A sanctuary of sun bears

The Jakarta Post: Dina Indrasafitri: 2 August 2011

Around five o’clock in the afternoon in the Samboja Lestari project area in East Kalimantan usually means happy time for the sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) living in the area’s sanctuary - it is feeding time.

The smallest of the bear species, sun bears are distinguished by the yellow, crescent-shaped marks on their chests. The bears at the sanctuary wandered amid logs, stumps and ponds in July’s afternoon sun to find slices of pumpkins and pineapples placed by the keepers.

At times, the bears are aggressive toward each other: barking and baring their teeth, brandishing sharp claws and engaging in short duels.

Some of the bears are in cages, lapping up soy milk and gazing curiously at visitors. A cub in a cage anxiously makes suckling noises.

“We call them sun bears because they have the [yellow] mark and in the middle of the mark is a black spot and each spot is different, like a finger print,” Amran, a guide at the Samboja Lestari, said.

Their sleek, dark coat, short muzzle and waddling walk make them instantly adorable. Unfortunately, sun bears are threatened by habitat loss and poaching.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), they are categorized as “vulnerable”.

The IUCN’s information sheet on sun bears states that the creatures are usually poached in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam for their gall bladders and bear-paws.

According to the Samboja Lodge’s website, Samboja Lestari’s sun bear sanctuary is one of the largest sun bear-related projects in the world. Located around 38 kilometers from East Kalimantan’s capital Balikpapan, the sanctuary houses 49 bears in total.

The cub making the anxious noises is named lady. “Some people found her in the forest by herself,” Imam said.

The Samboja Lestari project has its roots in the Balikpapan Orangutan Society (BOS), which works to rescue and rehabilitate orangutan orphans.

According to the BOS Foundation website, the organization was preceded by the orangutan conservation project, started by the Tropenbos Foundation in Balikpapan with the coordination of the General Directorate of Forest Conservation.

The person behind the projects, Willie Smits, said in a 2009 TED online video that his first encounter with the severity of orangutans’ plight happened when he was walking in a market with his wife and “somebody stuck a cage in my face. And between those slits were the saddest eyes I have ever seen. There was a very sick orangutan baby.”

Smits said he returned later that night and found the baby orangutan lying in a garbage heap. He rescued the orangutan, later named Uce, and she was followed by many more.

Eventually, the movement to rescue orangutans gained support and it was renamed the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in 1998.

“After we released [the orangutans back into the wild] in 2002, we realized that we did not have that many forest areas to release orangutans to. So the establishers of the BOS Foundation decided to re-create a forest,” Amran said.

Despite the seemingly ambitious nature, the plan eventually came into being. BOS Foundation started buying land from the locals in 2001 and planted trees in the Samboja area, which at the time was a barren grassland due to illegal logging, drought and forest fires.

“I created the place Samboja Lestari and the idea was, if I can do this on the worst possible place that I can think of, where there is really nothing left, no one will have an excuse to say, ‘Yeah, but.’ No. Everyone should be able to follow this,” Smits said in the video.

He added that, after the project, the area currently had over 1,000 species, including 137 bird species.

Smits said that local people were also involved in the process and that it had created jobs for around 3,000 people.

The BOS Foundation website cites the Samboja Lestari area by the end of 2009 as 1,852.63 hectares and 983.24 hectares of the area has a Right to Use Certificate issued by the National Land Agency Board (BPN).

The orangutan rescue mission developed as well. Samboja Lestari currently has six orangutan islands, covering a total area of 6.52 hectares. Most of the orangutans, which were rescued from various places and situations, were trained to be returned to the wild with forest schools acting as the ‘playground’ in which orangutans learn forest skills.

“In 2002, we realized that bears also had the same condition [as orangutans of being threatened], so we finally opened a program to rescue sun bears,” Amran said.

According to the National Geographic website, male sun bears, which are slightly larger than the females, grow to be about 1.5 meters long and weigh 70 kilograms. In Indonesia, they are called beruang madu (honey bears) due to their affinity for honey.

The sun bears in the sanctuary are separated according to sex and age due to the aggressive nature of several of them, especially the male.

“All of [the sun bears] here are rescued. From everywhere, such as the black markets of Jakarta, from people having them as pets and from zoos,” Amran said.

Imam Muslimin, one of the sun bear keepers in Samboja, said he had worked there for four years. He previously worked on a ship. The ‘BOS’ sign captured his eye every time he came to Balikpapan, and his curiosity led him to discover a job, which he eventually took.

“I consider [working here] as paying for my sins. When I was [working] in coal [mining], I used to bomb [areas] and extract coal without thinking about the animals. It paid well, but I came to think, what if it was our home that was destroyed?” he said.

Imam’s job includes feeding the bears, cleaning their cages and taking care of them in general, including distracting them when they begin fighting.

“It is quite a satisfying job - I am very happy because not everyone can be in direct contact with animals, especially the endangered ones,” he said, smiling.

The Sun Bear Sanctuary covers a total area of 58 hectares of Samboja Lestari, but currently only a part of that area is used for the purpose.

Despite the project’s development over the years, mining and logging is still prevalent in the area. Just minutes away from the Samboja Lestari area is a grey, dusty coal mine. The sound of machinery replaces the birds’ chirping and the effect on the land is instantly recognizable.

Amran said some of the people in the area chose to sell their land to the mining companies or cooperatives or ‘rent’ the land according to the value of coal.

“If BOS Foundation didn’t buy the land here, I believe it would already be a coal mining area,” he said.

Photos by JP/Dina Indrasafitri

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