Malaysia: Sun bears still facing threats

New Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

SANDAKAN: Hunted for generations in the jungles of Borneo for the bile from its gall bladder and for food, the Malayan Sun Bear continues to be a target for the ever present global demand in traditional medicine and exotic meat, threatening the world's smallest bear which is said to have dwindled in numbers by 30 per cent in the last three decades.

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) founder and chief executive officer Wong Siew Te said natives, particularly in Borneo, traditionally believe that the sun bear's bile ejects itself out of the gall bladder and spreads inside a bear's body, healing injuries in a fall.

"Sun bears can climb high up on trees and normally climb down slowly from the tree. However, when they encounter human encroachment in the forest when they are on a tree, they tend to slide down quickly or even drop themselves from the tree. They then recover quickly and go about their day.

"This has erroneously made people believe that the phenomenon is due to the power of the sun bear bile that spreads within the body and heals the bears, allowing them to recover instantly. This is why sun bears are traditionally hunted in the wild for their bile, apart from their meat," Wong said.

He said in some parts of the world, Asiatic Black Bears are kept in unimaginably cruel conditions in small metal cages and their bile extracted for up to 20 years, and then killed once they are unable to produce the liquid.
While there are no bear bile farms here, bear bile is consumed locally. Bear gall bladder, bear bile capsules and other bile products are sold illegally in traditional medicine stores.

"With this demand, sun bears continue to be at risk of getting hunted."

While the actual number of sun bears in the wild is unknown, its status as a "totally protected" species under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment and its listing as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List is not keeping those after its bile away from the risk of prosecution.

Under the enactment, those found in possession of a sun bear or its product could face a fine of up to RM50,000 or a jail term of five years or both.

Other threats that sun bears face include habitat loss and demand for the exotic pet trade.

"Sun bear cubs are cute and there is demand for such a pet. To get a cub, the mother is killed to prevent hunters from getting harmed. Once these cubs grow, they become aggressive and it becomes dangerous to keep them as pets.

"This is when they are surrendered to the authorities. They lose survival skills when kept as pets," he said.
Bears surrendered to or confiscated by the Sabah Wildlife Department are sent to the BSBCC adjacent to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. It is currently home to 28 sun bears.