May, 29, 2013 – 5:58 pm
The untold story – Sun Bears and their impacts
A Sun Bear digging decayed wood in search of termites and other wood burrowing invertebrates. – Photo courtesy of BSBCC.
By Jaswinder Kler
SANDAKAN: From dispersing fruit seeds to carving out narrow holes on trees, later used by hornbills and squirrels to nest in, the Malayan Sun Bear contributes to a thriving forest.
The smallest of the world’s bears serve as forest doctors, engineers and planters and by foraging for termites and other insects, help mix nutrients in the soil.
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) founder and chief executive officer Wong Siew Te said the species that lives in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia plays important roles in the ecosystem.
Describing the Sun Bear’s task as a forest doctor, Wong said the species uses its claws to scrape off and destroy termite nests around tree bark, and this in turn saves the host tree from dying due to termite infestation.
“Sun Bears do this to get termites and their larvae, an important food source for these bears. If they do not do this, the termites will eventually kill the host tree by feeding on the wood fiber from the inside.
“Uncontrolled termite populations could lead to the death of many trees,” he said in a statement issued by the BSBCC to create awareness on the Sun Bear which is listed as “Vulnerable” on The IUCN Red List and at risk of becoming endangered unless circumstances threatening their survival improve.
Threats including habitat loss, poaching and the pet trade have led to a decline by at least 30 per cent of the species in the last three decades. Their actual numbers in the wild are unknown.
Wong Siew Te examining a tree cavity dug by a Sun Bear looking for honey. – Photo courtesy of BSBCC.
Wong said Sun Bears are fond of eating honey, creating holes in trees when extracting honey of stingless bees that build nests under tree bark.
“Holes that Sun Bears create are eventually used by hornbills or squirrels to nest in. They build homes for other forest dwellers and this is why we call Sun Bears forest engineers,” he said, adding that in Bahasa Malaysia, the species is known as beruang madu since it likes consuming honey (madu is the Bahasa Malaysia word for honey).
He said as forest planters, Sun Bears spread seeds of large fruits such as durian and jackfruit when travelling in a wide home range of about 14 square kilometers.
“They are among the largest mammals in the tropical rainforest and through their travels, they defecate swallowed seeds, away from the mother tree which increases chances of the seeds’ survival.
“Through their role as nutrient mixers, Sun Bears facilitate soil turn over and regeneration when they forage for termites and other insects,” he said.
Wong said despite the many important functions that Sun Bears serve, their long term survival in the wild depends on the continuous existence of natural forests.
A Sun Bear destroying a termite nest to hunt for termites. – Photo courtesy of BSBCC.
He stressed that as forest dependent species, Sun Bears cannot survive in oil palm or other agricultural plantations.
“They need large tracts of natural forests in order for them to sustain viable populations where they can search for food, shelter and reproduce. There is so much that Sun Bears are doing for the forest and this is something we all need to understand and appreciate.
“Today, their numbers are going down and more are ending up in captivity,” he said.
The BSBCC located adjacent to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre is currently housing 28 rescued bears. Some were illegally kept as pets and others were found trapped following forest clearing.
The BSBCC is hoping to hold a fund raiser on 20th July in Sandakan to meet the ever increasing costs of caring for Sun Bears in captivity and for awareness work.
Awareness activities will be stepped up once the BSBCC is officially opened to the public, tentatively by early next year.
The BSBCC is a non-governmental organisation set up in 2008 through collaboration of the Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department and Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP).