Tag Archives: rainforest

Big Tree Little Bear and Tiny Termites -video

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Big tree little bear and tiny termites

Text, photos, and video by Siew Te Wong

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Yesterday when I walked little Mary in the forest, she stopped at the base of this huge dipterocarp tree. The scene was just amazed me: “big tree, little bear” was what came out from my mind immediately. It was a peaceful time we spent in the forest under the big tree. Mary was busy digging the nests of termite and ant and feeding furiously on the angry insects that swamped out from their broken home. The big tree stood there like a giant with no fear. The sound of the cicadas and other unknown insects rumbled like there is no tomorrow: they have to mate now!

Big tree little bear!

Big tree little bear!

The big tree, the little sun bear, and the tiny termites all need one other to survive. Female sun bears den in the hollowed tree trunk or cavities of huge trees in the forest when they give birth and nurse helpless baby for months. These cavities are the safest den for the female sun bears because they are relatively dry in the ever wet and moist rainforest (rainforest always rain!), relative cold in the hot mid tropical day, and relatively warm at night (tropical rainforest may get cold at night because of the rain and high humidity). There is simply no other better den site that a sun bear can find in the forest then a large tree with cavities or hollowed. The trees are huge, like this one, with a diameter of at least one meter (3 feet) and a height of 30 m (100 feet) or more. They are probably very old – at least few hundred years old too! In return, sun bears are opportunistic omnivores that feed on termites, beetles and other forest insects that kill trees (forest pest, so to speak). By feeding on the termite colonies and other insects, the sun bears act as forest “doctors” that keep these insects at “healthy levels”. The tiny termites, feed on the woody materials in the forest, both alive and dead. And the cycle go on and on..

Here comes a problem for sun bear in the human altered landscape: these forest giants are getting rare in logged forest because they are targeted for timber market and sell for a lot of money. In Borneo, most of the remaining forests are being selectively logged except few totally protected forest reserves that remain as undisturbed primary forests. The lack of large trees with cavity may post a challenge for female sun bears to find suitable den sites and successfully raise cubs.

Big trees little bears and tiny termites, all need one other to survive. Are we wise enough to keep all of them in the forest? For sure the termites will survive. But I am not sure about the sun bears and the big trees. Only time will tell!    

Is Mary climbing on a vertical wall?

Is Mary climbing on a vertical wall?

No, is the buttress of the big tree!

No, is the buttress of the big tree!

Mary digging out a termite colony in this fallen tree.

Mary digging out a termite colony in this fallen tree.

Still working hard...

Still working hard...



This hollowed tree was being fell by logger but abandoned because of the hollowness and low value. The cavity has become an important den site for sun bear.

This hollowed tree was being fell by logger but abandoned because of the hollowness and low value. The cavity has become an important den site for sun bear.

Sun bear den in the lowland rainforest of Danum. There is a pile of a sun bear faces at the bottom left of the photo.

Sun bear den in the lowland rainforest of Danum. There is a pile of a sun bear faces at the bottom left of the photo.

I found one of my studied wild sun bear in this cavity of a huge standing tree.

I found one of my studied wild sun bear in this cavity of a huge standing tree.

Malaysian government to launch RSPO rival for palm oil certification

Repost from http://news.mongabay.com/2011/0802-malaysian_palm_oil_standard.html

Malaysian government to launch RSPO rival for palm oil certification
August 02, 2011

The Malaysian government is developing its own certification system for palm oil production, potentially creating another rival to the certification system run by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), reports Malaysia’s Business Times.

Speaking in Australia, Malaysian Commodities Minister Bernard Dompok said the government is in the “preliminary stage” of developing a sustainability standard for palm oil production to counter tighter standards being pushed by the RSPO.

“We will go ahead because the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil keeps on changing its goal posts on how to produce sustainable palm oil,” he was quoted as saying. “We will come up with a national certification scheme.”

Indonesia — the world’s top palm oil producer — has already announced its own certification scheme, which is primarily based on compliance with Indonesian law and is therefore compulsory.

Malaysian Palm Oil Council Chief Yusof Basiron said Malaysia’s certification standard would be similar and aim to address concerns raised by environmentalists.

  palm oil fruit
Oil palm seed. Palm oil is used widely in processed foods. By virtue of its high yield, palm oil is a cheaper substitute than other vegetable oils. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“The industry is already highly monitored. We will just tweak it a little bit and look at what the market and the NGOs want,” Basiron was quoted as saying.

“If they don’t want deforestation, then we will include it in the certification requirements. If they don’t want orang utan to be destroyed, we will include it too.”

The remarks came as both officials met in Australia to voice opposition to an Australian bill that would require separate listing of palm oil on product labels. Presently palm oil can be generically listed as “vegetable oil” under Australian food regulations, but green groups, concerned over deforestation associated with some palm oil production, have pushed for stricter labeling requirements. The Malaysian palm oil industry says labeling — which only applies to palm oil, not other vegetable oils — could lead to discrimination against palm oil-containing products. Up to half of processed food products in some markets contain palm oil, according to the environmental group WWF, which is pushing RSPO certification.

While the creation of another certification standard could create confusion in the marketplace, at least one RSPO member welcomed the move.

“The fact that they are creating their own system (just as Indonesia before them), means RSPO is transforming the system,” said the member, who requested anonymity since he wasn’t authorized to speak on behalf of the organization. “It is, essentially, a race to the top instead of the bottom. Our standard will move towards sustainability and the market will respond.”

“In short, we welcome such developments,” he continued. “If anything, it reinforces what we hope to achieve.”

The RSPO was launched in 2004 as a way to address growing concerns over palm oil production. Its code of conduct includes an explicit commitment to “continual improvement” of its standards.

The first shipments of RSPO-certified palm oil reached market in late 2008. Since then, production has surged, reaching 4.7 million metric tons through the first three months of 2011. A number of the world’s largest producers, traders, financiers, and buyers have now joined the RSPO, including Walmart, Hersheys and CitiBank last week.

But the RSPO has faced criticism from some environmentalists, who say its monitoring and enforcement mechanisms remain weak.

The RSPO recently took action against IOI Group, a Malaysia-based member accused of particularly egregious breaches of RSPO’s code, including social conflict with forest people and clearing of rainforests. Last year the body booted PT SMART, Indonesia’s largest palm oil producer, after it was found to be in violation of RSPO standards. PT SMART has since announced a strict forest policy that will allow it to attain RSPO certification.

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.

Sun bear BOLEH series: “Sun bear can climb!” Part II

The second reason for sun bear to be an arboreal mammal is that they like to rest, nap, and sleep on treetop. Obviously, they can do this equally well on forest floor, just like this —>


 However, there is a problem sleeping on forest floor. If you have visited the lowland rainforest of Borneo, you probably notice the numbers of blood sucking leeches presence on the forest floor. Even though you appeared to be walking alone in the forest, you are never alone because there are always many leeches latched on you! They either feasting on your blood or trying really hard to find a vulnerable spot to enjoy a bloody meal.

This was my feet and my blood, and a fat-blood sucking leach!

This was my feet and my blood, and a fat-blood sucking leach!

 So being a warm-blooded large mammal live in the rainforest that always wet and rain, the sun bear is better to stay up high off the ground when they take a break from their daily routine foraging for food or traveling on the ground. There is no better way to illustrate how sun bear have done it by showing photos taken by Chandra Dewana Boer at Wehea forest, East Kalimantan, Indonesia Borneo.




chandra Dewana Boer


Sun bears are also known to be prey upon by reticulated pythons (huge snake that can grow up to 10 m long! seriously, I am not kidding :)) and tigers in Mainland Asia and in Sumatra. In order to escape from a surprise attack by these predators, sun bear make nest and sleep high on tree. Earlier I have posted a rare video of Batik the sun bear making a tree nest. Below is another video of her sleeping high, about 35 m above the ground on her tree nest she made and slowly climb down from the tree. If she did not wear a radio-collar, I would never have guessed and found her so high off the ground in the thick canopy of Bornean rainforest.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/Wo2J2qdoSE4" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Stay tune for part III...

Help us protect sun bear and other wildlife habitat in Borneo.

SOS From Borneo to the world!
Thanks to Cynthia Ong of LEAP, and the Green SURF coalition of Sabah, Malaysia, a proposed coal-fired power plant has gone from “done deal” to being debated in the Malaysian Parliament!

To continue this important work, LEAP needs your support and action NOW!
Please share the petition with your network! We need to keep pressure up until the Prime Minister reverses his position!


Thank YOU!!

Land Empowerment Animals People

P/S: Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is a LEAP project


Sun bear BOLEH series: “Sun bear can climb!” part 1

I always consider myself very lucky to be able to study the sun bear, the least known bear in the world. Over years of tracking down radio-collared sun bears in the rainforest of Borneo, I managed to witness some bazaar behaviors of this illusive mammal in the natural surroundings. One of these “holy cow!” behaviors was the tree-climbing skill of sun bears, which made me believe they are the most arboreal bears in the world. With their small body size as a bear species, black color pelt and agile slender arms, they look a lot like chimpanzee than any bear species to me. They are equipped with the best tree climbing tool, not with fingers like the chimpanzee and other primates, but four sets of curved and long claws, each control by exceptionally strong digit muscle. The claws clam in and dig deep in the tree bark, they simply “walk” up on the tall tropical rainforest trees like lumberjack climbing a tree with their spike shoes.   


Sun bear has all the reasons to be an arboreal mammal. First, a big portion of their food is found on top of a tree: fruits and invertebrates. Fruits are important for sun bear because they are available in large quantity, but finding fruiting trees are not easy. Beside fruits, invertebrates such as bee hives with yummy honey and larvae are nutritious food items to boost up body condition. Some species of bees build their hives inside tree cavities high above the ground for double protections. However, this will not deter a sun bear from breaking into the bee hives because sun bear climb really well, equipped with strong claws and canines to break into tree cavities, and sun bear’s determination to feed on honey as food is not easy to find in the forest. There is no better way to illustrate how much sun bears love honey other than showing these photos taken by Wineke Schoo in Danum Valley, the forest where I studied sun bears for six years in Borneo.





