Malaysia: Sun bears are 'forest doctors'

Avila Geraldine New Straits Times 30 May 13;

ECOSYSTEM PRESERVERS: They cannot survive in agricultural plantations, says conservation expert

KOTA KINABALU: THE Malayan sun bear plays an important role in the ecosystem as they serve as forest doctors, engineers and planters, contributing to a thriving forest.

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) founder and chief executive officer Wong Siew Te said the sun bear used its claws to scrape off and destroy termite nests around tree bark.

This, in turn, saves the host tree from dying because of termite infestation.

"Sun bears do this to get termites and larvae, an important food source for them.

"If they do not do this, the termites will eventually kill the host tree by feeding on the wood fibre inside.

"Uncontrolled termite populations can lead to the death of many trees," he said yesterday.

The sun bear is the smallest of the world's bears and is listed as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

It is at risk of becoming endangered, unless the circumstances threatening its survival improve.

Wong said sun bears, which lived in the forests of Southeast Asia, were fond of eating honey.

Sun bears create holes in trees when extracting the honey of stingless bees that build nests under tree bark.

The holes are then used by hornbills or squirrels to nest in.

As forest planters, sun bears spread the seeds of large fruits, such as durian and jackfruit, when travelling.

They have a home range of 14 square kilometres.

"Sun bears are among the largest mammals in the tropical rainforest.

"Through their travels, they defecate swallowed seeds away from the mother tree.

"This increases the chances of the seeds' survival.

"Through their role as nutrient mixers, sun bears facilitate soil turnover and regeneration when they forage for termites and other insects."

Despite the many functions that sun bears served, their long-term survival in the wild depended on the continuous existence of natural forests, said Wong.

He said sun bears, as a forest-dependent species, could not survive in oil palm and other agricultural plantations.

"They need large tracts of natural forests for them to sustain viable populations, where they can search for food, shelter and reproduce.

"There is so much that sun bears are doing for the forest and this is something we all need to understand and appreciate.

"Today, their number is going down and more are ending up in captivity."

Wong added that BSBCC housed 28 rescued sun bears.

The centre, which is located adjacent to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan, is hoping to hold a fundraiser on July 20.

This is to meet the ever-increasing cost of caring for sun bears in captivity, as well as raise public awareness of the species.
BSBCC is a non-governmental organisation set up in 2008 through a collaboration between the Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department and Land Empowerment Animals People.