Category Archives: Research

Illegal bear bile trade rampant in Asia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 11th May 2011—Poaching and illegal trade of bears, driven largely by the demand for bile, used in traditional medicine and folk remedies continues unabated across Asia on a large scale, a new report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, has found.

Bear bile products were found on sale in Traditional Medicine outlets in all but one of the 13 countries/territories surveyed says the report entitled Pills, Powders, Vials & Flakes: The bear bile trade in Asia (PDF, 2 MB). The exception is Macao.

Products were most frequently observed in mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar and Viet Nam, where they were recorded in over half of all outlets surveyed. The most frequently encountered products were whole bear gall bladders and pills—found in half of the outlets surveyed.

Bears are kept for their bile, used in traditional Asian medicine Click photo to enlarge © TRAFFIC Southeast Asia

Bears are kept for their bile, used in traditional Asian medicine Click photo to enlarge © TRAFFIC Southeast Asia

TRAFFIC’s research suggests a complex and robust trade in bear products. Several of the countries/territories surveyed were either producers or consumers of bear bile products, while in some cases they acted as both.

Mainland China was the most commonly reported place of origin for these products across the region.

In Myanmar, internationally sourced gall bladders were reported to come solely from Lao PDR; in Hong Kong, in cases where the source was known, products were reported to have originated in Japan and over half of those offered for sale in the South Korea were from wild sources in Russia.

Domestic trade of bear bile is legal under strict regulation within mainland China and Japan but is illegal in Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. Regardless of the legality of trade within countries, international trade is not allowed.

Asiatic Black Bears (predominant in this trade) and Sun Bears are both listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which prohibits international commercial trade in the species, its parts and derivatives.

An analysis of the origin of bear bile products found in these surveys makes it clear that import and export regulations are commonly flouted demonstrating a failure to implement CITES requirements to stop illegal international bear bile trade effectively and protect bears from exploitation.

“Unbridled illegal trade in bear parts and products continues to undermine CITES which should be the world’s most powerful tool to regulate cross-border wildlife trade,” said Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley, lead author of the report and Senior Programme Officer of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

The study found that the vast majority of the bear farms surveyed in Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam did not have captive breeding programmes, suggesting they depend on bears captured from the wild.

“The study makes a clear case for authorities to shut down businesses selling illegal bear products and prosecute individuals caught selling, buying, transporting or keeping bears illegally,” said Foley.

“Both the Asiatic Black Bear and the Sun Bear are threatened by poaching and illegal trade. The demand for bile is one of the greatest drivers behind this trade and must be reduced if bear conservation efforts are to succeed,” added Foley.

“Even legal bear bile producers are circumventing domestic and international regulations by exporting products internationally,” said Dr Jill Robinson MBE, Founder and CEO of Animals Asia Foundation, which rescues bears from farms in China and Viet Nam.

“This report, in addition to Animals Asia’s years of research, shows that the bear bile industry is engaging in illegal practices. As pressure mounts on the wild bear population, there are serious questions to be answered on the welfare and pathology of farmed bears, and the risks to human health in those who consume the contaminated bile from such sick and diseased bears,” said Robinson.


The study’s main findings are:
•    Bear bile products were observed in traditional medicine outlets in 12 out of 13 Asian countries/territories surveyed
•    Bear bile products were available at 50% or more of traditional medicine outlets surveyed in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar and Viet Nam.
•    China is the most commonly reported source for bear bile products

A short presentation can be viewed at:

For further information:

Kaitlyn Elizabeth-Foley, Senior Programme Officer, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Tel: ++603 7880 3940, [email protected]
Elizabeth John, Senior Communications Officer, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Tel: ++603 7880 3940, [email protected]
Richard Thomas, Communications Co-ordinator, TRAFFIC. Tel: +44 1223 279068, email: [email protected]

Man on a Mission

Man on a Mission

contributor: wong siew te

occupation: doctorate student, university of montana; founder and ceo, bornean sun bear conservation centre; wildlife biologist, conservationist

base: missoula, montana, usa

I.M….an animal lover all my life


Going after radioed sun bear in Danum Valley.. Photo: Cede Prudente

Going after radioed sun bear in Danum Valley.. Photo: Cede Prudente

Not many people start out with a clear-cut idea of what they hope to achieve in life. for wildlife biologist and conservationist wong siew te, however, his passion for animals is something that he has carried with him throughout his life. this passion has led him to taiwan, the us, and eventually, to sabah to work with the elusive sun bears.

I was born into a big family of 9 siblings and grew up in Bukit Mertajam, Penang state. I started out like everyone else until I went to Taiwan to pursue a diploma in Animal Husbandry and Veterinary in 1989. Four years later, I continued my bachelor degree in US, majoring in something that is not familiar to most Malaysians – Wildlife Biology. I’ve stayed to pursue that course since then, obtaining my Master’s degree and finally my Doctorate degree.

I have always been an animal lover from very young. Over the years, I kept a lot of pets, including many other sparrows and common mynahs (that I ‘rescued’ after they’d fallen from their nests), fishes, cats, dogs, turtles, mice, and insects such as spiders, praying mantis, and scorpions. In my teenage years, I started to breed birds, fish and dogs. I never got tired of observing them, especially during the process of breeding, developing and growing. To me, this process was something amazing, and I couldn’t think of anything better than spending my life living closely with them and watching them all day long.

Bottle feeding Cerah in the forest

Bottle feeding Cerah in the forest


Take a break at our forest camp

Take a break at our forest camp

“That pair of binoculars opened my eyes to the world of wildlife animals that are not confined to cages, iron bars, and chains.”

At 18, I bought my first binoculars and started watching wild birds without knowing that there was such an outdoor activity called ‘bird-watching’ that millions of birders across the world were passionate about. That pair of binoculars opened my eyes to the world of wildlife animals that are not confined to cages, iron bars, and chains. They seemed much happier; they lived freely – flying, swimming, running and jumping any where they wanted.