 The bigger black dot was a mother sun bear climbing up a huge tree, followed by a little black dot, her little cub. At this point, the mother bear already found the beehive and starting to break into hive. Little one followed.



 sun bear wineke

Wineke managed to get some zoo-in photos with her spotting scope. I know what you are trying to say, so am I! Thanks Wineke for sharing these photos. This is a lifetime experience to witness such amazing event taking place in our own planet! 

Now you know why sun bears are also known as honey bear (beruang madu) in local Malay language, simply because they love honey!

Photos credit: Wineke Schoo

~to be continue~

Clips from Orangutan Diary showing the devastating events of habitat destruction in Borneo.

People say a photo is worth a thousand words. I say a video is worth a thousand photos.

Watch for yourself to see how serious is the deforestation in Borneo in the name of producing palm oil to feed human needs and greed.

I just watched the BBC’s Orangutan Diary series few days ago. Although I have seen these deforestations with my own eyes in Borneo, seeing the same thing again from my computer’s screen was equally disturbing. As what Steve put it, “We don’t have to do this!”

Every time when the presenters of the show, Steve Leonard and Michaela Strachan, mentioned that the habitats of orangutans being destroyed due to deforestation and logging, the same thing applied to other Bornean wildlife such as sun bears, clouded leopards, pygmy elephants, critically endangered Sumatran rhinos, gibbons, and many more wild mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibian, etc., etc.

Although disturbing to watch, the world need to see this and know that this is actually happening on the other part of the world where they watch the video from. We are living on the same planet, what ever happen on Borneo or other part of the world, will eventually effect us.

Please help. Please spread the words about the deforestation in Borneo! 

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/qmRaN5OcQZs" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Re-read Borneo’s Moment of Truth

This is a year old article published in National Geographic magazine.

Tonight I re-read it gain. I think we all should do the same again. ….

Because “.. we need to do it while there’s still something left to protect.”




Borneo’s Moment of Truth                      Published: November 2008
The majestic forests are vanishing in smoke and sawdust, but there’s still hope for the island’s fabled biodiversity—if the palm oil rush can be slowed.
By Mel White

First, I will tell you about the Borneo of your dreams.

The day starts well before dawn with the lunatic hooting of gibbons, the rain forest’s alarm clock, lovers and rivals wooing and warning each other from the treetops in an urgent ape language that I, their terrestrial relative, can only guess at.

From my camp a creekside trail leads into forest past trees whose massive trunks rise a hundred feet to the lowest branches. As sunlight makes its feeble way through the dense green canopy, another primate, a long-tailed macaque, walks along the stream below, hoping for a breakfast of fish or frog. Whether it’s successful or not, its expression of perpetual irritation will never change. No sooner has the monkey disappeared upstream than a pair of short-tailed mongooses bound down to the bank, seemingly more intent on fun than food.

At a clearing, a pair of rhinoceros hornbills fly to a fruiting tree on loud-whooshing wings and begin to feed. Mostly black, nearly the size of turkeys, they have huge red-and-yellow casques on their bills that gleam in the sun like polished lacquer. The birds outshine everything else in the forest until a hand-size shape flits erratically past at waist level, deep velvety black, but also crimson and electric green, screaming neon green, a color as gaudy as the name of this creature: Rajah Brooke’s birdwing. At almost seven inches across, it’s one of the largest butterflies in the world. If the rhinoceros hornbill doesn’t take your breath away—if the Rajah Brooke’s birdwing doesn’t—have someone hold your wrist and check for a pulse.

Later I take a small boat down a broad river called the Kinabatangan, then up a side channel as narrow as an alleyway. A troop of proboscis monkeys climb through the branches overhead, where they will spend the night in tall trees beside the water. The potbellied male, ridiculously outsize nose hanging from his face like a ripe fruit, is so ugly he’s endearing, in a kind of bibulous-old-uncle way. Most of the pointy-nosed females under his watch cradle young at their breasts. Silvered leaf monkeys look down from above, and a bearded pig stands just inside the forest to watch us pass. As the boat drifts below an overhanging branch, a four-foot-long water monitor lizard drops into the water.

A Borneo pygmy elephant enters the river and swims in front of the boat, blowing like a whale. “Pygmy” it may be in comparison to other elephants, but when it emerges dark and shining on the opposite bank, it’s as if an island is rising from the sea. I see where it’s going: A herd of around 30 animals—a long-tusked bull, many adult females, and various young—munch tangled vines beside the main river, expressionless as statues and only marginally more animated.

This is the mythic Borneo, the island of the world’s imagination, and it’s all as wondrous as it sounds. But if you want to see the real Borneo, the Borneo of the first decade of the 21st century, it would be good to be the crested serpent-eagle perched in a tree across the river. Then you could soar high above the Kinabatangan and see how quickly the unruly forest gives way to neatly planted rows of oil palm trees, stretching for mile after mile in all directions. The palm plantation is lush and green, and the arching fronds of the trees give it an exotic beauty, and for the incomparable biodiversity of Borneo it is inexorable death.

Set between the South China and Java Seas, bisected by the Equator, the island of Borneo has served throughout human history mostly to have its natural resources exploited—many would say plundered—by a succession of peoples from around the world.

Chinese traders came for rhinoceros horn, the aromatic wood called gaharu, and birds’ nests for soup. Later, Muslim and Portuguese traders joined them to export pepper and gold. Britain and the Netherlands controlled the island during the colonial period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when loggers began cutting the tropical hardwood forest covering the island. The current political division of Borneo—the southern three-quarters belongs to Indonesia, most of the rest to Malaysia, with slivers that make up Brunei—reflects alliances of the British and Dutch colonial era, which ended with independence after World War II.

In recent decades, companies from Europe, the United States, and Australia have drilled for abundant oil and natural gas and strip-mined coal. There are mansions from Amsterdam to Melbourne, from Singapore to Houston, that were built with wealth from Borneo. Mansions built with Borneo wealth stand in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, too, because Indonesia and Malaysia, or at least the political and economic elite, have been the biggest plunderers of all.

A different kind of richness has attracted others, including the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who spent time here in the mid-1850s while he developed theories important to modern understanding of evolution and biogeography. Wallace collected more than a thousand species new to science, including Rajah Brooke’s birdwing. Scientists have continued making discoveries ever since, demonstrating that the rain forest of Borneo ranks with the most biologically diverse places on Earth.

Borneo has more than 15,000 known species of plants, including more than 2,500 species of orchids. Southeast Asia’s lowland forests, including Borneo’s, are the tallest tropical rain forests in the world, and may have as many as 240 species of trees on a single four-acre site. Borneo is home to the world’s largest flower, the world’s largest orchid, the world’s largest carnivorous plants, and the world’s largest moth. In the multilevel structure of Borneo’s rain forest lives the world’s largest collection of gliding animals: Apart from several species of flying squirrels there are flying lizards, flying colugos, flying frogs, and—the stuff of nightmares for some—flying snakes.

Sun bears and clouded leopards roam Borneo’s forests, while two species of gibbons and eight species of monkeys climb in the trees. Around a thousand elephants have survived in one corner of the island—mostly in the Malaysian state of Sabah, where the Kinabatangan River runs to the Sulu Sea. Rhinoceroses barely hang on to existence, with fewer than four dozen remaining. But it’s an even more charismatic animal—the orangutan—that has become the symbol of Borneo. Its expressive eyes stare out from the newsletters and funding appeals of conservation groups around the world. Considering the island’s unsurpassed biodiversity—from orangutans and rhinoceroses to tiny mosses and beetles not yet discovered—and the rate at which its forests are being lost, Borneo’s future may well be the most critical conservation issue on our planet.

From a satellite perspective, the threat of Borneo’s imminent deforestation might seem overstated. The island, slightly larger than Texas, is still half covered with trees, and in the interior highlands stand hundreds of square miles of virgin forests where almost no one goes save indigenous hunters, wildlife poachers, and gaharu gatherers. Reaching some areas requires a boat trip of several days or strenuous hikes through pathless wilderness.

But it’s an entirely different story, and an increasingly desperate one, for lowland forests, the prime habitat for most of Borneo’s wealth of biodiversity, including orangutans and elephants. During the past two decades, an estimated two million acres were cleared annually, an area more than half the size of Connecticut. A paper in Science magazine in 2001—ominously titled “The End for Indonesia’s Lowland Forests?”—warned of the “dire consequences” of “the current state of resource anarchy” and cited a study predicting that lowland forests in Indonesian Borneo could be totally destroyed by 2010. While government crackdowns have slowed illegal logging and exports, the result has simply been to delay the forecast doomsday.

Other factors could speed it up again. In the past 20 years vast, single-crop plantations of oil palm have spread across Borneo to meet the demand for the versatile (and vastly profitable) oil derived from its fruit. Palm oil is used for cooking, and in cosmetics, soap, desserts, and a seemingly endless list of other products, including biofuel. Indonesia and Malaysia provide 86 percent of the world’s supply; growing conditions are perfect on Borneo for this green gold. Even as conservationists spread the news about palm oil’s contribution to global deforestation—some calling for boycotting of palm oil products—Indonesia has become the world’s number one producing country, with 15 million acres under cultivation, a figure that may double by 2020.

As if the oil palm monoculture weren’t enough, Borneo possesses another resource that combines economic blessing and environmental danger: The 300-million-year-old plant material that once grew on what is now Borneo lies underground, transformed into coal. Surface mines—for gold as well as coal—spread across southern and eastern Borneo like pockmarks, displacing forest and polluting rivers with waste.

And in a world newly awakened to the dangers of climate change, Borneo has gained global attention for yet another reason: A specialized ecosystem called peat swamp forest covers around 11 percent of the island. Here, trees grow on highly organic soil built of centuries’ accumulation of waterlogged plant material. Sometimes reaching a depth of 60 feet, peat soil represents a massive store of the world’s carbon. Stripped of its trees and drained, tropical peat decays and releases its carbon into the atmosphere, and as it dries it becomes extremely susceptible to burning, intentional or accidental. Massive annual fires set deliberately to clear previously forested land for new oil palm plantations—and exacerbated by frequent drought—have burned out of control and filled Borneo’s skies with smoke, closing airports and causing respiratory problems for millions of people as far away as mainland Asia. Carbon released by decaying peat soil, fires, and deforestation has pushed Indonesia into third place among nations as a source of greenhouse gases, behind only heavily industrialized China and the United States.

