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Pet trade, palm oil, and poaching: the challenges of saving the ‘forgotten bear’

Pet trade, palm oil, and poaching: the challenges of saving the ‘forgotten bear’
By Laurel Neme, special to mongabay.com
March 20, 2011



This interview originally aired May 17, 2010. It was transcribed by Diane Hannigan.



Siew Te Wong is one of the few scientists who study sun bears (Ursus malayanus). He spoke with Laurel Neme on her “The WildLife” radio show and podcast about the interesting biological characteristics of this rare Southeast Asian bear, threats to the species and what is being done to help them.

Sun bears are the smallest of the eight bear species. They’re about half the size of a North American black bear and typically sport a tan crescent on their chests. Similar to the “moon bear,” or Asian black bear, the sun bear’s name comes from this marking, which looks like a rising or setting sun.

Sun bears live in Southeast Asia and are probably the least known bear species in the world. They have been so long neglected that Wong refers to them as “the forgotten bear species.” One of the reasons may be that they are difficult to study because they’re nocturnal and spend most of their time up in the trees.

Nobody knows how many sun bears remain in the wild. However, they are under significant threat and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists them under Appendix I. Habitat loss is the primary concern but these diminutive bears are also threatened by the pet trade and poaching for their parts, which are used in traditional Asian medicine.


 Siew Te Wong with sun bear cub. Photo by: Siew Te Wong.

Siew Te Wong with sun bear cub. Photo by: Siew Te Wong.


For the last 14 years, Wong has dedicated his life the study and ecological conservation of the sun bear. Wong’s research has taken him to the most threatened wildlife habitat on Earth, where fieldwork is exceedingly difficult.

His pioneering studies of sun bear ecology in the Borneo rainforest revealed the elusive life history of the sun bear in the dense jungle.

While rapid habitat destruction from unsustainable logging practices, the conversion of the sun bear’s habitat into palm oil plantations and uncontrolled poaching activities paint a bleak picture for the future of the sun bear, Wong is helping sun bears both through his research and through the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, which he founded in 2008.

Wong is one of a handful of Malaysian wildlife biologists who has trained in a western country. He did both his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees at the University of Montana in Missoula, and is finishing his doctorate there. He is former co-chair of the Sun Bear Expert Team, under the IUCN/Species Survival Commission’s Bear Specialist Group, and a current member of three IUCN/SSC Specialist Groups. His dedication was recognized when he was named a fellow of the Flying Elephants Foundation, which awards individuals from a broad range of disciplines in the arts and sciences who have demonstrated singular creativity, passion, integrity and leadership and whose work inspires a reverence for the natural world.

The following is an excerpt from The WildLife with Laurel Neme, a program that probes the mysteries of the animal world through interviews with scientists and other wildlife investigators. The WildLife airs every Monday from 1-2 pm Eastern Standard Time on WOMM-LP, 105.9 FM in Burlington, Vermont. You can livestream it at www.theradiator.org or download the podcast from iTunes, www.laurelneme.com, or http://laurelneme.podbean.com. This interview originally aired May 17, 2010. It was transcribed by Diane Hannigan.


Laurel Neme:

What’s special about sun bears?
Siew Te Wong: They’re very unique to me! When you ask that question to biologists they’ll tell you the species they’re studying is always special, always unique, because they love them so much. So, it will be the same for me!


Laurel Neme:

Where do they live? Are they unusual because they are an arboreal bear?


Siew Te Wong: Sun bears are found in Southeast Asia in ten different countries… ranging from the eastern tip of India to the southern tip of China in Yunnan province, across Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, islands of Sumatra, and the island of Borneo. It’s a tropical bear. They’re the smallest of all the bears [family Ursidae], and weigh [about] a hundred pounds.


 Map of sun bear range: brown—extant, black—former, dark grey—presence uncertain. Map courtesy of IUCN Red List.




Laurel Neme:

How many people study sun bears?
Siew Te Wong: At the time I started my study back in 1998, there were three people, including myself, studying sun bears in Borneo. I was working on my Masters degree and the other two were working on their PhDs. Last year there were three or four additional projects—two in Sumatra, and one in Thailand, and one on the peninsula of Malaysia. So, after all these years, less than 10 people in the world have ever studied sun bears. Period. Compared to other large mammal species, the numbers are so low. We are so behind in generating scientific information on sun bears.


Laurel Neme:

Do all of you exchange information? What’s a party like between all of you? [Laughs].
Siew Te Wong: I’m working really hard trying to get everyone to collaborate and exchange information as much as possible. Since I’m one of the first people to do this work, I want to assist as many students and biologists as possible to do their work. I have spent a lot of time in the forest to learn about sun bears the hard way. If I can pass my knowledge on to others, they don’t have to learn the hard way. I’d love to do that. Almost everyone is in close contact with me. I try to give my advice and my opinion as much as possible—even help them do their studies.


Laurel Neme:

Given that they are so difficult to find in the forest, how do you go about studying them?


   Juvenile sun bear. Photo by: Siew Te Wong.
Juvenile sun bear. Photo by: Siew Te Wong.









Siew Te Wong: The first challenge is to catch them and put a radio collar on them. To study large mammals like sun bears [the first thing to do is] put a radio collar on them to follow them in the forest. [Then] we try to get close to them and see what they do. We collect their [fecal matter]. [From that] we can know how large their range is and so on.

[Early on] we tried to catch them without any sort of experience. Back in 1999, I had some help from some bear biologists from here, [and] they helped me set up traps out of wood and metal.

Laurel Neme:

What did the traps look like?
Siew Te Wong: At the time, we used three kinds of traps. The first kind of trap was a wooden box trap, made out of 3’x3’ lumber. It’s similar to the trap used in North America to trap wolverines. [Then] there’s the aluminum culvert trap that we custom-made in Montana. The beauty of this trap is that it can be taken apart into nine pieces and then we can backpack the whole trap into the forest and then put it back together. The third kind [of trap] is the 55-gallon barrel trap.


Laurel Neme:

How did you bait them?
Siew Te Wong: At the time, no one had trapped sun bears before, so I tried all different kinds of bait including all the fruits and honey. After months of trial and error, I figured it out. The best bait to catch sun bears is chicken guts. It’s cheap, it’s smelly, and the bears love it. [Laughs]



Laurel Neme:

Sun bears are not strictly herbivorous?
Siew Te Wong: Sun bears are bears. They’re carnivores in design, but they end up eating whatever they can find. Fruits, of course, are one of the items they can find in the forest. If they could find carcasses or hunt prey, I’m sure they would.


Laurel Neme:

Was that known before you started studying what they eat?
Siew Te Wong: Yes and no. From captive animals we knew they are omnivores and eat almost everything. The zookeepers give them meat. Other species do the same thing. The sloth bear, or the spectacled bear, or the Indian bear, we know they eat a lot of plant material but they’ll also eat meat [if they have access to it].


Laurel Neme:

Will sun bears kill prey or are they simply opportunistic, in that if they’ll find a carcass they’ll consume it]?
Siew Te Wong: They’re more opportunistic. In the forest, if there are some prey items that are easier to catch, then they’ll definitely go for it. For example, they prey quite a bit on tortoises.


Laurel Neme:

They can get at the tortoises with the shell?
Siew Te Wong: Apparently they can use their long claws. The shell is not closed up completely. There are some soft spots where the bears can easily use their claws and canines to damage and kill it.


Laurel Neme:

What else do the bears eat? You mentioned earlier that they eat insects.



    Sun bear at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). Photo by: Siew Te Wong.
Sun bear at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). Photo by: Siew Te Wong.















Siew Te Wong: In 1999-2000, during my first ecological study of sun bears, the forest did not have any fruit in season. The bears were feeding on invertebrates like termites, beetles, beetle larvae, earthworms and any insects they could get.

[Beetle] larvae can grow to as much as three to four inches long. They’re packed with fat and protein. A sun bear can spend an hour or two digging at a decayed [piece of] wood trying to fish out beetle larvae. The moment they fish one out, you can tell from their facial expression—[it’s like] they’re having the best chocolate in their life!

Laurel Neme:

What does this happy expression look like?
Siew Te Wong: First of all, they close their eyes! I’m not sure if you can notice or not, but bears smile like humans or dogs. When they smile, they pull their facial muscles backwards, so it looks like their smiling. They’re just like humans when tasting a nice piece of chocolate. You close your eyes and let the chocolate melt in your mouth. It’s exactly the same expression when they have big, fat, juicy, packed-with-protein beetle larvae in their mouth.


Laurel Neme:

Have you tried the beetle larvae?
Siew Te Wong: No! I’m not that desperate!


Laurel Neme:

[Laughs] They still eat the larvae even when fruit is available in the forest?
Siew Te Wong: Yes! And the forests of Borneo have a unique feature where they don’t fruit annually. The forest goes through something called mass fruiting. The mass fruiting occurs every two to eleven years. During the non-fruiting years, the bears feed on invertebrates. Also, there are a few species of plants that do not follow the mass fruiting, like fig and ficus.


Laurel Neme:

Is there a lot of competition for the fig and ficus?


   Adult sun bear at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland.
Adult sun bear at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland.

















Siew Te Wong: There’s a lot of competition between the bears in a period when there is no fruit around. From my study, from the bears that I captured, they all have different kinds of scars and wounds from fighting. They have a tough life. They compete with each other because food resources are so low.

But for the ficus, it’s something different. They’re big and can produce big crops. There’s no need to compete for this kind of fruit. The resources are available [to the bears] for a period of two weeks or so. One strangling fig [a kind of ficus] can put out about 2 million fruits at a time, so there’s no need for competition. I have evidence of three different bears feeding on the same tree at the same time. I’ve also witnessed one of my radio collar bears feeding on top of a fig tree, and then on the same tree there was a female orangutan with babies, a binturong (Asian bearcat) with babies, gibbons, and all kinds of birds and squirrels. It’s a very spectacular sight.

