into human activities such as oil palm plantations, factories, agriculture and so on. As sun bears are dependent on forest their survival reflects the amount of forest available to them. Therefore, when the forests have been cut down, sun bears and other species have lost their habitat.
What kind of response are you getting from local communities to your conservation efforts? Do they help your conservation center?
The local governments, of course, helped and they are still supporting us. If the local governments didn’t support us, this project wouldn’t exist today. Also, our center has very good relations with the government agencies. As regards local people, we also have to work with them, educate them, give an information, and help them. So that, they don’t have to be poachers.
You have been working with sun bears more than 20 years. I would like to know if you have some of the special moments or stories about one of your bears?
There are many emotional moments and all of our bears have their unique stories behind them. And I would like to about one female sun bear named Mary that I raised up since she was a baby. Mary was captured by local hunters as little baby cub and grew up in their house. And then finally the wildlife department rescued and sent her our center. When I first saw Mary, I noticed that she was abnormal, because her body proportions didn’t match. Also, she was weak, couldn’t climb, and walked only short distance. And I found out that she was fed with a bunch of fruits but not milk. In an infant mammal, a diet without milk is very devastating. So, I took good care of Mary for the rest of her life.
Dr. Wong, you give sun bears a second life. And I also believe that you can always see how they are suffering. What gives you strength to overcome all the negative aspects of your job?
I am always optimistic and remind myself to stay positive. If I got depressed, it wouldn’t help to change the current situation. Therefore, I need to turn anger, negative emotions, and feelings into positive energy to help these animals to change their current life.
What can you recommend everybody to change the current situation and what everybody can do to keep nature?
I would like to tell you one story. 20 or 30 years ago, I read Jane Goodall’s book called “Through a Window”. And there is a good expression which reads as follows: “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. Only if we help, we shall be saved.” I think that my journey is the same. I am a wildlife biologist, a tropical forest ecologist. I studied bears and forests, and then I started to understand the situation. I understand the situation, then I started to care for the bears and the forests. And after we have the hearts to care, then we are willing to help. In this part help means that we take our care into actions. Finally, if we take an action to help, we shall be saved.
To find out more about the Bornean Sun Bear Conversation Centre, please click on the following link http://www.bsbcc.org.my/