The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) was founded in Sabah, Malaysia in 2008 as a two-stage effort to provide for the care, rehabilitation and release of orphaned and captive sun bears, as well as address the lack of knowledge and awareness of this little-known bear both in Malaysia and internationally. The Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), found only in south-east Asia, is the world’s smallest bear species. While Borneo is a remaining stronghold for this species, it is seriously threatened if not extinct in many areas of mainland Asia, including India, Bangladesh, China, Burma and Vietnam.
Unfortunately, sun bears face significant threats throughout their range, including in Borneo. The main threat to their survival is forest degradation and destruction; however, sun bears also are hunted illegally for bear parts for foods and medicines (including gall bladders), to prevent damage to crops and villages, and to capture small cubs for pets. According to the IUCN Bear Specialist Group, the total sun bear population has declined by at least 30% in the last 30 years (IUCN 2007). The Malayan sun bear is listed on Appendix I of CITES and it is illegal to kill or hunt these bears in Sabah (1997 Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment). In 2007, the World Conservation Union added the sun bear to its “vulnerable” classification on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN 2007).
Due to these threats, there currently are many young orphaned and captive sun bears living in small cages and substandard conditions in Borneo with no present hope of returning to the wild. These bears are living in highly unnatural conditions, many in small cages with no access to the outdoors or natural surfaces, much less trees and forested areas. Most of them have no physical contact with other bears. A solution is desperately needed for these captive bears, most of which are still very young and thus may be rehabilitated and reintroduced into the forest. Not only would this benefit the captive bears, it would also help ensure the long-term diversity and viability of existing sun bear populations in Borneo.
To address this problem, this project will create a new facility to house captive and orphaned sun bears in indoor/outdoor forest enclosures, as well as a forest site for rehabilitation and release of bears back into the wild. The primary goal of this project is to promote sun bear conservation in Borneo by (1) creating the capacity to confiscate, rehabilitate and release suitable orphaned and ex-captive bears back into the wild; (2) providing an improved long-term living environment for captive bears that cannot be released; (3) educating the public and raising awareness about this species; and (4) achieving increased protection for sun bears and their habitat through ongoing research, increased knowledge and awareness, and further protection of habitat.
The first stage of the overall project is to construct and operate a new facility, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), located directly adjacent to the existing Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SOURC) in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia. The BSBCC will include several natural forest enclosures in existing primary and secondary forest in Sepilok Forest Reserve. This natural environment will not only provide improved living conditions for the captive bears, it is critical to the success of rehabilitation efforts and evaluation of the bears for release back to the wild. In addition, the BSBCC will provide public education and awareness programs, as well as opportunities and support for further research on this species in Borneo. Significantly, the Centre will be able to draw on the experience and resources of the neighboring SOURC in caring for and rehabilitating orphaned animals to prepare for life back in the wild. The Centre will also utilize SOURC’s existing veterinary facilities and staff, as well as parking areas and ticket gates.
The second stage of the project will focus on identifying and setting up a forest release site for those captive bears deemed suitable for return to the wild. This will include surveys of existing forest areas to determine existing populations, carrying capacities and protection status. Once an appropriate site is identified, a minimal facility consisting mainly of forest enclosures will be constructed to allow for the short-term care of suitable animals during soft release back into the forest and to allow for post-release monitoring. Releasing these bears will increase the genetic diversity and viability of the sun bear populations in Borneo.
Up until April 2010, there were 12 previously confiscated young bears living in very cramped quarters in an old indoor bear house on the BSBCC site. As the situation for these captive bears was pressing, funding and construction of the BSBCC was divided into three phases in order to expedite the movement of these bears into more appropriate living environments. Phase I of the construction, including the construction of a new 20-bear house and associated fenced enclosures, was completed in March 2010. The 12 bears on site were moved into the new bear house and outdoor enclosures in April 2010. After being placed into four groups, they are now slowly being introduced to the natural forest environment in the outdoor enclosures.
As of September 2010, BSBCC has procured funding commitments for Phase II of construction. This phase will entail refurbishment of the old bear house into offices, a visitor center and gift shop, and a quarantine area for up to 10 bears, as well as construction of a new viewing platform and refurbishment of existing boardwalks and trails on the site. Upon completion of Phase II in mid-2011, the BSBCC will be ready to open to the public. BSBCC is currently also seeking funds for Phase III. This phase will involve construction of a second bear house and forested enclosures with capacity for 20 additional bears.
Within the larger goals outlined above, the BSBCC will fulfill the following specific objectives:
- serve as a half-way house for confiscated/orphaned bears before release back into the wild; provide rehabilitation and training/survival skills for individual release;
- serve as a permanent home for confiscated/orphaned bears that cannot be put back into the wild;
- provide a humane, comfortable, and stimulating environment for captive sun bears over both the short- and long-term;
- provide a much-needed location for the care and housing of newly confiscated/rescued bears;
- assist the government in enforcement efforts by providing a place for confiscated animals and a program for successful reintroduction;
- present captive bears as wildlife ambassadors for Borneo and for conservation of wild sun bears and their habitat;
- provide a memorable visitor experience to promote awareness of sun bears and threats to their survival;
- promote tourism around Sepilok as well as wild areas in Borneo by raising awareness of a new charismatic flagship species;
- promote further research on sun bears, including sun bear breeding patterns, social interactions, use of the forest, health and genetic status, behavior, captive breeding, rehabilitation and enrichment; and
- provide capacity building for further research and conservation of sun bears in the wild.