Laurel Neme:

Is the fruiting seasonal or by year?
Siew Te Wong: The fig tree is not seasonal. They fruit individually throughout the year. Some species fruit twice a year, some put out three different crops a year. The reason they do it [that way] is to maintain a healthy population of fig wasps, their only pollinators.



Laurel Neme:

What’s the role of sun bears in the ecosystem?
Siew Te Wong: They do two big things for the forest. One, they are frugivores. They’re large mammals, so they eat big fruit with big seeds, for example, durian—the king of fruits in Southeast Asia. When they eat the fruit they disperse the seeds. Sun bears are important for seed dispersal in the forest ecosystem. They pretty much plant the forest. The seeds need to be carried far away from the mother tree to enhance the germination period and the survival rate of the trees.


[Second], by feeding on invertebrates like termites, they break the termite mound and they break apart decaying wood. They are actually creating another type of niche, another type of feeding site for other animals. They don’t finish everything, which leaves another site for other animals to feed on.

They’re considered an ecosystem engineer. [Another example is that] they feed on beehives. The beehives are in tree cavities, so they have to break into the main trunk of the tree in order to get to the beehives and they create cavities. These will later be used by [other animals like flying squirrels] to make nests. [Since they] prey on a lot of termites, they actually maintain healthy forests because termites have the reputation of killing or infesting trees. By reducing the number of insects that are harming plants, they do the plant community a good thing by keeping these pests at a healthy level.


Laurel Neme:

What is the conservation status of sun bears? Are they endangered?
Siew Te Wong: Yes, they are an endangered species. They are listed under the IUCN Red List as a Vulnerable species. They just got this status in 2008. Before that, they were listed as data deficient because so few people had studied them. We didn’t have the scientific information to know how many sun bears there are in the world. Now, we have estimates.


Looking at the big picture, looking at the deforestation rates in Southeast Asia and with the forest disappearing so fast, we know the sun bears are in big trouble. We know their population has declined by more than 30 percent over the last 30 years. With all the poaching, hunting, and pet trade going on in the region, [we know] sun bears are in trouble. Although I do not have the numbers of how many sun bears there are, from my experience working in the forests of Borneo, I know the numbers are lower than orangutans, for sure.

Laurel Neme:

What would it take to do a population census? Is it possible?
Siew Te Wong: Yes and no. I tried to estimate the number of bears in the forest and I pretty much failed because I haven’t come up with a reliable method to do it. Right now the method that people use most is called catch and recapture. By assessing the capture rate and recapture rate, we can estimate how many there are in the wild.


This method has been widely used by tiger biologists. [But they can use it because] individual tigers are recognized by cameras. This method is not applicable to sun bears because individuals cannot be identified from a camera picture because they’re just black; they don’t have a special marking.

Laurel Neme:

What’s an alternative method that researchers commonly use for population studies?
Siew Te Wong: Another method is to use DNA. So far, a bear’s DNA is quite difficult to collect because in a tropical forest it rains every day and the genetic material is very difficult to obtain.



Laurel Neme:

What are some of the biggest threats to sun bears? You talked about habitat destruction, poaching, hunting, and pet trade. Which is most important?


   Detail of sun bear cub. Photo by: Siew Te Wong.
Sun bear cub. Photo by: Siew Te Wong.










Siew Te Wong: What you mentioned are all threats but, by far, habitat destruction is the biggest threat for sun bears in Southeast Asia.

Laurel Neme:

Why is that?
Siew Te Wong: Sun bears are a forest-dependent species; they have to live in a forest. When you see a landscape being cleared, a forest being cut down and replaced with plantations, replaced with development, sun bears have lost their home forever. The deforestation rate in Southeast Asia is horrible, with plantations replacing the tropical rainforest. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see how seriously sun bears are affected by deforestation.


The second threat, which I mentioned earlier, is the poaching for bear parts. This is still ongoing. They’re poached for their gallbladder, their claws, their canines, their meat, and many [other] purposes, especially for traditional Asian medicine.

Laurel Neme:

Then there is the pet trade.
Siew Te Wong: Sun bears are really cute. They’re the smallest of the bears. Because they are small and cute, people love to keep them as pets. [At the same time] deforestation [provides greater access to the interior of the forest] and baby bears are more vulnerable. People poach the mother, capture the baby, and then the baby becomes a commodity in pet trade.


Laurel Neme:

Do they make good pets, or do they grow up?
Siew Te Wong: They absolutely do not made good pets! They’re big animals with big claws and strong canines; they’re very destructive. No one can tame a bear. In the end, they’re locked up in metal cages, which is very sad. The situation is quite desperate.



Laurel Neme:

You helped found the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sabah, Malaysia in 2008. How did the Center come to be? Is that the reason behind founding it?
Siew Te Wong: At first, back in 1998, it was just a project. I noticed there were a lot of sun bears being held in captivity. Private owners kept them as pets, or [they were] on crocodile farms or zoos. [All these places] had a lot of sun bears, and they were all very sad. They roam the forest but [at these places] they were locked up in small cages. They shook their heads all day long with stereotypical behaviors [of animals in captivity]. No one tried to do anything about it. Sun bears are a protected species in all of the countries where they are found. No one is allowed to hunt sun bears by law or keep them as pets. But, because of the lack of law enforcement and lack of interest to conserve the species, these kind of things happen.