Time is running out for Borneo’s rain forests. Conventional models offer little hope. Setting aside large areas as parks or reserves, standard practice in the U.S. and other countries, has been largely ineffective, at least on the Indonesian part of Borneo, undermined by inadequate funding, lack of support from local residents, and government corruption. But many conservationists say that logging, often regarded as anathema to wildlife, may, if practiced sustainably, in fact help to protect a significant portion of the island’s biodiversity.

“Virgin rain forest is a dead concept now in Borneo,” says Glen Reynolds, chief scientist at the Danum Valley Field Center in Sabah. “All of the big areas of primary lowland forest that can be conserved already have been. It’s difficult, but now what you’ve got to do is convince people that what we think of as degraded forest can sustain biodiversity.”

The message is complex but ultimately clear. To protect Borneo’s forests and wildlife will require rethinking old ideas, accepting new truths, and adopting new models of conservation. And in the end, the fate of Borneo may be decided far from the forests, in government offices and corporate boardrooms from New York to Geneva. Because of the vast amounts of carbon tied up in the plants and soils, the last best hope for Borneo’s future may rest not on the emotional appeal of an orangutan’s face, but on the hard facts of climate change—and our own determination and ability to protect ourselves from disaster.

On the opposite side of Borneo from Sabah, in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, a narrow paved road leads away from Pontianak, a city near the South China Sea. Crowded with trucks and buzzing motorbikes, the road passes wooden shops and houses in small villages separated by rice fields. The harvest has just begun, and here and there people beat sheaves against wooden lattices or toss grains into the air to let the wind carry away the hulls. There’s little trace of the forests that once stood here.

I’m traveling with Dessy Ratnasari, a scientist from a local research organization, whose animated face is encircled by a light blue head scarf. Our driver, Harun—who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name—speaks up as we pass a large building fringed with weeds.

“This is a sawmill where he worked,” Ratnasari translates. “It went bankrupt because there are no more trees for timber. It had 1,300 workers and a payroll of 800 million rupiah a month”—about $90,000. Within a couple of miles we pass two more mills, gates locked, windows broken, parking lots empty.

“There were several big companies and some smaller mills around Pontianak,” Harun says. “Now there’s only one big company still operating.”

How did nearly a third of the rain forest that stood on Borneo in 1985 disappear by 2005? An easy, and only slightly oversimplified, answer can be found in the initials that Indonesians use as an explanation for many of their country’s troubles: KKN, for korupsi, kolusi, nepotisme (corruption, collusion, nepotism). During the 32-year presidency of Suharto, until he was forced from office in 1998, Indonesian forests were among the many resources treated as personal wealth by him, his family, and military officials who helped keep him in office. Since Suharto, political power has been decentralized, and decision-making about natural resources has become more localized. Unfortunately, too often the result has been what one conservationist calls “the democratization of corruption.”

Local officials, having watched Suharto et al. loot the country for decades, began cashing in themselves. Many provincial governors, district bupati (regents), and police avidly took bribes: from timber companies, to grant logging permits in nominally protected forests; from illegal loggers, to ignore intrusions into national parks; and from oil palm companies, to allow wholesale clearing and burning of forestlands for plantations. Chaotically confused jurisdiction and land-ownership issues made matters worse. Although the national government claims to administer forestry laws, provinces and districts often issue land-use permits independently, and conflicting court decisions contributed to the free-for-all atmosphere.

Across the border in Malaysian Borneo, the state of Sarawak has been controlled for 27 years by Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, whose administration is widely regarded as dictatorial and corrupt. Uncontrolled logging has so greatly depleted Sarawak’s forests that most conservationists working to save Borneo’s biodiversity have, in a kind of environmental triage, essentially given up and focused their attentions elsewhere on the island. Having ravaged its forests, Sarawak has now turned its attention to its large areas of coastal peat swamp forest, rapidly converting tracts to oil palm despite environmentalists’ concerns over carbon emissions.

The natural world fares better in Sabah, the Malaysian state in northeastern Borneo. Though oil palm plantations have burgeoned here, more than half of Sabah remains forested. Much of the forest has been heavily logged, and more and more acres converted to commercial tree plantations, but Sabah sustains some of the best surviving examples of high-quality rain forest: the Danum Valley and Maliau Basin Conservation Areas. (The nation of Brunei has so much money from petroleum that there’s been no need to exploit its forests. It retains some of the best rain forest on Borneo, but, since it occupies less than one percent of the island, it makes a negligible contribution to the overall conservation picture.)

“Good governance” is a bureaucratic phrase often used by diplomats and nongovernmental organizations working in Indonesia and Malaysia. What it means in plain terms is removing the hands of politicians and their cronies from the pockets of poor people and opening up government actions to public scrutiny and free debate. Everyone working on conservation in Borneo agrees that no efforts—no laws or regulations, no new parks or protected areas—will be effective without it.

“Governance is almost everything, in that if we can’t get it right, nothing else matters,” says Frances Seymour of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), an international organization headquartered in Indonesia and committed to conserving forests and improving the livelihoods of people in the tropics. There have been encouraging signs of progress in Indonesia—at least at the higher levels of government—especially since 2004, when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected president. Another major step began in 2000 when the national police force loosened ties with the military, a notoriously corrupt organization with long-standing links to illegal logging and smuggling. Even better news came in 2005, when General Sutanto was appointed national chief of police. “No law enforcement head anywhere in the world has made as much progress as he has,” a senior U.S. official in Jakarta told me.

Hundreds of arrests for illegal logging activities have been made since then, targeting not just workers in the field (who may make as little as two dollars a day), but also, occasionally, mid-level timber buyers and government officials, including the ex-governor of the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan and many workers in the corruption-tainted Ministry of Forestry. Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan, once a horror story of uncontrolled illegal logging and poaching, has seen a major turnaround thanks to an honest and dedicated director whose rangers patrol the park with ultralight aircraft and motorboats.

On a national level, many Indonesian ministers get high marks, or at least grudgingly awarded passing grades, for their dedication to reform. “And yet I will say that in this village there is no question that it’s impossible to get a policeman to do anything without being asked for a bribe,” a person connected to a small conservation group tells me. (As happened often when I talked with activists, I was asked not to name the speaker.) “The bupati has friends in Jakarta who could shut us down,” another NGO worker says. “It’s a fine line you have to walk here. They could crush us if they wanted to.”

In several district capital towns I visited, the most obvious result of increased local autonomy was a showy new government office complex; the second-most-obvious was the bupati’s showy new house. “The challenge,” Frances Seymour says, “is how we help communities and local governments make better decisions for the long term, because what’s going on now is a short-term spasm of making money, and ten years from now jobs are going to be gone and income sources are going to be gone.” And the Indonesian hinterlands will remain as poor as ever.

A highway winds through jagged limestone hills in East Kalimantan, following a route that five years ago was a dirt logging road. Today there’s nothing but scrub in all directions. Every mile or so, as the highway crosses a ravine, there’s a minor cave-in that’s caused the lane on the downhill side to collapse. We rarely have to slow down, though, because there’s almost no other traffic. Sometimes these bus-size chasms are marked with branches piled in the road, and sometimes they’re not.

“The contractor gives a kickback to the government to get the paving contract, and then they purposely do a bad job so they can come back in a few years for repair work and everybody can make more money,” one of my companions says. By now I’ve heard stories like this so often that they seem normal.

After crossing a bridge over the Telen River, we stop near a roadside house that barely qualifies for the name. It’s an open-air wooden platform no more than ten feet square, elevated on logs head-high off the ground. The roof is a sheet of blue plastic suspended from poles. A woman and two children are on the platform and three more children are playing underneath.

Felled tree trunks are scattered across a field beyond the house; the ground is blackened from recent burning, and smoke rises here and there. Several men and women work in the field with machetes and long digging sticks made of belian, or ironwood. This is forest destruction and habitat loss happening before my eyes.

Two men come over to talk with us—Udan Usat and Ismael, uncle and nephew. They wear Javanese-style conical straw hats against the intense sun. Their faces and arms are coated with soot, and sweat makes small rivulets on their skin.

They are of the Kenyah tribe, and they moved here last year. Before, they lived in a village called Long Noran on the Wahau River, in the interior of Borneo. The forest there is long gone, cut by a big timber company once owned by the notorious Bob Hasan, a Suharto crony and former government minister who was later convicted of corruption. With only scrub left, the entire area around their village, which stood inside the company’s timber concession, burned in massive fires in 1997-98. The blazes were ignited by companies preparing land for plantations and spread rapidly to neighboring land during a season of drought.

“We had gardens, fruit trees, rubber trees, and vegetable fields, all burned,” Udan Usat says. “There was conflict with the timber company. They accused us of starting the fires, but we didn’t do it. The fires came from far away.”

Things were very hard after that. “Where we lived it was an hour by boat and 15 kilometers by land to reach the nearest settlement with a market,” he says. “It was expensive to use the boat.”

The government promised that each family could have five hectares, about 12 acres, along the road here, if they wanted to move. Some of the villagers came to look at the land, there was a meeting, and 169 families decided to start over again at this place.

“Here, we are between two towns, so it will be easier to sell our crops when the fields begin producing,” Ismael says. Neighboring families are helping each other, working on a different plot each day. They will grow rice, bananas, and the spiny red fruit called rambutan. The burning they’ve just done will help the fertility of the soil, and they hope to have their first crops next year. Families are living in temporary shelters for now, because it’s more important to plant the fields than build permanent houses. Ismael was head of an elementary school in Long Noran, and someday, if there are enough children here on the Telen River, the families may build a school.

“Life will be better here—that is our hope,” Ismael says.

