Malaysia: Getting behind the 'Save the Sun Bear Campaign'

ELENA KOSHY New Straits Times 8 Dec 16;

While efforts are made to rescue, rehabilitate and release sun bears into the wild, their prospects still look less than sunny, write Elena Koshy and the Malaysian Nature Society Conservation Division.

IT is a bittersweet moment when juvenile sun bear Avi is released into the wild. She seems more interested in getting back to her human caretakers than the life she’s meant to live. Behind her is the lush green forest of the Terengganu National Park, and in front, anxious humans aboard boats on Kenyir Lake. Avi doesn’t seem too keen to explore her surroundings, instead, she heads for the people without fear.

This comes as no surprise to her National Wildlife Rescue Centre (NWRC) caretakers, many of whom use the word manja to describe this female bear. Manja is a Malay word for affectionate and a bit clingy, and this fits Avi. Hand-reared after she was found abandoned as a three-month-old cub near the National Zoo, Avi, who is almost 2, is the most affectionate of the sun bear rescues at NWRC.

This is the reality of rescue, where success is letting animals live their lives, risks and all, in the wild. The sun bear has a life expectancy of 30 years, and although NWRC is the only home Avi has ever known, it’s hoped that the rehabilitation process has taught her enough skills to survive and live out the rest of her natural life where she’s meant to be.

That’s the aim of the Save The Sun Bear Campaign — a collaboration between Felda Global Ventures Holdings (FGV), the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan), the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

“The release is the third such activity under the five-year programme that started last year, concentrating on a three-pronged approach of rescue, rehabilitation and release (3Rs), public awareness and research,” says K. Ilangovan, FGV’s head of Sustainability Technical, under the Environmental & Sustainability Division.

BEARING A BURDEN

The Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), the world’s smallest bear species, used to thrive in our tropical rainforest. With short sleek black fur and an orange-yellow crescent-shaped patch near the neck that looks uncannily like the rising sun, sun bears are also expert climbers with the ability to swing from tree to tree like primates.

Because of their penchant for honey, which they expertly scoop out of wild bee nests with their long agile tongue, they’re also known as honey bears.

These days, our sun bears face threats of an unprecedented nature, thanks to habitat loss, poaching, wildlife trade of body parts and illegal trafficking of live cubs, earning them a “vulnerable” status under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list for threatened species.

“Sun bear parts and products have long been targeted for trade, particularly its gall bladder for traditional Chinese medicine, its paws as a food delicacy and, more recently, in Malaysia, as pets,” says Kanitha Krishnasamy, senior programme manager of Traffic Southeast Asia.

A Traffic study released in 2015 discovered that in a survey of 365 traditional medicine shops across Malaysia, a whopping 48 per cent claimed to be selling bear gall bladders and medicinal products containing bear bile. “If you walk into many traditional medicine shops in the country, especially the older, well-established ones, the chances of finding bear gall bladders, or vials or pills are high,” adds Kanitha.

The report also found that nearly 60 per cent of 298 bear gall bladders for sale were claimed to be from wild sun bears killed locally through either opportunistic or deliberate poaching.

BEARING A LEGACY

In fairy tales, legends and popular childhood stories, the bear is a beloved childhood icon. However, human fascination with bears hasn’t worked in the bear’s favour.

“The illegal trafficking of sun bears as pets is a fairly new and growing phenomenon in Malaysia,” says Kanitha. “Just recently, Perhilitan seized a sun bear cub that looks like an Asiatic Black Bear that’s not native to Malaysia, indicating that people are seeking these animals out even from beyond our borders. This particular case doesn’t just make it a domestic trade violation, but a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) violation at an international level.”

With adult bears being killed or poached for their parts, bear cubs are the latest commodity traded as exotic pets by people who have no inkling about how to rear them. “The craze for keeping cubs isn’t a well thought-out decision. Young bears eventually grow up to be adults. Unless one has proper knowledge and experience to care for them, it could end up doing more harm to the animal and risk its chances of survival,” warns Kanitha.

While sun bear cubs are undeniably adorable, the adults can reach up to a height of 1.5m and weigh 80kg, with 10cm long claws and a scarily strong bite force. Once grown, unmanageable “pet” bears are abandoned, locked away in tiny cages or sold to wildlife traffickers by pet owners unable to cope with the responsibility of owning a wild animal.

BEARING HOPE

NWRC deals with rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing such bears into their natural habitat. With seven bears released last year and one last May, this brings the figures to 12 sun bears released under the programme, with five left at NWRC. However, three are infirm — one is too old, another is blind and the last had lost a paw — with no hope of survival in the wild.

They will spend the remainder of their days under care. The remaining two are still being rehabilitated, and will be assessed on their suitability to live in the wild, which includes ability to forage for food, climb trees and avoid conflict with humans.

As the boats back away, Avi is busy splashing merrily in the water. Her keepers joke that given a chance, she would happily try to climb aboard one of the vessels to be with the only family she has ever known.

This family will keep a watch on the release sites for up to a week, and on Avi and the others via their radio collars for up to a year, but that’s all that they can do.

The future is unknown for Avi, the manja sun bear who sucks her rear paw when stressed, as a child would suck its thumb for comfort. However, those who believe in the Save The Sun Bear Campaign surely have to trust that they’re doing the right thing for this Malayan sun bear and her kin, and for the future of the species as a whole.

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