[If you keep one as a pet], you need to obtain a special permit. Southeast Asia is a developing country; wildlife crimes are of little priority compared to crimes against humans, so a lot of the laws are not enforced. People keep bears because they’ll never get caught.

Given the lack of interest among other NGOs, I decided “[if] you guys aren’t going to do [something,] I’m going to do it.” The first group of animals that I wanted to help was the caged animals. [I think] people had to be told, “No, you can’t keep sun bears as pets. It’s against the law!” [So, when] I founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, the first thing we wanted to do was rescue the caged bears.

The second thing was to educate the people. We needed to show them how special and unique sun bears are and what important role they play in forest ecosystems. We wanted to do conservation work, rehabilitate those sun bears back into the forest, and continue to do research.

Laurel Neme:

How did you get funding for it?
Siew Te Wong: Funding is very challenging. This project I didn’t do myself; it wasn’t possible to do all by myself. I was very fortunate to have help from a local NGO from Sabah called LEAP. It stands for Land Empowerment Animals People. They helped me establish [the project] and we created a partnership between the Sabah Wildlife Department and the Sabah Forestry Department. These were the two agencies that helped establish the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.


Laurel Neme:

It’s unusual to have government agencies so involved in something like this.
Siew Te Wong: Yes. There’s usually lack of interest to set up [conservation] centers by the government. As biologists, as conservationists, we work together to assist the governments to set up the Center. The resources came from private entities and they collaborated with the government. The bears actually “belong” to the government, to the country, so we need to have the Sabah Wildlife Department be involved in the project in order to make it successful. [Plus,] the land that we release the bears into actually belongs to the Forestry Department. It makes sense that [these two departments] are partners on this project.


The funding for this project was not cheap. We needed about $1 million to set it up. Because we had no money to start with we had to raise this money. We divided the project into three different phases. Phase one needed about $400,000. In November 2008, we held a fundraising dinner where we raised close to $300,000 in one evening. That evening the government declared a matching fund. So, this project is half funded by the Sabah government.

The first phase of the project was finished in March 2010 and involved construction of a bear house that can house 20 bears and also a 1-hectare forest enclosure. Now, we’re officially in stage two. This includes refurbishment and upgrading of the old bear house and also renovation of the offices. We’ll have a visitor gallery, boardwalks, and an observation boardwalk for people coming to visit. [Phase III consists of the construction of the second block of bear houses and forested enclosures for 20 additional bears.]

One of the unique things about our project is our location. Our enclosure is next to a well-known orangutan rehabilitation center [Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SOURC)], where hundreds of tourists come. We want to open our facility as well because we want to educate those people about sun bears and let them see sun bears in their natural environment. We also want to generate revenue from tickets to run our conservation and education program. We are side-by-side. The (orangutan) rehabilitation center is run by the Sabah Wildlife Department and my project with sun bears is also a Sabah Wildlife Department Project. So, we share the same facilities. [Due to their close proximity, the BSBCC utilizes existing SOURC veterinary facilities and personnel, parking, access roads and ticket gates. It also links to existing forest trails and boardwalks at SOURC.]

Laurel Neme:

How many bears do you currently have?
Siew Te Wong: The bears at our Center were confiscated by the Sabah Wildlife Department. We have twelve bears right now (May 2010). After our bear house is built, we’ll have another four bears come in about two weeks from now. After that, we have an additional ten other bears lined up to come in. We’ll be at capacity about one month after we finish our first bear house.


This will lead us to phase three in which we build another bear house and another forest enclosure. As you can see, there are a lot of bears in captivity that need to be rescued and taken care of.


Laurel Neme:

Do you have an idea of how many bears need to be rescued?


   Juvenile sun bear. Photo by: Siew Te Wong.
Sun bear at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). Photo by: Siew Te Wong.















Siew Te Wong: In Sabah, there are at least 50 bears that need to be rescued. I’m sure there will be more in the future. [In other places in Southeast Asia] there are hundreds to thousands. Different locations have their own problems.

Laurel Neme:

Are there plans to release them into the wild and what would it take to release them?
Siew Te Wong: It takes a lot of time, resources and manpower to release them. But I think it is the right thing to do and I believe they are [able to be rehabilitated]. It is not easy. It is very time consuming. What we plan to do is select the bears that still have strong instinct and walk them in the forest every day. This is a slow process. We don’t bring the bear into the forest, open a cage, and say “good luck.” We live with the bears in the forest for years until they are strong enough to fend for themselves, until they are knowledgeable enough to know where food is, and until they have established their home range.


Laurel Neme:

Have you already begun to identify bears for release?
Siew Te Wong: Well, we just started. We just moved bears to the bear house and forest enclosure, so we’re just starting to study the individual animals to see who can be the first potential candidates to be released into the wild.