I thank these men for talking with me, and wonder whether I should give them money for their time. My binoculars cost more than the two of them will make in an entire year. I turn to go, and one of the children, a girl about seven years old, is holding a plastic bag with two ontok, fried dough balls; and lemper, rice wrapped in coconut leaf—a gift of food for me. She hands me the bag, and her smile shatters my heart.

Despite the stupendous new skyscrapers erupting around Jakarta, despite the new cars clogging its streets, the essential fact influencing conservation in Borneo is the extreme poverty of most Indonesians, who occupy three-quarters of the island. Whatever strategies environmentalists pursue to save Borneo’s biodiversity must first offer ways for its residents to improve their lives.

“Nothing is more important than hunger,” says Albertus of the Pontianak-based group Green Borneo. “Funding agencies need to change their way of thinking about this. Better health, better education, better economic conditions—that will help protect the forest.”

Even as she shows me West Kalimantan ecosystems and economies wrecked by unsustainable logging, Dessy Ratnasari makes sure I know the benefits it brought. “Many people in West Kalimantan grew up on money from timber companies,” she says. “I grew up on the multiplier effects, because my father had a small clothing store, and the money people spent there came from timber. That is why I was able to go to school and get an education.”

Hati-hati is one of the few phrases of Indonesian I’ve learned. It means “be careful,” as on the signs along this bumpy dirt road reading “Hati-Hati Logging.” It’s a hot morning in East Kalimantan, and I’m riding in a truck with Erik Meijaard, a Dutch conservation scientist associated with the Nature Conservancy who has worked in Borneo for 15 years, and his colleague Nardiyono. We’ve passed through miles of scrubland, and the landscape shows no sign of changing anytime soon. Once lowland rain forest, this area was clear-cut and never reforested. In the fires of 1997-98, it was part of the estimated 6.5 million acres of forest that burned in East Kalimantan. Now it is only bushes, small trees, ferns, and grass, overrun with vines. I stare at the passing scene, thinking that, if nothing else, the government responsible for allowing this is guilty of criminal negligence.

“It’s sad, isn’t it?” Meijaard says, reading my thoughts. “And yet,” he continues, “this is the kind of forest where Nardi and I find some of our highest concentrations of orangutans.” By “find” he means they have counted the nests that orangutans make each night or discovered other signs indicating the animals’ presence. Orangutans are the most solitary of the great apes, difficult to spot even where they exist in good numbers. Meijaard has already told me that he has actually seen only two wild orangutans in the past two and a half years of regular fieldwork.

The truck crests a low rise in the road and—I almost feel I should interject here I am not making this up—there’s a dark reddish-brown form in the road ahead. I see it, but my mind seems to stall. Midday … worthless scrubland … animal in the road … What? Gibbon?

“Orangutan!” Erik and Nardi shout in unison. The truck skids to a stop, and we all jump out as the orangutan retreats into the low woods beside the road. I follow it with my binoculars as it scuttles away, stopping repeatedly to look back at us, until it moves downslope out of sight.

The normally taciturn Nardi is beside himself. “You are so lucky!” he says, over and over. “An orangutan, right in the road!” Expletives and superlatives abound. Visitors to Borneo rarely see a wild orangutan; most see the semi-tame animals at well-known rehabilitation centers such as Sepilok in Sabah or Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan.

There’s more to this incident, though, than simply my winning-the-Powerball good fortune. What I’ve just seen symbolizes one of the most important issues for Borneo’s biodiversity—and a tenuous hope for preserving it.

“The logged forest is the future for wildlife in Borneo,” says Siew Te Wong, who works on conservation of the threatened sun bear.

“In Borneo, species do not go extinct over a broad area as a result of one round of logging, or even two and possibly three,” says Junaidi Payne of WWF’s Sabah office. “The balance of species changes enormously, but even the specialist birds or orchids or epiphytes are still there if you look in little valleys and the wet areas. So you can log forests and still save that biodiversity. But the thing you can’t do is convert the whole thing to monoculture plantations,” such as oil palm. “Then of course you lose everything. It’s a biological desert.”

WWF geographer Raymond Alfred         shows me around Sabah’s state-owned Ulu Segama Forest Reserve, where the forest has been thoroughly—and legally—logged, leaving woodland that seems downright puny compared with the skyscraping rain forest at nearby Danum Valley. Yet researchers have found Borneo’s highest concentration of orangutans here, and the species is thriving in similar spots all around the island. Alfred and other Sabah conservationists managed to convince the government to save this degraded forest, once set for conversion to oil palm. A ten-year moratorium on logging has given them time to study the orangutans, and they hope to establish a lodge and attract some of the tourists who visit the nearby Kinabatangan River Sepilok rehabilitation center.

In East Kalimantan, Meijaard has spent much of his time in recent years working with logging companies to help them harvest trees sustainably, and with local villages to find ways for them to derive income from the forest. Purists may imagine the major conservation goal in Borneo to be the setting aside of vast tracts of untouched forest, but for biologists dealing with day-to-day reality, compromise is the only realistic alternative.