It was not until a few years later that I was introduced to proper bird watching activities, during my stint in Taiwan when I joined the Student Chapter of the Bird Watching Society. Besides watching pretty birds and the beauty of nature through our binoculars, we also saw a lot of unlawful poaching and killing of wild birds, other wildlife, and destruction of wildlife habitat. It was then that my eyes were opened to the fact that wildlife is being threatened by all kinds of human activities. 

Since Standard One, I always filled up the ‘Ambition’ column in the student personal information card with ‘Animal Expert’ or ‘Veterinarian’. I wanted to work closely with animals when I grew up, and those were the only two occupations I could think of that involved such work. During primary school and high school, I never considered pursuing any other field. Because of that, I stayed focused on what my interest is and what I do best and know best. After years of experience working with pets, livestock, and wildlife, I have chosen conserving wildlife as my lifelong mission.

After my SPM, I was aiming for UPM’s Animal Husbandry diploma program but failed. After STPM, I applied for the Veterinary Program in UPM but unfortunately, my attempts were deterred again. Without much choice, I went to Taiwan. In Taiwan, I completed the Animal Husbandry and Veterinary program and learned a lot about the industry. At the end of my study, a wildlife professor from our university was looking for a research assistant to help him conduct various wildlife surveys and research work.  I enjoyed working with wildlife and being stationed in the field (forest), which most people dislike or find difficult. Eventually, I conducted my own field research for my M.Sc and PhD project to become a field biologist. It was during this period of time that I was introduced to wildlife conservation and decided that this was what I really wanted to do with my life. I then took up the venture in the US. During my first year in the US (1995), I was given the opportunity to study the Sun Bears in Sabah, which led to what I am doing today.


Handling and radio-fitting a bearded pig in the forest to study their ecology

Handling and radio-fitting a bearded pig in the forest to study their ecology


Over the years, I made a lot of sacrifices.  Firstly of course, is all the money I’ve spent to pay for my education. Unlike other international students who studied natural resources-related fields (the field that my course of study falls under) that have government scholarships and support, my education was wholly self-funded. I spent a lot of time and effort working to pay school fees and am still doing it till today. The fees also put a lot of pressure on my family who helped support me all these years. I am grateful and thankful to all of them as without their support and help, I would not be able to study abroad and do what I am doing now. Another sacrifice I’ve had to make is living apart from my family. Since 2005, I was separated from my family – two daughters and my wife – for 3 years when I was living in the forest to conduct my field work on sun bears and bearded pigs.


Checking vital signs of a sedated sun bear in Sabah rainforest

Checking vital signs of a sedated sun bear in Sabah rainforest


An adult sun bear showing the unique chest marking

An adult sun bear showing the unique chest marking

What exactly a field biologist/research assistant (RA) does in the field depends on the nature of the research. When I was an RA conducting wildlife surveys in Taiwan, my typical field day would start early, before 5 AM. I’d prepare breakfast and a packed lunch at the camp site, arrive at the transects at dawn, and start recording all the birds that I saw and heard. After that, I’d check all the live traps I set the day before for any small mammals or service camera traps. After dinner at night, I would go out to look for amphibians and reptiles (yes, frogs and snakes!). Sometimes I was accompanied by other RAs or student; sometimes I worked alone.

In 1995, I worked as an RA studying birds and bats in West Malaysian rainforest. We start the day at 6 AM opening mist nests in the forest before breakfast. We had our breakfast after all the mist nests were opened to catch birds. Then the rest of the day would be spent going around the net line (2.5 km long), bringing down the birds caught on mist nets, and putting coloured rings and bands on them. We would do this till dusk, then we would close all the bird nets and open the bat traps. After dinner, we would start to check bat traps and process the bats caught. After 12 AM, we would have our shower in the creek beside our forest camp. I was never alone when I bathed in the creek. With the faint light from my head lamp, I could always spot frogs and their predators – snakes, all around me!

When I studied sun bears in Sabah, my day would start at 7 AM or earlier. We would start the day by checking bear traps. I ‘processed’ the animals, if we caught any target animals in the traps. If not, I tracked down a particular radio-collared bear with radio-telemetry equipment to study what these bears do. After dinner, I would be working with data, doing computer work and making preparations for the next day.

“The rewarding part is when we’re able to send those bears back into the wild and see them start to reproduce and have a life back in the wild.”

Family photo in the winter of 2008, Missoula, Montana, USA

Family photo in the winter of 2008, Missoula, Montana, USA

The opportunity of studying sun bears was given to me in 1994 when I first came to the US to pursue my undergraduate degree majoring in wildlife biology. Dr. Christopher Servheen, the then co-chair of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group and a renowned bear biologist from University of Montana was looking for a student to study the least known bear in the world at that time – the sun bear in Malaysia. Equipped with experiences of radio-tracking large mammals and a strong interest to study wildlife, I took up his offer and began to prepare myself for the next three years to conduct the first ecological study of sun bears. At the same time, I wanted to learn as much as possible of the conservation issues facing wild and captive sun bears. 

In 1998, I started my 3-year field work to study the basic ecology of sun bears as my Master of Science thesis project.  I was stationed at Danum Valley Field Centre, Sabah. The study not only revealed the elusive life history and ecology of sun bears in a tropical rainforest for the first time, but also exposed more questions and challenges of sun bear survival due to human disturbances in sun bear habitat, such as logging and other issues. I decided to continue my work with sun bears upon finishing my Masters degree. I studied the effects of logging on sun bears and bearded pigs as the topic of my doctorate dissertation as well as tropical rainforest productivity from 2005-2008 in Sabah. During the same period of time, I also started working on sun bear conservation issues since I considered them pressing issues. I did a lot of education work and helped some very unfortunate captive sun bears as much as I could.