Laurel Neme:

Tell me about some of the bears you have rescued.
Siew Te Wong: One is a bear cub is named Chura. Chura is with us right now. Chura is a good candidate [for rehabilitation and release]. [We have a couple other females] that we’re trying to establish a relationship with the keepers. The bears will trust our keepers and then we’ll eventually be able to walk the bear in the forest hopefully in the next year or so. You can see on my YouTube channel about big males that may or may not be good candidates. We’ll have to observe how they perform in the forest enclosure first. [Note: Beartrek, a big screen movie produced by Wild Life Media about bear research will feature Siew Te Wong trying to reintroduce baby bears into the wild. The promo, available on YouTube, shows Chura.] Laurel Neme:

What makes Chura a good candidate?
Siew Te Wong: Instinct is very crucial. It’s actually pretty sad. For sun bears kept in captivity, they have been kept in small cages or have walked on cement floors for years. They have been fed with human food. [They reach] a point where they lose their instincts. They can’t recognize, for example, termites as their natural food. We have to identify those that still have their instincts. We’ll give them the opportunity to eat termites and present them with decaying wood. They’ll pick it up right away, sniff it, and break it apart, and see what they can get out of the termite nest, or they’ll just leave it alone. The bears that have lost their instincts do not associate that kind of thing as their natural food. These would be bad candidates to release.


Bears are just like humans in that they have different personalities. Some are smarter than others, more alert than others, or more cautious than others. We want to pick out the bears that are alert, smart, and have a strong instinct to forage in the wild. These are the components to their success.


   Detail of sun bear cub. Photo by: Siew Te Wong.
Detail of sun bear cub. Photo by: Siew Te Wong.
















Laurel Neme:

What can people do to help if they get interested in sun bears? Where can they go for more information?
Siew Te Wong: People ask, “How can I help?” I always answer,”whatever you do best!” Artists, help us paint paintings of sun bears and sell it at auctions to raise funds. Reporters report about our work. And, of course, everyone is on Facebook. Join our sun bear conservation Facebook cause. Get in touch with us. Anyone can help.


Understand that sun bears are the least known bears in the world. There are so many people that have heard about polar bears, grizzly bears and giant pandas, but they’ve never heard about sun bears. By helping to spread the word about sun bears, showing people pictures of them, by putting stories about sun bears on Facebook, they help us to promote awareness. Unfortunately, our conservation work spends money. Generally, the amount of money we raise reflects the amount of work we can do to help a species. [But] fundraising for an animal that is not well known is not easy.

YeePee! Finally Malaysia passed new wildlife law!


Malaysia gets tough new wildlife law

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 5 August 2010—Malaysia’s Parliament this week passed the country’s tough new Wildlife Conservation Bill 2010 which provides significantly higher penalties and mandatory jail terms for wildlife crime.

The new law, expected to come into force by the end of this year, will replace the 38-year-old Protection of Wild Life Act.

The highest penalty in the existing Act is a maximum fine of RM15,000 (USD4,700) or five years jail, or both, for hunting a Sumatran Rhino, Tiger or Clouded Leopard.

Under the newly passed law, the same offence carries a minimum fine of RM100,000 (USD 31,600), and a jail term not exceeding five years.

It also provides for minimum fines, a mandatory jail sentence for setting snares and closes loopholes by providing penalties for products claiming to contain parts of protected species or its derivative, and preventing zoos from operating without a permit.

The Bill widens the list of agencies empowered to enforce wildlife laws by including Police and Customs officers, and it protects more species of wildlife.

Those convicted of a wildlife crime under the new law will be barred from holding any license, permit or special permit for five years from the commencement of a case.

Illegal trade in key species such as pangolins and monitor lizards, have also been singled out for tougher penalties.

“Finally, agencies have a solid wildlife law that they can wield against poachers and smugglers who have had little to fear from the paltry fines and jail sentences of the past,” said TRAFFIC Southeast Asia Regional Director Dr William Schaedla.

“TRAFFIC Southeast Asia would like to congratulate the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, as well as the Department of Wildlife and National Parks on the passing of the Bill.

“The new law has given Malaysia the means and the opportunity drive home the message that it is serious about curbing this menace.

“So we hope the new law will be the catalyst for an all out war against wildlife crime and that it will result in more prosecution of such criminals in the courts,” he said.

The new Bill received widespread support from the public with many writing to their Members of Parliament asking them to support it when it was being debated. Among them were the thousands who also signed a petition last year seeking better protection for Malaysia’s wildlife.

The Bill aims to protect domestic wildlife. This June, Malaysia’s International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2008 came into force. Two women found guilty of attempting to smuggle tortoises from Madagascar into the country became the first to be convicted under the Act and were each sentenced to a year in jail.



MYCAT Joint Statement: Review RELA’s Firearm Possession and Use

Kuala Lumpur, 24 June 2010 – We refer to the killing of a three-year old male tiger by a People’s Volunteer Corp (RELA) because it was spotted in a village and suspected of attacking poultry in Sungai Bayor, Perak.

 We understand the villagers’ fear but the matter should not have been handled in this manner. There is a clear and simple procedure for dealing with these human-tiger conflict situations that should be well-known to agencies like RELA and its members. That procedure is to alert the Department of Wildlife and National Parks first.

 This incident is just one of many that raise our concern about RELA members abusing their firearms:

 In 2004, a RELA member was charged for killing a tiger in Gemas, Negeri Sembilan. The tiger was discovered with its internal organs missing and was believed to have been shot by the man after villagers sighted it in the forest.

  • Last October, two RELA members were arrested by the Pahang Wildlife Department for using their shotguns to kill two mousedeer in Rompin, Pahang.
  • Earlier this year nine Orang Asli; two of whom were RELA members, were detained for snaring and torturing a tiger in Sungkai, Perak.

Such incidents illustrate the reality of how RELA members are not always in tune with the national laws and policies relating to wildlife and the proper use of the firearms awarded to them.

 In view of this, the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT), which comprises the Malaysian Nature Society, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia , Wildlife Conservation Society – Malaysia Programme and WWF-Malaysia, calls for a review of RELA members’ firearm possession policy, standard operating procedures involving firearm use as well as policies with regards to dealing with wildlife. Adding to this concern is the recent news of the issuance of 48,823 shotgun licenses by the Government.

 There must also be closer and more effective communication among government agencies, especially in circumstances where the job of protecting wildlife and people overlap.

 We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that human-tiger conflict arises as a result of loss of prey, loss of habitats through land clearance for industrial plantations such as oil palm and rubber, and poaching. So it is imperative to ensure these problems are tackled to keep both animals and people safe.

 The government has been clear at policy level about its commitment to doubling the number of wild tigers by 2020 – stated unequivocally both in the National Tiger Action Plan and the 10th Malaysia Plan. Making these a reality is not solely the responsibility of the Wildlife Department and conservation organisations – the tiger graces our Coat of Arms, it is a national symbol and belongs to all of us, RELA members included.


 The Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) is the joint programme of the Malaysian Nature Society, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia ,

Wildlife Conservation Society – Malaysia Programme and WWF-Malaysia, committed to saving the Malayan Tiger.

Rela stands by its member

Friday June 25, 2010

[email protected]

PETALING JAYA: Rela has come out in defence of its member who killed a stray tiger in Selama, Perak, saying that his actions were to safeguard the security of the villagers there.

Its director-general Datuk Zaidon Asmuni said the three-year-old male tiger found foraging for food at Kampung Ulu Damaq was reported to be big.

He said he was informed that Rela member Mohd Sulong Che Ros, who lived at the village, found the tiger behind a friend’s house after going in search of it when he was alerted by a villager.

“I would have done the same thing if I was in Mohd Sulong’s position as he was caught by surprise. If he did not shoot the tiger, who knows what the tiger would have done next?” Zaidon told The Star yesterday.

Zaidon also confirmed that the gun used to shoot the tiger belonged to Rela and that Mohd Sulong had a “carry and use” licence issued by the police.

He added that applications for firearms had to be approved by him before they were submitted to the police for licence authorisation.

Rela members, he said, were allowed to shoot to keep pests away from crops and to safeguard residents of an area.

“In this case, he (Mohd Sulong) opened fire for the latter reason. We are ready to surrender the gun to the nearest police station any time when the police request for it,” said Zaidon.

On yesterday’s report that the Perak Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) had forwarded the case to the DPP, Zaidon said the department should lodge a police report first if they were not satisfied with the Rela member’s actions.

“Only after the police have conducted an investigation should the case be referred to the DPP for further action,” he said, adding that Mohd Sulong had lodged a report after the shooting, which was the normal procedure for members when they open fire.

The Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers called for a review of the policy on Rela members’ firearms possession, their standard operating procedures involving firearms use and policies when dealing with wildlife.

In a press statement, the alliance said the first thing to do in a human-tiger conflict situation was to alert Perhilitan.

Selama state assemblyman Datuk Mohd Daud Mohd Yusoff also came to Mohd Sulong’s defence, saying he had saved the lives of an 18-month-old child and a 60-year-old man in whose backyard the tiger was found.

“It could have ended tragically for the two if not for the Rela member’s swift action,” he said, adding that Mohd Sulong was considered a hero by the villagers.

The killing of the 120kg tiger is the second tiger reportedly killed in the state this year. In February a tiger was caught in a wire snare and killed by an orang asli at the Bukit Tapah Forest Reserve.

Rela man wrong in shooting tiger

Thursday June 24, 2010


IPOH: The Perak Wildlife Protection and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) has wrapped up its probe on the killing of a three-year-old tiger, saying that the Rela member was in the wrong to shoot the animal.

He should not have taken action on his own, Perhilitan director Shabrina Mohd Shariff said.

“Everything must be done according to the law.”

She said the case had now been forwarded to the office of the Deputy Public Prosecutor for further action.

On Tuesday, a villager of Kampung Ulu Damaq in Selama, alerted a Rela member about a tiger which had apparently killed poultry, besides foraging for food at a nearby forest reserve.

The Rela member subsequently used a shotgun to kill the 120kg beast.

In Kuala Lumpur, MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek said that the villagers should have alerted Perhilitan promptly when they first spotted the tiger to ensure their safety and that of the tiger’s.

Expressing his outrage over the shooting of the tiger, he said the reason for killing the animal was unacceptable.

“We can rear poultry or buy them in the market but not tigers. Tigers must be protected,” Dr Chua said, adding that the animal also had a very special place in the Malaysian culture.

“We (MCA) have received many calls from the public expressing their unhappiness and outrage over the shooting (of the tiger),” he said in a statement yesterday.

Malaysian Nature Society communications head Andrew Sebas­tian said the villagers should have contacted Perhilitan first to seek their expertise and not act on their own.

“They cannot simply shoot and kill any tiger on sight. Tigers are endangered and protected species,” said Sebastian yesterday.

He said the Rela member who shot the tiger should also know about guidelines on firing their guns.

“Were there any warning shots to scare the big cat away?” he asked.

Sebastian said the society was in full support of Perhilitan.

“We hope that there would be strict punishment for the Rela member if there was any wrongdoing,” he added.






Hungry tiger shot dead by Rela member

Wednesday June 23, 2010

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SELAMA: A three-year-old male tiger was shot dead by a Rela member at Kampung Ulu Damaq in Sungai Bayor here yesterday.

Selama acting OCPD Asst Superintendent Ramli Mohammad said the tiger had been spotted several times in the village and that it had apparently killed poultry belonging to a villager.

He said in the 12.05pm incident, the tiger, weighing some 120kg, was believed to have strayed into the village, some 10km from the Bintang Hijau Forest Reserve to forage for food.

Spotting the tiger, the villager sought help from a friend, who is a Rela member, said ASP Ramli.


Shot to death: A department official showing the carcass of the tiger that was shot dead in Kampung Ulu Damaq in Sungai Bayor yesterday.

Armed with a shotgun, the Rela member killed the animal.

Perak Wildlife Protection and National Parks Department director Shabrina Mohd Shariff said a team had been sent to the village to investigate the incident.

“The villager claimed the tiger had killed his poultry,” she said.

She added that the carcass had been sent to the Wildlife Conservation Centre in Sungkai for preservation.

Shabrina said the villager should have called the department to set a a trap to catch the animal.

“We will not hesitate to recommend that the Rela member be charged if investigations find any wrongdoing,” she added.

This is the second tiger that was reportedly killed in the state this year.

In February, a tiger was caught in a wire snare and was killed by an orang asli at the Bukit Tapah Forest Reserve.

Smugglers’ boatload of wildlife in Malaysia


Smugglers’ boatload of wildlife


ROMPIN: Marine police foiled an attempt to smuggle out about 12 tonnes of exotic animals using a fishing boat in Tanjung Gemuk near here on Saturday.

Two suspects, in their 40s and 50s, were arrested while they were busy transferring 18 boxes containing live and dead animals from a lorry onto a boat at an old jetty about 3am. Among the animals and their parts seized were sunbear, monitor lizards and owls.

Marine police Region 3 Operation division head Deputy Superintendent Mohd Hassan Hasyim said investigations showed the suspects had brought the exotic animals from Tanjung Malim.

“They planned to load the animals into the fishing boat before transferring the consignment into another vessel at sea.
“We believe that the animals were destined for a neighbouring country to be sold at restaurants there,” he told a press conference here yesterday.

Hassan said it was the first of such case this year and the Marine police would hand over the seized animals and parts to the Wildlife and National Parks Department.



Wong’s notes: There is no doubt that wildlife smuggling in Malaysia is on the rise. Each of the wildlife smuggling that police seized represent a tip of an iceberg. If immediate and effective actions to stop wildlife poaching and smuggling are not taken soon, the rainforest in Malaysia will soon join the list of “empty forests syndrome.”    

Empty Forest Syndrome?

Read more about it at http://news.mongabay.com/2009/0118-hance_hunting.html

Here is what was written by WCS about the bushmeat crisis in Congo Basin, Africa.:


 Empty Forest Syndrome

Hunting can still be sustain able where human population density is low, and where law enforcement authorities, or other management systems, control the quantity of meat exported to urban areas.However, as industrial activities such as logging open up previously inaccessible areas of the forest through the construction of roads, and population density grows in logging villages and urban centers, the demand for bushmeat increases, making sustainable exploitation of wildlife nearly impossible. This not only threatens wildlife populations but also the livelihoods and food security of the traditional peoples that depend on them.

Although deforestation poses a significant threat to the survival of the forested landscapes in the Congo Basin, many scientists are now agreed that it is the bushmeat trade that is the greatest threat to the ecosystem. Not only does unsustainable hunting leave the forest empty of wildlife, but the plant-animal interactions that facilitate forest regeneration and maintenance are lost. 


Wong’s notes: Interestingly, the situation described above sound familiar to what I saw in Borneo and other part Malaysia and Indonesia. Ironically the authority in Malaysia always denies and shies away from the topic of wildlife poaching and smuggling. IF in the future when we hear less on the news reports on the wildlife poaching and smuggling, perhaps it is not because of the authority has done a good job to prevent such crime from happening, but the wildlife population in the country has been wiped out to the brinks of extinction. I hope I am wrong. 


