February 22, 2013, 7:54 PM
By Celine Fernandez
The bear suspected of dying this week after eating poisoned fruit at a zoo in southwest Malaysia had been caught about a dozen years ago after disturbing crops and farmers.
- Malacca Zoo and Night Safari
- Police suspect that Lala, a sun bear living in a Malaysian zoo, died after eating poisoned fruit.
New details emerged late this week about “Lala,” a sun bear who is believed to have been about 14-to-16 years old at her death. When workers at the Malacca Zoo and Night Safari saw her foaming at the mouth and in convulsions, her mate, Kiki, was hovering over her.
Police have a suspect in the case – an unidentified former owner of another zoo. Police say the man – who is also accused of poisoning a retired race horse at the zoo Sunday – was pursuing a vendetta because he was angry that his zoo had been shut down due to alleged animal negligence and had its animals taken away. Neither Lala nor the race horse – which was being housed at the zoo by a private owner – had been at the other zoo, according to authorities.
Tests are being conducted on samples taken from Lala and the horse to aid in the investigation.
“The sun bear was caught and placed in [the zoo] because it damaged crops and was a threat to the safety of farmers,” Zaaba Zainol Abidin, a deputy director at the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks, told The Wall Street Journal.
The suspected poisonings happened only a month after worldwide attention focused on the suspected poisoning deaths of 14 pygmy elephants – an endangered species – at a Malaysian forest reserve.
The sun bear – known for a tan “necklace” on its chest – has rapidly declined in population as its habitat has been taken away by developers. But that is where its similarity ends with the pygmy elephant, which can never be legally hunted.
Three wildlife protection laws apply to the sun bear, according to Wong Siew Te, the CEO and founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. In West Malaysia and Sabah, the sun bear is a “totally protected” species under the Wildlife Conservation Act of 2010, which applies to all of Malaysia, and the Wildlife Conservation Enactment of 1997, which is enforced only in Sabah. In Sarawak, the sun bear is a “protected” species under the Sarawak Wild Life Protection Ordinance of 1998, but hunters can kill them with a license issued by the Sarawak Forestry Department.
Mr. Wong argues that Lala should be treated as a “totally protected” sun bear due to her death in West Malaysia.
“The penalty should be significant [to anyone found guilty of her suspected poisoning] to deter future offenders,” Mr. Wong told The Wall Street Journal in an email reply to questions.
The penalty can be up to five years imprisonment and a fine.
Meanwhile, in the suspected elephant poisonings, Raymond Alfred, the head of research at the Borneo Conservation Trust, a state-mandated non-governmental organization in Sabah, is calling for a ban on the use of chemical-based pesticides and herbicides near protected forests.
“We suspect the source of the poison could be due to the pesticide or herbicides, which is based on our knowledge of the elephants ranging, sources of food, etcetera,” Mr. Alfred said.
Deputy Superintendent of Police Martin Lugu, who is leading an investigation into the deaths of the elephants, said investigators “hope to wrap it up soon.”