Friday, November 24, 2017

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation - An Unconventional Hero

There’s something to be said about conservationists and their quest to save the world. They’re relentless and driven. “We have to be,” remarks Wong Siew Te wryly, “...but it’s possible to make a difference,” he adds after a pause.

He looks a little travel-weary as he sits across me in the crowded KLIA2 cafeteria. Securing an interview with the CNN Hero hadn’t been easy, as he’s been “living out of his suitcase” as he describes it. “I use every opportunity I get to raise awareness,” he says, telling me that he had just flown from Hanoi after attending the 9th East and Southeast Asian Wild Animal Rescue Network Conference held in Vietnam. “We’ve got a few hours to talk before I fly back to Sabah,” he tells me matter-of-factly.

“You’ve been hailed as a ‘Superman of sorts’,” I begin, wasting no time and he laughs heartily. “It’s an amazing opportunity to put the plight of the sun bears in the international spotlight,” he says of his recent achievement of being hailed by the global television network CNN as a ‘CNN Hero’.

For Wong, every media attention he has been getting is an “opportunity” to spread his message of conservationism. “I used to call the sun bear a forgotten species. When I first started almost two decades ago, most people didn’t know they even existed. Now that’s beginning to change and thanks to international attention, the message of protecting this wildlife is spreading to a larger audience.”

The 48-year-old wildlife biologist has been gaining attention both locally and internationally for his tireless work in championing and protecting the smallest bear species in the world — the sun bear. From being conferred the “Wira Negaraku” by the Prime Minister’s Office to being hailed as one of CNN’s Heroes, or as the global network describes as “everyday people doing extraordinary things to change the world”, Wong is not one to rest on his laurels.

“There’s still so much to do,” he says earnestly. After all, the founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sepilok, Sabah is on a mission to “be the voice of the sun bears” and to fight for their survival in the wild.

Bear-ing a burden

Many have heard about larger bear species like the ferocious Grizzly or the more docile American Black Bears but the diminutive sun bears remain the least known and least studied species. Historically, sun bear populations were found in most of Southeast Asia but the total population has seen a drastic decline by at least 30 per cent (IUCN 2007).

Although sun bears have been listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species in 2007, the current status remains unknown because there still isn’t enough information about wild sun bear populations. “It was worse when I first started,” recalls Wong.

As a young Masters student working on his thesis on the “The ecology of Malayan sun bear in the lowland tropical rainforest of Sabah, Borneo”, Wong worked alongside Dr Christopher Servheen from the University of Montana, where the former was pursuing his undergraduate studies on wildlife biology. The professor had come to his class to give a talk on his projects working with various bear species, and Wong soon found out that he was looking for a Malaysian research assistant to help him with his pioneering sun bear project in Malaysia.

He quickly volunteered for the position: “I told him ‘Hey I’m your man!’”. In 1998, Wong completed his degree, got into the Masters programme and snagged the coveted position as Servheen’s research assistant for the sun bear project in Sabah.

Still, the project was fraught with many challenges. For one, there were no precedent for researching sun bears anywhere in the world. “It dawned on me that I was working with a very rare mammal whose numbers were very low and nobody had studied them before.” The lack of data meant that Wong had to rely on his own creativity to track down the elusive wildlife. “It was all one big question mark.

How do we trap these bears to study them? How do we even see them?” he says, recounting with a chuckle that it took at least four very frustrating months of trying to outsmart the bears before he managed to trap his first wild sun bear. “I named it Dally” he says with a laugh because it was found within the 438-square-kilometre tract of the relatively undisturbed Danum Valley lowland dipterocarp forest in Sabah.