Family photo in the fall of 2008, Missoula, Montana, USA

Family photo in the fall of 2008, Missoula, Montana, USA

Since then, more conservation attention has been given to this species. For the past 10 years, there were only three conservation projects involving sun bears, but in 2009, three more projects were started. Nevertheless, sun bears still remain among the most neglected bear and large mammal species in Southeast Asia and a lot more conservation issues still need to be addressed to help this bear.

One of the biggest challenges we face is always finding funds, because how much work can actually be done depends on how much funding we receive. Another challenge is finding the right people.  In order to do good work, you need to find good people who are capable of doing the work. In Malaysia, there is not much ground for training aspiring wildlife biologists. There is not enough knowledge or passion for wildlife conservation/research work, and a lot of conservation work being done in Malaysia is done by foreigners, because our own people do not have the passion or the training for it.

Bottle feeding a baby sun bear, victimized by the pet trade and poachers after killing the baby’s mother for profits

Bottle feeding a baby sun bear, victimized by the pet trade and poachers after killing the baby’s mother for profits

Me and Batik, a female sun bear that I worked with in the forest

Me and Batik, a female sun bear that I worked with in the forest

“If I can save a species from extinction, I’ll do it. If I can change or influence someone’s opinion about conservation, I’ll do it. Life is short; this is my mission.”

There are two issues that inspired me to found the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). The first is the fact that there are many sun bears being kept as pets in bad conditions. Sun bears kept in government facilities face equally bad conditions. Secondly, very few people know about sun bears, and there is a need to educate as many people as possible about this species.

What the BSBCC is striving to do is to:

  • 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 a short and long term;
  • Provide a much-needed location for the care and housing of newly confiscated/ rescued bears;
  • Assist the Sabah Wildlife Department in enforcement efforts by providing a place for confiscated animals and a program for successful reintroduction;
  • Present captive bears as ambassadors for Sabah 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 Sabah by raising awareness of a new charismatic flagship species;
  • Promote further research on sun bears, including behaviour, captive breeding, reproduction and enrichment;
  • Provide capacity building for further research and conservation of sun bears in the wild.

Currently, I am working with Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP), an NGO providing technical support, funding application and facilitation.

We try to rescue bears kept in small cages/as pets. The rewarding part is when we’re able to send those bears back into the wild and see them start to reproduce and have a life back in the wild. In terms of research work, finding the scientific data is also rewarding.

Fitted a GPS collar on a Anerican black bear in Montana, summer 2003

Fitted a GPS collar on an Anerican black bear in Montana, summer 2003

This field requires many people with different backgrounds and skills. Anyone can do it and get involved as long as they have the passion, which is by far the most important element, although a degree in a related field is an advantage. However, with internet becoming the main source of information these days, anyone can learn a lot from websites. They can get involved with conservation projects to gain the first hand experiences and broaden their knowledge.

Finally, never give up. Everything I am doing and have achieved today is all because of my stubbornness. I identified my course and stayed the course even if it seemed like Mission Impossible at first. We might take detours along the way, but as long as we work hard, we’ll get there.

No. This is it for me – there is so much work to be done especially in Malaysia, and sun bears are my focus, and has been my focus for the last 10 years. Eventually I’d like to work with conserving wildlife and also their habitats in Malaysia and Asia. It’s not going to be easy – it’s a big and optimistic goal, but this is what I want to do. If I can conserve a forest, I’ll do it. If I can save a species from extinction, I’ll do it. If I can change or influence someone’s opinion about conservation, I’ll do it. Life is short; this is my mission. To me, leaving a legacy for future generations to enjoy is worth my effort and worth my life.


There are several ways to help:
 Donate funds. All conservation projects require funding to conduct their conservation programs. You can support and donate funds to the Bornean Sun Bear Censervation Centre. For more information about the centre, visit or




Have you seen a sun bear building a tree nest?

 Have you seen a sun bear building a tree nest? I bet you have NOT!

Many people not even know about sun bear or seen a sun bear, let alone seeing one of them making a nest high on top of the trees.

Here is a rare opportunity of a lifetime to see a radio-collar sun bear building a nest in the rainforest of Borneo.

Don’t blink and please hold your breath until the end of the video.

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Tree nest
Sun bears in the wild make nest on tree and sleep on these tree nest like orangutans. However, nest building behavior is more common in forest where human disturbance is higher and large terrestrial predators like tigers, and leopards are presence. It makes sense for sun bears to make such tree nest and sleep on high on tree, some as high as 40 meters (128 feet) because it is much safer and dryer on top of tree. These nests usually consist of a pile of tree branches and twigs that are band over from the surrounding centered at a tree fork that close to the main trunk. The diameter of these tree nests ranges from a 1 to 2 meter. Unlike orangutan nest, sun bear rarely snap branches or break branches close by. I still lack of evident that they reuse these tree nests, and believe that they construct new nest every time they need one because wild sun bears tend to wonder a large range, unless there are important food resources available like a fruiting fig tree in the forest. Under this situation, sun bears tend to hang around the area until the food resource is depleted and they have to move on to forage for food. Although the metal baskets that we provide for our captive bears are very different from the natural nest, these bears still love them because these baskets give them a dry, safe, and cozy bed.

You can read more about the nest building behavior in my earlier blog:


From bird watching to sun bear conservation….A twenty years of journey in wildlife conservation


It all begins at the fall of 1989 when I first came to Taiwan from Malaysia to continue by college education. I recalled it was the second day of my college life in National Pingtung Agriculture College when I saw the poster of Bird Watching Club (BWC), posted at the notice board of the 1st Restaurant, announcing its first meeting of the semester and recruitment for new members. The poster caught my attention because of the word “Bird”. At that time, I never knew there was an activity call “bird watching”. What I did know about birds was keeping cage birds for amusing or bird singing, the hobby that I have been doing for few years at that time-keeping and breeding birds. The first impression after seeing that poster was “what a COOL student club!” As always, the first feeling toward something is always the right of choice: I am going to join them!


Sure enough, Bird Watching Club at National Pingtung Agriculture College, which later upgrade to National Pingtung Polytechnic Institute, and finally Nation Pingtung University of Science and Technology, has become an important part of my two years college’s life in Taiwan. I saw and recognized my first brown shrike during a morning bird watching activity here in the campus; I did the first bird interpretation for visitors, raptor count and New Year Bird Count at Kenting National Park in southern tip of Taiwan; and get to know Prof. Kurtis Pei who was the advisor of the BWC, and of course, fallen in love with Sun Chia-Chien, my wife, all under the activities and name of BWC.


We called ourselves “Bird People” or “birders”. We carry a pair of binoculars and spotting scope wherever we were going and trying to identify every single feathered creature we saw. Through my binoculars, I saw, learned, and appreciated the beauty of nature and our feathered friends, and what the Creator has given to this world to make it more colorful and joyful. However, also through the same pair of binoculars, I saw the unlawful activities of mist netting and poaching of birds. That was the first time I was introduced to the word “conservation” and later on, “endangered species”, and then “wildlife research”.

 auto116-aa.jpg  img_5377-b.jpg

My interest on these three topics multiplied during the two years I worked as research assistant for Prof. Pei, involving various research projects including wildlife surveys, radio-telemetry study of barking deer at Little Ghost Lake area, camera trapping, and also taking care of orangutans and other endangered species at the newly established Pingtung Rescue Center for Endangered Species.


In 1994, I quitted Pei’s lab and further continue my education majoring in Wildlife Biology at University of Montana, USA. It was considered as a “difficult task” for many people from ordinary Asian family. The same year, I met my then future academic advisor, Dr. Christopher Servheen, who was looking for a Malaysian student to conduct an ecological study on sun bears. I took the challenge and later became a mission. In 1998, I stated the field work for my M.Sc. project, studying the ecology of Malayan sun bears in Danum Valley, a lowland rainforest of Borneo. For the first time, the study revealed the mysterious life history of this little known bear and many ecological aspects of Bornean rainforest. The study did answered what I plan to answer at the first place. However, it also generated a series of desperate questions and urgent needs to do more conservation and research works for sun bears in Southeast Asia: sun bears remain the least known bears and one of least studied large mammal in Southeast Asia. Their habitat, the lowland tropical forest, is disappearing at alarming rate due to illegal and unsustainable logging, human development, and large-scale conversion to agriculture land, especially into oil-palm plantation in Malaysia and Indonesia. 


In 2002, I started my doctorate program at the same university. In view of there were so much unknown about sun bears and issue with logging, I decided to study the effects of logging on sun bears and bearded pigs at Danum Valley, the same study area where I did my MSc study in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo. The three years of field started in 2005 and ended in 2008. Like most studies on large mammals, the fieldwork has face tremendous challenges and difficulties. We sweated, bled, cried, and even lost our life working in one of the harshest place on the planet.



Although the focus of my studies was on wild sun bears, I never forgot about the unfortunate condition for captive sun bears that I came across over the years. These captive sun bears were all in desperate needs of help from us. These bears were kept as pets because of their cuteness when small and relatively small size. They were all kept in small cages, unhygienic environment, and in some places were completely disgusting! Some were cubs, some were full grown adults, and some were old individuals. All of them suffered from serious stereotypic behavior, pacing all day long if there were any room in their tiny cage for them to pace. Seeing these bears in these captive conditions were completely heartbroken. However, I choose to find them, see more of them, and learn more about the stories behind them. This is how the idea of Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, BSBCC, first came in to my mind. BSBCC is the conservation project that I am working now in Sabah ( The centre aim to conserve, to research, to introduce and to educate the public about sun bears and their plights. In short, BSBCC is one of the very first project in the world to help sun bear and to raise awareness to conserve this forgotten bear species.


Sun bear like most wildlife is forest dependent species. They simply cannot survive outside the forest. My experience working in Southeast Asia shows desperate situation for the continuation and survival of both wildlife and local forests. Much more work is needed to ensure the long-term survival of the native wildlife and forests. In many parts of Southeast Asia, the tropical forests are disappearing rapidly to a point where too late to do anything. In contrast, due to the economy and political stability, Malaysia still has a chance for conservationists to save the last stronghold of Southeast Asian rainforests and wildlife. We need distinguished biologists to train local students as conservationists and biologists, to educate public and government on the importance of conservation, and to study the flora and fauna in order to understand better its functions. I am and I was, trained as an “animal expert” or wildlife biologist for all these years. I hope to use these knowledge and training to do a great job in my career to conserve wildlife and forests.


The conservation history of Taiwan has come from a long way from a country where the word “conservation” and “animal welfare” never seem to exist about 20 years ago when I first came to Taiwan, to a conservation model country in Asia. Like my own experience in conservation, it all begin from bird watching and the efforts of “bird people” growing big and strong. I am honored and proud to be a family member of Bird Watching Club, which celebrates her 30th anniversary last year. Today, bird watching no longer simply a “watching birds” activity. In stead, it has become an important starting point to promote conservation, improve environmental quality, and conserve wildlife and wildlife habitat. So next time when we do bird watching with a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope, make sure that we see more than just the birds in the scope. We should see what lies beyond the pretty birds; we should see the wildlife habitats, the environment, and future of their kind and our own kind and how can we do to bring a better future for ALL of us! Lastly, we all should take actions accordingly. We have only one planet, one life, and one time to make things right.

Please join me. Together, we can make a difference!


UPM Sun Bear Researchers Visit BSBCC Sepilok

The first academic visit to BSBCC Sepilok happened on 1st April 2009 with a group of 6 graduate students from University Putra Malaysia (UPM). These students are interested on conducting various studies on both wild and captive sun bears. The visit marked an important step to link to achieve our goal to conduct more research with universities and other research agencies. Conducting more research on Sun Bears is one of our mission and goal in BSBCC. upm2.JPGCheryl Cheah, Wong Wee Nee, Katharine, Tan Hwee Mien, Grace and Helman are the researchers under the UPM’s Sun Bear Research Group which is lead by Professor Abdul Rani Bahaman and Dr. Reuben Sunil Kumar Sharma. The group was founded since 2007 and it aimed to get more comprehensive researches on the only bear species in Malaysia. upm1.JPG

During the 7 days visit, these students were being introduced to various techniques and skills that are useful to study the wild sun bear. Skills were included sun bears signs identification, camera trapping and live trapping. Besides that, they were also showed on the daily operations in our centre.


BSBCC is happy to see there are more researchers interested on our forgotten bear. I am sure with the visit we had built up a stronger relation between UPM and BSBCC. We are looking forward to learn, share information, and help the sun bear together in the coming days.

Protecting the world’s least-known bear


Monday, March 30, 2009

Protecting the world’s least-known bear

Posted by: WPZ Field Conservation staff


Southeast Asia is home to the world’s smallest bear species, the Malayan sun bear. These little bears face big threats throughout their range, especially from forest destruction, illegal hunting, and the capturing of small cubs for pets.

Luckily this unique bear has a champion and protector in Siew Te Wong, a Malaysian researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Montana. Woodland Park Zoo has helped support Wong and his field work in Sabah, Borneo for several years. As one of the very few people studying the sun bear, Wong has uncovered many fascinating aspects of sun bear ecology. Sadly, though, his research also brought him first-hand experience of the inhumane treatment of sun bears kept as pets.

Wong’s deep concern for these animals has inspired a new and ambitious project: the creation of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center, a partnership between the Sabah Wildlife Department, the Sabah Forestry Department and nonprofit LEAP (Land Empowerment Animals People). The center will rehabilitate and release suitable ex-captive bears back into the wild, provide an improved long-term living environment for captive bears that cannot be released, and educate local people about the species. The project is endorsed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums Sun Bear Species Survival Plan.

Read Wong’s field blog to learn more about sun bears in the wild. And you can also visit sun bears at Woodland Park Zoo.

Launch! Discussion group for sun bear researchers!


To sun bear researchers,

I hope you all agree with me that research on sun bears is seriously lack behind many endangered species and time is running out for sun bears as the habitat and the animal itself are declining in an alarming rate.

Sun bear still remains the least known bear in the world. Over the past few months there have been several students and researchers in Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia contacted me about their plans to study sun bears. This is very good news for all of us who love this animal so much. Over the last 10 years I am one of the very few people who studying sun bear in the wild. Thus, I am so happy to see the change now, as many of you want to study sun bears! I have been in contact with most of you and answered questions and help you with all of the resources I have individually. I am very happy to help you all in whatever way I could.

However, because some of you are studying the same aspects and may have similar questions on your study, I think it is time and good for us to help each other by SHARING information and resources. I strongly believe that this is the way to help our understanding on this species without showing selfishness on individual studies but to open up our heart to seek the best information on sun bear that will eventually aid the conservation and research on sun bear in SE Asia. Therefore, I started a discussion group on “Save the Sun Bear” at

This site is started by Dr. Tajjudin Mohd from University Malaysia Sarawak, in the hope of providing a space for students, teachers, zoologists, etc., to discuss topics of their interest in zoology, biology, ecology and anything that we are interested with. So please join us and start the discussion, NOW.

As usual, I will try to answer your questions with all the resources that I have. I also invite Gabriella Fredriksson and Robert Steinmetz, who also spend a lot of time studying sun bears and other bear biologists to join the discussion to give you the best answers and helps for your study and projects.

 So this is what you should do:

1) Go to, then click join us, sign up to be a member,

2) I would like you to tell us about yourself as much as possible: what university or institution, NGOs, level, program, and what is the main focus of your study.

3) You can share any photos of your study and interest to make people know you better.

4) Then you join the “Save the sun bear” group and start the discussion. Feel free to post questions on any of the existing discussion topic, or create your own if you think of one. Gabriella, Rob, or me, will try our best to answer your questions.

Hope this is clear. What I hope to achieve in this site is to have all of the sun bear researchers feel like a big family where we all helping each other, comparing notes and data, sharing information, etc., to help our studies on sun bear that will eventually help saving the sun bears!

Please join me now. See you all in!


“Will the Rainforests Survive? New Threats and Realities in the Tropical Extinction Crisis”

As we are trying to save individual animals like sun bears, tigers, elephants and other endangered species from poachers, wildlife traders, wild meat consumers, and exotic pet keepers, there is a bigger threat for all of these wildlife species behind all of these killing that act like a big tsunami that are much more destructive: will the habitat (tropical  rainforest) of all of these endangered species survive? We all should know the answer, or at least aware of the issue so that we know how to act and what to do to help these species in peril and eventually our own kind will be badly affected.On last Monday, Jan 12, world experts on tropical rainforest gathered at the Baird Auditorium of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History discussed their papers on the following themes as a critical review of threats to tropical biodiversity.

“Will the Rainforests Survive? New Threats and Realities in the Tropical Extinction Crisis”

Will the rampant destruction of tropical forests and climate change kill off much of Earth’s biological diversity? In recent decades some biologists have claimed that up to half of all species on earth might disappear during our lifetimes. But other scientists are now disputing this view, arguing that many species can persist in logged or altered lands and that rainforest destruction is slowing. Who is right?

The stakes are high. The battle lines have been drawn. Some of the world’s top scientists lined up to debate the tropical extinction crisis.Learn more about the fate of tropical species.

See presentations from this symposium.

See background for additional information.

You can view entire symposium online at: 

Below is a report made by Jeremy Hance from on the symposium:  

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Symposium tackles big question: how many species will survive our generation
Jeremy Hance
January 16, 2009

An overview of the Smithsonian’s Symposium: “Will the rainforests survive? New Threats and Realities in the Tropical Extinction Crisis”  

Nine scientists dusted off their crystal balls Monday at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, weighing in on the future of the world’s tropical forest. Despite the most up-to-date statistics, prognosis for the future of tropical forests varied widely.

Debate’s Background

In the last few years a schism has occurred among biologists regarding the future of the tropics. No tropical scientist denies that rainforests and the species which inhabit them face unprecedented threats; neither do they argue that some of these forested regions and species will likely not survive the next fifty years. What has sparked debate, sometimes heated, is how bad will is it really? When the dust settles, what percentage of species will survive and how much forest will remain?

For years scientists have been warning of a mass extinction that could rival the previous five mass extinctions each occurring millions of years ago, including the extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs. Scientists have warned that within our lifetimes 50-75 percent of the world’s species could go extinct. This prediction is largely supported by the continuing destruction of the world’s tropical forest, where the majority of Earth’s biodiversity lives. Despite decades of conservation awareness, reserve creation, and pressure on policy makers, tropical deforestation has not abated but in fact has steadily risen globally. Some predictions have shown that by 2050 only 5-10 percent of old growth forests will remain. With the loss of these forests, scientists inevitably believe that the world will lose tropical species in startling numbers. This view has been promulgated by a wide variety of prominent and widely-revered biologists, including E.O. Wilson, Norman Myers, Peter Raven, and William Laurance.

Recently however a few notable biologists have begun to push back against this prognosis. Joseph Wright and Helene C. Muller-Landau began the controversy with a series of papers and presentations that argued against the common belief of an impending mass extinction. Wright’s initial study posited that current trends in deforestation would not continue in the future.

Using data from the UN, Wright argued that rural populations in tropical areas, such as those living off subsistence farming, will in the future abandon the rural life and move to cities. This exodus from the tropics by subsistence farmers, who often employ slash-and-burn techniques in rainforest areas for short-term agriculture, would alleviate the pressure of habitat loss on tropical species. Areas that were once agricultural will become secondary forest and capable of supporting high levels of biodiversity, argues Wright, a trend already seen in much of the world as forests take the place of agricultural land that was abandoned in the 1980s and 90s.

In a 2006 paper Wright and Muller-Landau asserted that “large areas of tropical forest cover will remain in 2030 and beyond…. We believe that the area covered by tropical forest will never fall to the exceedingly low levels that are often predicted and that extinction will threaten a smaller proportion of tropical forest species than previously predicted.”

Without widespread loss of habitat there would be no mass extinction, at least not to extent warned about. Wright’s modeling predicted that instead of looking at extinction levels from 50-75 percent, we would see levels of extinction that would be closer to 20-30 percent.

Before the symposium on Monday, this is where the lines had been drawn in the sand. However, the symposium served to expand upon many of the issues impacting the debate—including changing drivers in deforestation, regrowth of tropical forests, new ideas about extinction, and climate change—and even added a few new surprising conclusions about the fate of the global rainforests.  

Changes in rainforest destruction trends

At present, deforestation is not slowing down. According to Gregory Asner of the Carnegie Institution, deforestation is still the dominant pattern in tropical forests worldwide. In fact, he told the audience in Baird Auditorium, that if one looks at statistics of global forest loss decade-by-decade than not only is deforestation continuing, but it is on the rise.

At the same time some of the demographic trends predicted by Wright and Muller-Landau are occurring in certain areas. Small agricultural plots in forest are being abandoned in some countries, as people move to the cities. So, why isn’t deforestation slowing down?

“The forces driving deforestation have changed significantly,” Thomas Rudel a Human Ecology and Sociology professor at Rutgers University said. He noted that between 1965 and 1985 tropical deforestation was largely due to “assisted small cultivators”. These are usually poor local people who moved into the forest to practice agriculture or ranching. These small cultivators were “assisted” by their governments, which at the time were concerned with securing sovereignty over remote forest settlements. Incentives, such as road-building, were often promised to the poor agricultural entrepreneurs.

Even though this trend has slowed, and in some places reversed, rainforest deforestation continues due to “enterprise driven” destruction. With the globalization of trade, Rudel notes that from 1985 to today deforestation increasingly occurs for industrialized agriculture, such as soy and palm oil, and for logging to produce wood products largely exported to the West. Rudel said that the trend of deforestation had gone from slash-and-burning for subsistence farming to “blocks of deforestation augmented by consumer demand”. Therefore it has become international consumption by wealthy nations, and not local needs, which is largely driving contemporary deforestation.

Rudel argued that Wright’s theory was built on “period specific model” when rural populations did most of the deforestation and local population were more directly linked. The new drivers of deforestation, however, have changed the situation.

The importance of secondary forests

One of the arguments of the Wright and Muller-Landau theory that fared better during the symposium was that the extinction crisis may not be as bad as predicted due to the significance of secondary forests and other degraded landscapes, which may allow the preservation of certain species.

In an illuminating talk, Robin Chazdon, a professor at the University of Conneticut who has studied secondary forests for twenty five years, stated that secondary forests and other non-primary growth landscapes will prove essential to biodiversity.

“These are the areas that we need in order to conserve most of our biodiversity,” Chazdon said. She pointed to several important studies in order to prove her point that secondary forests and other degraded landscapes were not lost causes in terms of biodiversity. A study in Veracruz, Mexico found that bird biodiversity was actually greater in shade grown coffee farms than in the forest. This larger diversity was due to the shade grown coffee farms retaining a good number of bird forest species while attracting non-forest species as well. Chazdon noted that agroforestry, like shade grown coffee, can be a “mixed story but still can protect a lot of species in ecosystems and use them for agricultural products”.

In the Western Ghats of India, where cultivation has occurred for 2,000 years, arecanut agriculture retains 90 percent of the bird biodiversity of the forest. In the largely degraded and devastated Atlantic Forest of Brazil chocolate grown under the canopy provides homes for 70 percent of many species, including birds, bats, butterflies, mammals, ferns, lizards and frogs.

Chazdon added that plant species also fared well, especially in secondary forests. In a forest less than twenty years old in Costa Rica, scientists discovered 90 percent of forest tree species either already growing or as seedlings.

On the other hand she told the audience that some landscapes were simply devastating for wildlife: for example soybean fields are “devoid of biodiversity” and “astonishingly poor” biodiversity exists in palm oil plantations. Palm oil plantations have been shown to retain a paltry 15 percent of species from the lost forest.

While Chazdon illustrated the potential of secondary forest and agroforestry to provide a haven for biodiversity in a fluxuating system, Gregory Asner emphasized that regrowth in forests was still in the minority compared to the larger trend of deforestation. Currently two percent of original forest cover is in process of regrowth, according to Asner’s satellite studies. Most of the regrowth is occurring in hills or mountainous areas, leaving tropical lowland species in a less advantageous position.

More skeptical of secondary forests, Bill Laurance told the media that: “Rainforest regrowth is indeed occurring in regions but most old growth is destroyed. In biodiversity terms, this is akin to a barn door closing after the horses have escaped”.

Patterns of extinction: who will survive?

Entomologist Nigel Stork from the University of Melbourne agrees with Joseph Wright that the mass extinction crisis has been exaggerated. Stork argues that the scientists who predicted extinction rates of 50-75 percent did not take into account that certain groups of species, such as birds and mammals, are more prone to extinction than other groups like insects.

Stork pointed out that half of all species described on Earth, including plants and fungi, are insects. Half of these, or a quarter of all species, are beetles—Stork’s particular passion. “Most organisms are very small,” Stork said, arguing that this fact alone offers a buffer against the loss of half the world’s species.

Studies have shown that certain traits make a species more vulnerable to extinction, including large body size, small restricted range, low number of young, top of the food chain, high specificity to another organism, and low physiological adaptation. Many of the world’s birds and mammals fall under these categories, especially the more ‘charismatic’ animals which have become poster-children for the extinction crisis: elephants, tigers, polar bears, whales, eagles and condors.

Scientists have estimated that on average a species of mammal survives around 1-2 million years, whereas invertebrates average around 11 million years before facing extinction. Another study compared various taxons in Great Britain and found that it was seven times more likely for mammal or bird to go extinct than an insect, spider, or mollusk.

In his talk Stork highlighted another point of Wright’s theory: many of the world’s most vulnerable species have already succumbed to extinction, so any species left are perhaps more resilient than scientist’s have given them credit for. The Quaternary extinction event, which occurred between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago already killed off half of the world’s megafauna, including famous species like the woolly mammoth and the saber-tooth tiger.

Stork concluded that birds and mammals are not good indicators of extinction for other species, but that the high numbers of 50-75 percent species loss assumed that an equal threat of extinction for mammals, birds, insects, fungi, etc. So far none of these taxons have proven to be a good indicator for overall species extinction.

However, Stork also acknowledged that beetles survived the last three major extinction events largely unharmed, yet such events are still referred to as mass extinctions. Often, such extinctions greatly affect particular groups of species, rather than all groups similarly. For example, while the Crectaceous-Tertiary extinction event wiped every species of dinosaur off the earth, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and insect survived. There is also simply a lack of data on the extinction of insects.

The mass extinction underway could be similar, while insects could survive largely intact, other groups may not be so lucky. In fact, Joseph Wright stated during his talk that a mass extinction of topical montane frogs was already underway.

Climate change: the unpredictable elephant in the room

One place where the scientists at the Symposium largely agreed was the threat posed by climate change to the tropics and the inability to know how it would affect biodiversity in the region. Though Stork believed that mass extinction warnings had been exaggerated, at the end of his talk he admitted, “I think climate change will change all of that this century, tipping the scale toward mass extinction”.

Wright, the other skeptic when it came to mass extinction in the tropics, agreed: “climate change, I believe, is a much greater threat to biodiversity in the tropics than habitat destruction”.

Wright noted that currently temperatues in the tropical forests had risen 0.6 degrees Celsius, and “conservative” estimates showed that by the end of the century 75 percent of tropical forests would experience a rise of 3 degrees Celsius.

“Tropical species are much more sensitive to small increases in temperature than temperate species”, Wright said, explaining why this expected shift was so alarming. In addition, he presented data showing that tropical species would have to travel much greater distances than temperate species to find habitat within their normal range of temperatures. Wright called these two factors—greater sensitivity to temperature change and larger migrations for suitable habitat—a “double whammy” for tropical species.

By the end of the century, Wright predicted, climate change would cause rainforests to become a “novel climate”: with temperatures similar to those in deserts but still receiving the requisite rainfall for tropical forests.

“How species will respond to novel climate we don’t know,” Wright admitted.


Although it was never stated outright, it appeared by the end of the symposium that all of the speakers foresaw mass extinction in the future of the tropics, unless drastic actions are taken. While the extinction may not reach 50-75 percent—since insects dominate the world—it would have a devastating effect on the world’s vertebrates.

While none of the scientist disagreed that the major drivers of extinction would be climate change and habitat loss, the role each would play remained contentious. While it may seem a minor disagreement, such discussions directly affect how to deal with the crisis, i.e. should the world invest in more tropical reserves or drastic measures to ensure climate change mitigation?

Fortunately, the symposium was not without concrete ideas for going forward, in fact there were many.

Robin Chazdon argued that in order to ensure enough habitat, secondary forests and agroforestry should be supported and deserved conservation attention. Though she believed primary forest should still remain primary. Furthermore, she saw great potential in reforestation projects undertaken by humans in order to speed and aid the process along; she described such projects as buffers for biodiversity and general mitigation against climate change. She hoped reforestation projects in degraded rainforest would increase rapidly.

Thomas Rudel argued that the shift in responsibilty for deforestation from small cultivators to industrial companies allowed an opportunity for governments and conservation groups to really pursue those responsible for the damage. Such actions he stated was “not available during early period of deforestation”. He emphasized the importance of supporting international agreements, such as REDD, payment for ecosystem services, and organic and certified products.

Bill Laurence viewed reserves as the key, calling them “islands of survival”. He argued for a general enlargement of tropical reserves and more support for tropical reserves, which he sees declining in health due to human pressures such as roads, pollution, and population growth along reserve edges. Furthermore, he argued that the preservation of primary forest would greatly aid in global warming mitigation.

Joseph Wright disagreed, stating that existing reserves were largely effective, so the focus most turn solely to climate change. While he stated that wide-scale ecosystem changes due to global warming were inevitable, one way to mitigate them was through forest regeneration and regrowth, a process which sequesters carbon. For the preservation of biodiversity he argued the emphasis must be put on linking “warm hot lowland areas with cooler montane areas”, so that species would have places to take refuge as their ecosystem heats up.

By the symposium’s end, Laurance stated that he was pleased with the “surprising amount of agreement”. Despite disputes about details, it did appear that the scientists were not in opposition about the most important matters: rainforests, providing many ecosystem services, are essential for global environmental health and the preservation of biodiversity; they must be protected as much as possible against the major threats which appear to be overwhelming them. In addition, while the extinction crisis underway may not affect every group of animals, it is already affecting particularly groups far and above the normal extinction rate and the cause can be squarelhy laid at the feet of a single species, ourselves.

Christian Samper, head of the National Museum of Natural History, told the media that “by bringing together the world’s foremost authorities on different aspects of rainforest science, we hope to achieve new insights into a situation with potentially profound implications for all species, ours include.”

Although questions (and debates) remain, the symposium’s goal was achieved.

Scientific researches of sun bear and publications- Part 2

Beside Gabriella and me studying sun bear in the wild in 1998-2001, the third student who studied sun bear at the same time was Fuyuki Nomura. Fuyuki was a doctorate student from Hokkaido University, Graduate School of Environmental Science, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan. He studied sun bear ecology and sun bear usage of oil plan plantation at Tabin Wildlife Reserve, eastern tip of Sabah. Among three of us, Fuyuki caught and radio-collared the first sun bear in Borneo in early 1999 and successfully caught 2 males and 2 females sun bears for his study:

Nomura, F., S. Higashi, L. Ambu, and M. Mohamed. 2004. Notes on oil palm plantation use and seasonal spatial relationships of sun bears in Sabah, Malaysia. Ursus 15:227–231.

The first scientific paper on sun bear was not published by any three of us who were studying sun bear in the wild in late 90’s. It was a paper published by Kim McConkey in 1999 describing how sun bear play an important role as seed disperser in Bornean rainforest. Kim was at that time doing her doctorate dissertation with University of Cambridge, in rainforest of Barito Ulu, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia Borneo.

 McConkey, K., and M. Galetti. 1999. Seed dispersal by the sun bear Helarctos malayanus in Central Borneo. Journal of Tropical Ecology 15:237-241.

Another important scientist who contributes important publications and one of the very first publications on sun bear in late 90’s and early 2000’s was Erik Meijaard. Although he did not really study sun bear like Gabriella, Fuyuki and me, Erik has been very productive on sun bear publication and has long interest in sun bear and other large mammals in Southeast Asian mammals, especially Indonesia such as orangutan, bearded pigs and many others.  He is a senior ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Indonesia and the Kalimantan coordinator for the USAID-funded Orangutan Conservation Services Program. He publishes the monthly newsletter Forest Science News and frequently writes for newspapers and scientific journals. 


Meijaard, E. 1998. The Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus ) on Borneo, withspecial emphasis on its conservation status in Kalimantan, Indonesia. International MOF Tropenbos Kalimantan Project and the World Society of the Protection of Animals. London. 51pp. 

Meijaard, E. 1999a. Ursus (Helarctos) malayanus, the neglected Malayan sun bear.Netherland Commission for International Nature Protection. Mededelingen No.34. 62 pp. 

Meijaard, E. 1999b. Human imposed threads to sun bears in Borneo. Ursus 11:185-192. 

Meijaard, E. 2001. Conservation and trade of sun bears in Kalimantan. In: D. F. Williamson and M. J. Phipps (eds). Proceedings of the third international symposium on the trade in bear parts. pp: 26-37. TRAFFIC East Asia, Hong Kong.

Meijaard, E. 2004. Craniometric differences among Malayan sun bears (Ursusmalayanus); evolutionary and taxonomic implications. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 52:665-672.

 To be continue..  

I was young once

Yesterday as I was up dating my resume, my mentor who is also my first employer in the field of wildlife conservation, Prof Kurtis Pei from Taiwan, sent me an old photo of me taken way back in 1992 when I was working with him. This photo really brought up a lot of good memories of my younger days working in the field. Yes, I was young, energetic, and full of passion and enthusiasm to do wildlife research and conservation work.


I was holding a radio-collared male Formosan Reeve’s muntjac at Little Ghost Lake Forest Reserve  some 2000 m above sea level. I was about to release this muntjac or barking deer after our aborigines guide caught him and I fitted him with a radio-collar. The study was the first radio-telemetry study of this species in the mountainous forest of Taiwan. It was the beginning of my life working in the forest and working with wildlife. The project pretty much changed my life and career. From then onward, I was doing nothing but to study wildlife and working closely with wild animals for the following 16 years until now. 

I know what you are thinking. Yes, it was me in the photo!

Looking back at my long list of resume, I was young once, doing what I love and doing what I believe to be the right thing to do…     

You can read more about the study at:

McCullough, D. R., K. C. J. Pei, and Y. Wang. 2000. Home range, activity patterns, and habitat relations of Reeves’ muntjacs in Taiwan . Journal Wildlife Management 64(2): 430-441.