Dear Readers, just across the way from the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre is a smaller reserve for the rehabilitation of Bornean sun bears (Helarctos malayanus eurysipilus). These are the world’s smallest bears, and the second most endangered, after the giant panda.The centre was founded by Wong Siew Te, a passionate wildlife biologist who was on site when we visited, and who was a fount of knowledge on the individual bears, and on the challenges that face them.
As with all Bornean animals, habitat is key: sun bears spend a lot of time in the trees (their small size means they can climb higher than any other bear), and they have a passion for the honey of the stingless bee. When this isn’t available, they rake into logs with their long claws, looking for grubs and termites. They are often accompanied by insect-eating ground birds such as the Bornean crested fireback pheasant, who snatch any invertebrates that the bears have missed. The bears are reliant on the huge trees of the dipterocarp forest to provide them with food, and, as we saw when we talked about orang utans, the fact that these trees only fruit occasionally puts severe pressure on the bears: they may starve in the years between fruiting, and it is probably a major factor in their small size.
As these forests have largely been destroyed, the sun bears have lost their homes. They do not feed on the oil palms that replace them, although they do have a taste for coconuts, and have remarkably strong jaws that enable them to crunch into the nuts. Sadly, the loss of the forests brings the bears into contact with their only predators, humans: as with orang utans, the mothers are shot so that the delightfully cute cubs can be taken as pets. Unfortunate as this is, some bears will be raised for to be ‘farmed’ for their bile, which is an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine. I can’t help but think that this is the worst fate of all.
At the rehabilitation centre, the bears are gradually introduced back into a more natural life. At first, bears who have been kept in tiny cages are released into a slightly larger cage – going into a big open space would be deeply troubling for them. Some of the bears display stereotypic behaviour at first, pacing or rocking. Wong Siew Te was very concerned about this – when one of the bears came out into the forest part of the reserve, he watched closely.
‘Why are you pacing?’ he mused. ‘What’s the problem?’
And then he realised that one of the other bears was a bit too close, and the pacing bear was stressed. After a bit of snuffling and roaring, the bears seemed to work it out, and both bears went away to forage, seemingly reconciled.As with humans, stress of any kind can be the trigger for old behaviours that helped to manage anxiety, be it nail-biting, obsessively looking at the internet or pacing. We are not so unique as we like to think.
The BSBCC currently has 43 sun bears in its care. It has managed to release seven bears into protected forest, but the process is extremely difficult unless the bear is found when it is very young. Once habituated to humans, sun bears can be dangerous, and so can’t be released in parks where there are humans. They used to have a fearsome reputation among local peoples: the bears were known as ‘nundun’, and it was said that if it was fruiting season, the bears would gather together and attack en masse. It is easy, when looking at these cute little faces, to forget that these are wild animals with some of the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom.
It was inspiring to hear Wong Siew Te talk about the sun bears in his care – he knew the personality of every single one, and you can share his enthusiasm here. He also didn’t mince his words about his concerns for the forest and the future of the bears and the other wildlife of Borneo. At this point in the holiday I hadn’t seen for myself how extensive the destruction of the forest had been, and how much of the landscape is dominated by oil palm plantations. While some of our guides were hopeful about the use of sustainable palm oil, others were scathing.
What a lovely place the BSBCC was! I wandered to the second viewing platform, which had a display showing each of the bears, the circumstances in which they were rescued, their personalities and their habits. I plonked down on a bench, only to see a lizard fly across a clearing and land on a tree trunk. When I stopped gibbering and pointing, I realised that I had seen ‘the’ flying lizard that features regularly in wildlife documentaries. He’s only a little chap, and when he’s on a tree trunk you wouldn’t give him a second glance. This one was displaying by popping out a yellow ‘flag’ under his chin, probably to warn off other males.
However, he has ‘wings’ that extend from his ribs, and enable him to glide from tree to tree.
There are a multitude of gliding animals in Borneo – in addition to the flying lizard there are snakes, geckos, squirrels, frogs and ‘lemurs’ who all ‘fly’ from tree to tree. There have been several theories about why Borneo might be such a hotspot, but the one that makes most sense to me relates, again, to the fruiting patterns of those dipterocarp trees. Because the fruit supply is intermittent, it is likely that the insects and small animals that feed on the fruit is also widely dispersed and occasional. It makes sense that animals develop a way to range widely, and efficiently, without having to be climbing up and down those massive trees all the time. If you would like to admire the gliding skills of Borneo’s snakes and reptiles, there’s a very nice video from National Geographic here.
Well, by now we were all a bit hot and sweaty (I don’t think the temperature dropped below 30 degrees the whole time we were in Borneo, and the humidity is punishing for a poor pale Englishwoman like me). But tonight we went off for a walk in the canopy to see if we could see any flying squirrels, and that is another adventure…..