Wednesday, March 26, 2014

World's first sun bear sanctuary opens in Borneo

The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre opened to the public in January 2014 and has since been visited by Sir David Attenborough

Founded by researcher and conservationist Siew Te Wong, nicknamed Sun Bear Man by the local press, the centre is the only one of its kind in the world.

It is currently home to 28 rescued bears, a population that includes both adults and juveniles, to be cared for until they can be released back into the wild.

The centre was first established in 2008 next door to the Sepilok Orang Utan sanctuary in the Malaysia state of Sabah but has not been open to the public until now. Among the first visitors was Sir David Attenborough who received a tour on 11 March 2014.

Measuring up to 150cm in length and just 80cm high at the shoulder, the Helarctos malayanus, or sun bear, is the smallest of the planet's bear species. Bears are identifiable by their sleek black fur and by a beige crescent on their chests. Thought to resemble a rising or setting sun, it is this distinctive marking that has given them their name.

Once widespread in the tropical forests of south-east Asia and on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, sun bears are now listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Populations of the bears are thought to have declined by as much as 30% over the last 30 years (IUCN 2007) as a result of habitat destruction and hunting.

Kevin Albin, bronze award winner in the 2011 Wanderlust World Guide Awards, is a long-term supporter of the conservation centre.

“I first came across Sun Bears while working on conservation projects in Borneo,” says Kevin. “Everyone knows about the orang utans in Borneo and that their habitat is being destroyed by deforestation but the sun bears share a similar habitat.” The expansion of palm oil plantations across south-east Asia has had a particularly dramatic effect on bear numbers.

As Kevin explains, further threats to the bears come from the illegal wildlife trade. “Sun bears are being captured when young and sold as pets. The cubs are very cute but they're abandoned when they become unmanageable. Worse still, their paws are used as an expensive delicacy and their gall bladders are sold for the extraction of bile used in traditional Asian medicine.

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