Sunny Spot in Conservation for Rare Bears
In 2004, a Bornean sun bear cub was born at the San Diego Zoo. Since no cubs of this subspecies had ever been born in North America before, this little male, named Danum, held special significance for me. As I settled in to my first observation of Danum and his mother Marcella, I felt a spark of hope for the future of this species, despite its rather dismal outlook for survival in the wild.
Borneo is an island with incredible biodiversity, supporting more than 420 resident bird and 222 mammal species. Included are iconic species, such as the orangutan, pygmy elephant, and Sumatran rhinoceros.
These creatures now teeter on the brink of extinction as a result of habitat loss, as rapid expansion of pulp and oil palm industries in Southeast Asia has precipitated a higher rate of deforestation in this region than any other tropical habitat in the world.
The sun bear Helarctos malayanus also resides in these dwindling forests, and the mainland variety ranges throughout Southeast Asia as far north as India. Unlike some of its charismatic forest co-inhabitants, the sun bear is a little-studied species that has garnered meager conservation interest.
Nonetheless, the sun bear is vulnerable to extinction, and the total population is thought to have declined by as much as 30% in the last 30 years. Declines in available habitat have increasingly brought this species into conflict with humans, subjegating it to the pet trade and producing orphaned cubs. Without focused conservation efforts, the sun bear, too, may soon loom on the edge of extinction.
For this reason, the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research is moving to expand our efforts with sun bears, developing a partnership with the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. We will support and enhance their on-the-ground conservation and education efforts.
Home to 28 former pet and orphaned sun bears, the BSBCC’s primary objectives are to train suitable young bears for re-release to protected habitat within Malaysia, provide a long-term home for those animals not destined to return to the wild, and educate the public about the plight of this species to increase public support for sun bear conservation efforts.
Our role in this partnership is to assist with optimizing enrichment strategies for bears in need of rehabilitation from past traumas, assess the temperament and development of young reintroduction candidates, and improve educational messaging about the sun bear conservation story. We will also bring that story to our North American public, and beyond.
San Diego Zoo Global recognizes the role palm oil has played in the developing conservation crisis in Malaysia and Indonesia, and has taken its responsibility towards contributing towards a conservation solution to the palm oil crisis a step further.
We have recently joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and will educate our guests regarding the significance of unsustainable palm oil practices to tropical forests worldwide.
Our efforts are, in part, an attempt to participate in the development of sustainable practices for the palm oil industry, a change that can have a positive effect on conservation efforts for species like the sun bear.
After the birth of three litters at San Diego Zoo between 2004-2009, no other sun bear cubs have survived more than a few hours in North America, effectively putting a halt to progress towards developing a self-sustaining captive breeding population in AZA-accredited facilities.
Similar problems have been encountered with the European population. The health and well-being of the population of animals at the BSBCC are an important asset to conservation efforts, as these bears may hold the key to understanding how best to improve the lot of other captive populations world wide.
As sun bear habitat is decimated and the species declines, the captive population becomes increasingly important to the future of this species. It’s a future for which I still hold out hope.
Suzanne Hall, Senior Research Technician, Giant Panda Conservation Unit, Applied Animal Ecology