While we were in Borneo we had the chance to visit the Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC) nonprofit at Sepilok and meet with founder and wildlife biologist Wong Siew Te, D. J. N. Sun bears get their name from the golden half circle shape of golden fur on their chest which resembles the rising sun. Each bear has a unique marking as no two are the same. They’re actually quite dark, usually with fur that appears to be almost black, but their dispositions are certainly sunny.
To be completely honest, I had never heard of the world’s smallest bear before arriving and was astonished to witness these wild creatures activities and unique personalities at the sanctuary. Siew, lovingly nicknamed Papa Bear, says this is typical as sun bears are the least known bear in the world. He told CNN, “I often call the sun bear a forgotten species. When I first started, 20 years ago, no one has ever studied sun bears. Most people do not know that they even exist.”
Bornean sun bears are the smallest subspecies, they’re only half the size of Malayan sun bears! These tiny bears, which can actually be up to 5 feet tall and 130 pounds, are listed as vulnerable, meaning they’re at risk of being endangered, due to their shrinking habitat in Borneo. Their population has decreased by 30% over the last three decades. This is largely in part to deforestation for palm trees which are planted in abundance around the island to produce palm tree oil. If you haven’t already I urge you to stop purchasing products with this oil that is at fault for quickly killing off some of the most endangered species on our planet. I also employ you to seek out ethical wildlife experiences whenever you travel.
Siew founded the BSBCC NGO in 2008 in hopes to combat the quickly escalating decline of the sun bear and raise awareness about the need to save their shrinking habitat. BSBCC is the only sun bear conservation center in the world. Sun bears are native to Southeast Asia but no other countries or individuals have taken an initiative to protect and conserve the bears. There are many other programs and rehab centers for other bears around the globe, such as Libearty in Romania, bears at large are still at risk due to abuse from humans.
In Asia alone, there are 10,000 bears in captivity in China, 3,000 in Vietnam, and 1,000 in Laos, according to Siew. In China, the bear farm industry is still alive and well, unlike the bears that are kept as prisoners. Sun bears are threatened by forest degradation, illegal hunting for valuable bear bile, and poaching young cubs as pets. These horrors occur in spite of sun bears being a totally protected species by the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment in 1997.
Siew and his staff of specialists and volunteers work tirelessly to protect the future of sun bears. BSBCC operates with a holistic approach to rehabilitation to orphaned and rescued sun bears. Currently, 44 ex-captive bears are living in the huge enclosure of forest reserve, their natural habitat. Welfare and care are provided for the rescued sun bears, many of which were kept in harmful human captivity and made to perform in front of audiences. Once the rescued sun bears arrive they begin a rehabilitation process that reintroduces them to their natural forest environment and prepares them to hopefully one day be released into the wild in Borneo’s Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Preservation of the sun bears is incredibly important as they’re the second rarest bear in the world, after panda bears.
BSBCC opened up to visitors in 2014. Guests are welcome to come and see these spectacular animals in an ethical and impactful way by visiting BSBCC. Open 365 days a year guests can pay a minimal entry fee, which 100% of proceeds support the rehabilitation of the bears, and spend the day watching the animals play and eat from the observation platform and jungle boardwalks. While at BSBCC it is important to remain very quiet as to not deserve the animals, many of which have been terrorized by humans. An assortment of videos plays on loop in the visitor center where guests can learn more about the sun bears and their fight for survival in their diminishing natural habitat.
During our visit, we got to see the adolescent sun bears climbing and devouring a tree trunk. But the sun bear’s favorite treat is honey. Their love for the sweet sticky stuff has earned them the name of honey bear. Honey is especially rare to find in the wild and when these bears do come across it they go bananas over the stuff. Remember how far Baloo (not a sun bear) in the Jungle Book went for honey? Yeah, it’s like that! They get to the honey out of the beehives by using their extra long tongues, which can be up to 10 inches long! Most of the young sun bears at the conservation are orphans whose mothers were killed by poachers and they were then sold as pets before being rescued and brought to BSBCC.
Sun bears are technically carnivores but have omnivorous eating habits. In the wild, sun bears survive of foods from the forest such as fruit, insects, and honey. BSBCC replicates the natural diet by providing an assortment of fruits such as figs, durian, and insects in order to ween the rehabilitated bears off of human prepared food and back to their natural palette. Twice a day baskets of food are tossed to the bears where they find and eat in on their own.
We also spent time watching the adult sun bears, which didn’t appear much larger than their younger peers. We were moved to learn the story of the sweet bear named Fulung, the Lundayeh language word for forest. Fulung was found in the forest when he was just two month’s old. The villager who found him decided to raise and care for him as a pet, but he was not equipped to do so. He finally surrendered Fulung to BSBCC 7 months later. When Fulung arrived at the conservation he had a deep cut on his back, likely from rubbing up to the bars of a cage, anxiously trying to escape. He didn’t adjust well to freedom, he was so used to human care that he began to self-harm while in quarantine at the initial stages of rehabilitation at BSBCC. He would scratch at his stomach until a bloody wound formed. Six years later Fulung is very healthy and happy, but he will never leave BSBCC. As he was in captivity from such a young age he cannot learn to be independent and become the wild animal he was meant to be. He now climbs trees, searches for termites, and socializes with other bears, simple feats that the team at BSBCC worried would never be possible. However, Fulung is still extremely needy for human attention. We watched him for over an hour as he followed us back and forth on the path and kept looking up at us to make sure we were watching him. You can meet the rest of the bears here, and even sponsor one by adopting a sun bear.
BSBCC is doing incredibly important work for the survival of the sun bears. Siew is a leader in creating a safe, natural environment for rescuing, rehabilitation, and ultimately rereleasing the globe’s smallest bear back into the wild. Siew is incredibly passionate about his work and treats each of the 40+ bears who currently live at the conservation center as he would his own children. The hard work the staff here puts in daily is vastly apparent–the sun bears are social with each other, seek their own food, play and climb trees, as they’re nurtured and rehabilitated to care for themselves. We need more people like Siew and more centers like BSBCC around our planet to save our wildlife and stop forest degradation.
Tell us in the comments which animal sanctuaries you’ve visited. We’d love to know about your experiences so we can add them to our travel bucket list.