When Meijaard spends time in villages discussing the choice between forest conservation and oil palm plantations, he never mentions orangutans. “People get bored with that in five minutes. To them it’s just another monkey in a tree that Western people want to come and look at. But if I talk to them about fish in the rivers or pigs in the forest, then they pay attention, because those are resources they can harvest from the forest.”

Meijaard is unsentimental about timber harvesting and the sanctity of virgin rain forest. “Hey, it’s the tropics. Plants will grow back,” he says. “These forests have to earn their money somehow.” Otherwise, they’ll inevitably be turned into plantations of oil palm or pulpwood.

“You’re trying to get people who have economic opportunities right now to forgo those benefits for other benefits years down the road,” orangutan conservationist Paul Hartman says. “The bupati is in office for five years, and he says, ‘I’m going to make my money now.’ “

Sustainable forest management—logging that provides income without compromising the long-term viability of the ecosystem, won’t be an easy sell. In Sangatta, East Kalimantan, I talk with Daddy Ruhiyat, an adviser to the local government on conservation issues. “We have asked forestry companies to show us that forests can be as financially productive as oil palm,” he says. “But nowadays there are no fresh ideas coming from the forestry sector to make land more productive. We have a choice of either good forest and no money, or cut down the forest for palm oil. There is a long list of companies asking for land for palm oil development.”

Ruhiyat sees a role for forestry in his district, but primarily in plantations of fast-growing teak, which can be harvested every 15 years. “We want species that can be productive in a relatively short rotation,” he says. “We have to grow forests in plantations. That is the only way.”

I ask him how he feels about someone like me, from a country that cut its forests, mined its coal, depleted its wildlife, and became wealthy, coming to Borneo to question local people’s decisions about conservation.

“It is reasonable that people in other countries are concerned about the Borneo environment,” he says. “I’m not resentful of that. But the most important step is to make people have better incomes. It starts with oil palm plantations, which bring money so people can enjoy better lives. It is hard for hungry people to appreciate nature.”

Glen Reynolds of the Danum Valley Field Center says that “payment for environmental services” is the only thing that will tip the balance away from clear-cutting and palm plantations. He uses the broad term for finding ways to pay communities, regions, or countries to keep their ecosystems healthy and functioning. “Without that there’s going to be no lowland forest left on Borneo in ten years,” Reynolds says.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gases to combat climate change controversially made no provision to pay for protection of existing forests—”avoided deforestation”— but the December 2007 multinational conference in Bali, Indonesia, took up the issue as it considered revisions to the Kyoto pact. A new acronym, REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), came to the forefront of the climate-change debate, and conservationists in Borneo immediately saw it as perhaps the last, best hope for the future—offering the possibility of a framework for rich nations to combat climate change by paying for the preservation of significant tracts of tropical rain forest. An array of daunting problems stand in the way of REDD implementation, but for people watching Borneo’s forest disappear, it’s a chance.

“REDD, I would argue, is the one big prospect on the horizon,” Frances Seymour of CIFOR says. “Let’s be clear here: Why do people cut down trees? For the money. If you can give people the opportunity to make the same amount of money or more by leaving the trees standing, there’s your answer.”

In the end, conservation in Borneo is not about the beauty of the rain forest, or about orangutans, or elephants, or even oil palm. Not one conservationist I spoke with believed oil palm was intrinsically evil, and most agreed that a properly managed industry can benefit poor people without sacrificing Borneo’s biological riches. Anne Casson, co-founder of the environmental group SEKALA, speaks for most when she says, “I don’t think anyone’s saying you can’t have any more oil palm. It’s just, where does it go? It can go onto degraded land rather than forested land. Until now, oil palm permits have been allocated in an ad hoc manner, regardless of environmental concerns. This can change if there is sufficient political will and good spatial planning.”

But it all comes down to one thing. “It’s about money,” Casson says. “Money, money, money.”

Here is another dream. Along a dirt road in southern Borneo stands a one-room wooden house, with a few banana trees in the yard and a small vegetable garden in back. Beside the house a man kneels, washing a Yamaha Jupiter Z motorbike. It’s red, and it shines in the hot sun as the man rinses off the soap.

The man’s name is, let’s say, Pak Wang. With his new motorbike he can go to the closest village in a few minutes, instead of walking nearly an hour along the road. In the village he can meet his friends, buy things, go to the little karaoke bar, and watch television in his uncle’s restaurant. He can feel part of the world.

Pak Wang wants a mobile phone. Most of his friends have one, and if he had one it would be easier for him to make plans with them, to know where they will be on Sunday night, to meet the pretty woman named Unita who sells fruit at a street stand in town.

So. Here is the message to the world. If we want to protect the forests of Borneo, to preserve a substantial part of its stupendous biodiversity, to make sure that orangutans have places to make their nightly nests and hornbills have fruit to eat and flying frogs have trees to live in, there’s only one way to do it. We need to find a way for Pak Wang to buy his mobile phone. And, after he marries the pretty fruitseller, a way for them to keep their children healthy and send them to school. A way that offers them a better future without having to turn their forests into plantations of oil palm or the sterile pits of strip mines.

And we need to do it while there’s still something left to protect.

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.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/Vs8wrLqWsWM" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]  

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: