Researcher shines light on ‘forgotten species’
Montana Kaimin: Hannah J. Ryan : September 23, 2009
Malayan sun bears don’t have it as easy as Monte. In Southeast Asia, the world’s smallest bear species faces poaching, deforestation and a host of other woes, according to Siew Te Wong, a graduate in wildlife biology from the University of Montana.
On Tuesday evening, Wong, founder and CEO of Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, presented his findings from nearly two decades of research on the tiny and fledgling bear populace.
“I often call the sun bear a forgotten species,” Wong said.
Wong said the bears face threats from hunters because bear meat is high on the menu in the wild meat markets of China. Their body parts are common in traditional ceremonies and costumes and are used for medicinal purposes.
Trapping the cubs is a common practice due to their popularity as pets when young.
“The caged bear is something I cannot live with,” Wong said.
Poaching in Southeast Asia is creating what Wong calls the ’empty effect,’ leaving the rainforest and clear-cut areas devoid of mammals and birds and replacing them with palm oil plantations and silence.
Above all else, Wong said the largest problem facing the bears is human encroachment.
“Habitat loss is the biggest, biggest, biggest threat to the sun bear,” Wong said. “Southeast Asia will loose 75 percent of its native forests by 2100.”
Wong began to study the Malayan sun bears in 1998 in a rainforest of Malaysian Borneo for his master’s thesis. In February 1999, after a year of preliminary research, Wong and his team spent four months in the humid forest building and setting a variety of traps in an attempt to detain live sun bears for their studies.
Wong describes this stage of his research as “the goofy stuff you see on the Discovery Channel.”
Elephants, who dislike foreign objects in their forest, would crush his traps made from oil drums as if they were soda cans, he said.
While sun bears are small in size, they are strong, Wong said, flashing photographs of shredded tin roof traps and metal oil drums with basketball-sized holes punctured in the sides.
But the 100-pound mammal did have a weakness that Wong discovered after many setbacks.
“Believe me, I tried everything, but after trial and error, chicken guts worked best,” to tempt the finicky bears, Wong said.
Wong said that he and his team caught their first sun bear in June 1999. Wong and his relieved team sedated the bear, took its bodily measurements, drew blood samples and fitted the little guy with a radio collar.
In an effort to keep the bear from disappearing, Wong founded the bear conservation center. The center provides facilities for rescuing and housing captive bears, increasing public awareness locally and internationally about this mammal and rehabilitating young bears for release back into the wild.
Even with Wong’s years of work to improve the bears’ status, they still face an uphill battle.
“There’s a lot of work to do right now,” Wong said.
For more information on the Malayan sun bear, Wong’s research and the BSBCC, visit http://www.sunbears.wildlifedirect.org.
The BOS Foundation also has 59 sun bears in its care. To read about the Samboja Lestari sun bear sanctuary, click here.
Photo: Karen Stenner