Malaysia Ministry denies allegation of wildlife smuggling


MARAN, Tues: Deputy Natural Resources and Environment Minister Tan Sri Joseph Kurup has denied allegations that Malaysia is the world’s largest wildlife smuggling centre. He said the government would not compromise on the smuggling of wildlife and had taken stern action against culprits who committed such offences.

“We admit that such an activity exists, but we always take stern action against the culprits,” he told reporters after launching the Rakan Alam Sekitar campaign here today.

He was commenting on a recent report in an English daily that Malaysia had become the world’s largest wildlife smuggling centre.
Kurup said amendments to the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972 were being drafted to provide heavier penalties against those who committed offences related to wildlife and national parks. — BERNAMA

Malaysian police seize smuggled bear parts, owls

Malaysian police seize smuggled bear parts, owls

9/13/2009, 11:21 p.m. EDT The Associated Press  

(AP) — KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysian police say they have seized more than $100,000 worth of dead owls, bear paws and live monitor lizards and arrested two men on suspicion of trying to smuggle them abroad.

Mohamad Hassan Hashim, a marine police official in eastern Terengganu state, says two Malaysian men were caught Sunday loading the protected wildlife into a boat.

He says police found 33 sun bear parts, 264 dead owls and 4,800 live monitor lizards, worth some 350,000 ringgit ($100,300) in all. The lizards will be released into the wild.

<!– if (parseFloat(navigator.appVersion) == 0) { document.write(”); } –>Mohamad Hassan said Monday the men could face up to three years in prison if charged with and found guilty of possessing protected wild animals.

© 2009 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Sun Bear paws turn up in nationwide raids


Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 26 August 2009—Malaysia’s wildlife authority has seized several protected animals and parts of wildlife including bear paws, in a string of raids across the country in the last two weeks.

On August 11, the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) found four bear paws in the cold room of a licensed trader’s store in the town of Kemaman in Terengganu, a state on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

Two days later, officers found an elephant tooth in a home in Triang, Pahang. On 18 August, several species of wildlife illegally kept in a shop in Sri Kembangan, in Selangor were discovered. They included two Reticulated Pythons and a pair of Water Monitors.

They also found six Black-crowned Night-herons, three Painted Storks and two Thick-billed Green-pigeons.

No arrests were made in connection with the raids.


The bear paws confiscated from a trader’s cold room. Click photo to enlarge © TRAFFIC Southeast Asia   [kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/FWDxjrfVTE8" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Meanwhile on 16 August, police nabbed a Thai poacher and recovered scales of a pangolin and six sacks of agarwood (gaharu).

The arrest was made in a forested area just off the Gerik-Jeli Highway in the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex in the northern state of Perak, which shares a border with Thailand.

Police were acting on information provided by WWF’s Wildlife Protection Unit (WPU), which regularly patrols the area with other enforcement agencies.

The 55-year-old poacher from Chiang Rai was among a party of five poachers ambushed by police. Four others escaped, leaving behind a camp stocked with 30 kilogrammes of rice and other essentials – indicating they were planning long-term operations.

The man now faces charges under three separate laws. Gerik District Police Chief, Superintendent Mahad Nor bin Abdullah, confirmed that the poacher would be charged under Section Six of the Immigration Act, for illegally entering the country. The poacher will also face charges under Section 64 (2) (a) of the Protection of Wildlife Act for possession of the Pangolin scales and Section 15 of the Forestry Act, for collecting agarwood without a licence.

Cases involving foreign poachers like this one, in Perak’s forests, are becoming an issue of increasing concern, with several cases already documented so far this year.

These forests are home to many of the world’s most threatened mammals, including Sumatran Rhinos, Malayan Tigers and Asian Elephants.

The Belum-Temengor forest complex is also part of an area of global priority for Tiger conservation, yet it is one of the most accessible areas because of the 80-km long Gerik-Jeli highway that cuts across this landscape, providing hundreds of easy entry points for poachers.

Sacks of agarwood (gaharu) left at an abandoned poachers’ camp in Belum-Temengor Forest Complex where one man was arrested Click photo to enlarge © WWF Malaysia

“Together with Perhilitan and Police, the WPU have jointly-removed over 73 snares and arrested nine poachers in the last seven months in this very area,” said Ahmad Zafir, leader of the WPU. “Camera traps set up to capture wildlife pictures for research also often capture photographs of poachers.”

“Intelligence-led investigations are needed to remove the masterminds and backers behind the scourge of poaching and illegal trade,” says Chris R. Shepherd, Acting Regional Director of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

“Ridding the forests of poachers is an on-going and important task, but it is essential to remove the main culprits behind the scenes – the big dealers running the show,” he added

Dato’ Dr Dionysius Sharma, CEO of WWF-Malaysia, urged the government to form a multi-agency task force to address the problem.

“While Perhilitan, police and the WPU have been doing a good job so far, stopping armed poachers is dangerous work that needs the support of many agencies,” he said.

Perhilitan’s Legislation and Enforcement Division Director Saharudin Anan said the department would add three more posts along the country’s border with Thailand and would soon host the first bilateral meeting between the two countries, on wildlife enforcement issues.