The BSBCC is a joint project with the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), which is responsible for the bears, the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD), which is responsible for managing forest reserves, LEAP, and spear-headed by Malayan Sun Bear researcher and conservationist Wong Siew Te. An MOU has been signed and SWD and SFD have donated all of the land needed for the BSBCC. SWD has also donated buildings and veterinary expertise. In addition, the Sabah State Government supports this project and has agreed to match all funds raised for construction of the project dollar for dollar. This partnership with the state government is critical to ensure the long-term success of the project.
A design for the new Centre has been produced by architect Ian Hall. The BSBCC will have capacity for 50 bears, and will include two blocks of bear houses, 8 large fenced forested enclosures, quarantine facilities, offices, a visitor centre and viewing platform, and a system of boardwalks.
The new BSBCC is being constructed on the site of an existing run-down indoor bear house at SOURC along with an adjacent former rhinoceros enclosure and 2.5 hectares of intact forest. Two new blocks of modern bear houses will be constructed with a capacity for 20 bears each. These bear houses and associated forested enclosures will be constructed so as to utilize existing fencing and viewing areas wherever possible. The old bear house will be renovated to provide visitor center and entrance, office space, staff room, and a quarantine and kitchen area.
The construction has been broken up into three phases in order to expedite completion of one new bear house and forested enclosures to relieve the pressure on the current overcrowded conditions. Phase I, consisting of the first block of indoor bear houses and associated forested enclosures for 20 bears was completed in March 2010. Phase II consists of renovation of the old bear house as described above and construction of a viewing platform and trails; and Phase III consists of the construction of the second block of bear houses and forested enclosures for 20 additional bears. The two bear houses will be linked to a total of 8 large outdoor fenced enclosures in the surrounding natural forest. Visitors will be able to view bears in one or two of the outdoor enclosures from the viewing platform. The fencing for the enclosures is chain link or existing ironwood fencing reinforced by electric fencing inside the perimeter.
Due to the close proximity, the BSBCC will utilize existing SOURC veterinary facilities and personnel, parking, access roads and ticket gates. The BSBCC will also link in to existing forest trails and boardwalks at SOURC. The BSBCC will continue to engage in local capacity building by hiring and training local staff as animal keepers, education staff and research assistants for various research projects at the Centre.
In early 2010, prior to moving into the new facility, the 12 existing captive bears were moved into cages in proximity to the other bears they were likely to be grouped with in the new facility. In April 2010, the existing captive bears were given health checks and moved into their new living spaces. Once comfortable, they were introduced to the other bears in their new groupings and allowed access to outdoor enclosures during the day. All bears have been and will be trained on the electric fencing in a special training area adjacent to the bear house. Newly acquired bears will be subject to health checks and quarantine procedures before being placed into the new living spaces and into new groups. Sabah Wildlife Department will assist in confiscating and translocating additional captive bears. Operational procedures and protocols will be developed and followed for animal care and husbandry, health checks, confiscation of animals, quarantine, and monitoring health and behavior of each bear upon arrival and through various stages of care and training. Health and behavioral data also will be collected on the bears both before and after they enter the new facility.
During 2011, BSBCC staff will also begin conducting bear surveys in existing forest reserves to determine current populations and carrying capacities. This is the first step in identifying a forest release site for the reintroduction stage of the project.
The BSBCC has been supported through its early stages by the Alexander Abraham Foundation, the Flying Elephant Foundation, Nancy Abraham, Oakland Zoo Keepers and members, Oakland Zoo, Oregon Zoo, Little Rock Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, Tanya Rosen, the Muchnic Foundation, Cheryl Grunbock and Martin King Foundation, Michael Hackett, Kennon and Bob Hudson, Steven and Florence Goldby, AZA Bear TAG, BEARTREK (Wildlife Media Inc.), John Taylor, Wildlife Conservation Network, Sekolah Kebangsaan Bukit Damansara (Bukit Damansara School), Wildlife Direct, Sea World Busch Garden, Shared Earth Foundation, Wild4Ever, EARCOS and individual donations through Wildlife Direct. In 2010, we have additional supports from LUSH Charity Pot- LUSH Fresh Handmade Cosmetics, Full Circle Foundation, Cleveland Metro Zoo, Ministry of Tourism Malaysia, and Yayasan Sime Darby. Thank you all!
In addition, LEAP put on a first-of-its-kind fundraiser in Sabah for the BSBCC in November 2008. With the Chief Minister of Sabah as the guest of honour, the “Bear Necessities” event included a simulated “bear cage” where attendees were held captive before the dinner, music and performances by leading Malaysian artists and celebrities, sun bear videos and individual stories, and a live auction of special sun bear– themed artwork. The event was a huge success, raising over USD$330,000 for the BSBCC. This included numerous companies that purchased tables for the event, as well as a very generous matching pledge by the Sabah State Government. These funds, along with the individual donations, have ensured that Phase I construction may commence immediately!
In the meantime, Wong continues his efforts to raise awareness for this neglected but charismatic species. Wong has appeared recently on Malaysian TV and is featured (with the bears) in an international documentary film called BEARTREK, which should be released in 2011. Wong also maintains a blog to tell the story of sun bears in Southeast Asia as well as to highlight the progress of the BSBCC. This blog can be found at www.sunbears.wildlifedirect.org. Further information on the BSBCC, sun bears and Wong Siew Te can be found via the following links:
Read BSBCC 2009 Annual Report here: