Sun Bear Cub at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sabah

Sun Bears Are Identified By Crescent-Shaped Patches on Their Chests

A Sneak Peak at the

Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre 

(The following is a guest post by Leyla Giray Alyanak, a former foreign correspondent who belonged to the WWF International management team, and now blogs about her travels at Women on the Road. If you’re a blogger interested in contributing a guest post, please contact Bret Love at [email protected])


When the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre opens its doors to the public in early 2014, visitors will be treated to a rare sight: 28 of the world’s smallest bears, as curious about us as we are about them.


I was fortunate to get a sneak peek behind the scenes at the BSBCC on a recent visit to the Malaysian state of Sabah. Everything is set: The visitor center and a second bear house are being built, and half a dozen cubs are already clambering over tree trunks and branches, looking around with mischief in their eyes.


Guaranteeing the Sun Bear’s survival in Borneo is one of the main reasons behind the conservation centre, and protecting its rainforest habitat is part of the centre’s mission. Unfortunately, Helarctos malayanus has been under serious threat throughout the rest of its range. In some places, including Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar and Vietnam, it has all but disappeared.


Sun Bear Cubs at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre

Curious Cubs Check out Photographer Anne Sterck


Sun Bear Facts

The Sun Bear is a diminutive creature– the smallest of the world’s eight bear species.  An adult male stands at about 1.5 meters (or five feet) in length, around the size of a large dog. Known as a “honey bear” (for its appetite) or “dog bear” (for its size),  it is jet black, with a crescent-shaped patch across its chest. It also has a distinctive long, thin tongue, which it uses to delve into honeycombs, ant hills and termite mounds. The Bornean Sun BearHelarctos malayanus euryspilus, is the smallest of the two sub-species.


Some scientists believe there may be only 10,000 Sun Bears left in the world. It’s hard to tell, though, as mistaken sightings and rare species surveys have made estimates unreliable. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the global Sun Bear population may have declined by up to 30% in the past 30 years, which is the equivalent of three bear generations.


The IUCN Map of the Sun Bears' Range

The IUCN Map of the Sun Bears’ Range


Sun Bears Under Attack

Sun Bears are protected in Malaysia, and the IUCN classifies them as “vulnerable.” But that doesn’t mean they’re safe.


Sun Bears need the forest to survive, but much of Sabah’s rainforest has been cleared for palm plantations. Fly from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan and you’ll notice orderly rows of commercial palm trees, like a polka dot pattern across the land. Logging for hardwood trees has also helped destroy forests, leaving behind fragments too small to provide Sun Bears with a suitable habitat. Clearing continues, although the government has taken action to protect large tracts of land in a last-ditch effort to save one of Southeast Asia’s few remaining major tropical forests. Still, many conservation groups fear that isn’t enough, and the past destruction can’t be reversed.


“Given the Sun Bear’s dependence on forest,” says a 2008 assessment by IUCN, “it is clear that the large-scale deforestation that has occurred throughout Southeast Asia over the past three decades has dramatically reduced suitable habitat for this species.”


Sun Bear Cub at Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre

Sun Bears’ Cuddy Cuteness Leads to Being Kept Illegally as Pets


Sun Bears are often victims of poaching, especially for the illegal trade in wildlife body parts. Their meat is still eaten in some parts of Borneo (mostly in Indonesian Kalimantan, although this is increasingly rare), and the bile from their gallbladders is highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine.


As if all that weren’t enough, the little bear can face attack by other animals, like large cats, although this tends to occur more in Sumatra or on the Asian mainland. Snakes can occasionally be a threat. One female Sun Bear was swallowed whole by a reticulated python while she was asleep.


But one of the most pervasive threats to Sun Bears is the human desire to own them as pets. Many of the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre’s animals have been confiscated from owners who didn’t even know they were breaking the law. So there’s clearly a pressing need for public education. But, even when the laws are known, they are often ignored, despite strong sanctions that include fines of up to RMY 50,000 (about $15,000) and five years in prison.


Still, rangers keep finding pet cubs. “It’s a very bad situation,” said Malaysian wildlife scientist and bear expert Wong Siew Te, the founder of the BSBCC. “When held captive in small cages, some of them have gone crazy or exhbited odd behaviours. So setting up this centre was urgent.”




Help Is At Hand

Dr. Wong, a former co-chair of the Sun Bear Expert Team for the IUCN/SSC Bear Specialist Group, hatched the idea for BSBCC after witnessing the Sun Bears’ suffering first-hand while doing his Masters of Science research.


“I often visited places where they were held in captivity– in small cages, mini-zoos or private homes, often in disgusting conditions,” he recalls. “They all suffered badly. Some were cubs, others were adults, but all were desperate for space. It left me heartbroken, and that’s how I first got the idea for the BSBCC.”


Back in 2008, that dream started taking shape with the rescue of seven Sun Bears and a partnership with the Sabah Wildlife Department, the Sabah Forestry Department, and the NGO Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP). The sanctuary started from scratch with an old bear house, where rescued bears were held by the Forestry Service. An initial fundraising effort of $4000 was enough to build the first proper bear house, but fundraising for Sun Bears is not easy. Donations tend to go to the larger, more popular charismatic megafauna.


“Sun Bears aren’t very well known,” Dr. Wong explains, “so many NGOs have not wanted to work with them, preferring better-known species like orangutans, elephants, rhinos and so on. The Sun Bear is facing a dark era.”


Shy Sun Bear Cub at Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre

A Shy Cub Plays Peek-A-Boo Behind a Bush


Today, 28 orphaned bears share the BSBCC’s 2.5 hectares of natural forest environment. And soon everyone will be welcome to see them. The centre will house the bears in both forest enclosures and in a specific expanse of woods designed to teach them how to live in the forest after many years of captivity. Those who can’t be rehabilitated will at least be able to thrive in a decent environment.


In addition to protecting the bears and their habitat, the BSBCC also wants to raise awareness about this relatively unknown species. Not just locally, but also globally. “It’s a holistic approach to Sun Bear conservation,” Dr. Wong explains. “It involves animal welfare, rehabilitation, research and education. It’s the first facility of its kind in the world.”


The BSBCC is rushing to open in time, working diligently to overcome slight bureaucratic hitches around permits and paperwork. But, according to Dr. Wong, “All is on track.” The sanctuary has just 11 people on staff– far fewer than needed– but hundreds of local and international volunteers have proven willing to help out. The Centre also has a volunteer program for travelers who would like to work more closely with the Sun Bears, or students who wish to learn more about these adorable creatures.


Fortunately, the fact that the BSBCC is located next to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre  and the new Rainforest Discovery Centre  means it can likely expect to receive a steady stream of visitors who are fascinated by wildlife. If you are among these visitors, just know that the Sun Bears will surprise you. And, judging by the looks they gave us during our visit, you’ll surprise them, too.  –by Leyla Giray Alyanak; photos by Anne Sterck


If you enjoyed reading about the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre, you might also like: 

INTERVIEW- Jill Robinson & Animals Asia Fight to Stop Bear Bile Farming

INTERVIEW- WWF Biologist Geoff York On Saving Polar Bears

CHURCHILL- Polar Bear Fight

CHURCHILL- Polar Bear Photo Gallery

NORTH CAROLINA- Black Bears At Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge






32 Responses to MALAYSIA: A Sneak Peak at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre

  • Jennifer says:

    Thanks for this post, Leyla! Awareness does need to be made so that these bears can survive. Cute as they may be, they shouldn’t be kept as pets. I’m raising money for the Borneo Sun Bear Foundation, as well as 5 other bear conservation projects, through my project called Braving It For Bears.

  • OMG how cute are they! I didn’t even know bears existed in the south pacific, not being ignorant but I always thought there were more nordic like animals.

    The conservation center is a fantastic places. I really am starting to believe that the only way animals will survive are in these types of reserves.

    • Leyla says:

      Marina – I didn’t know either! It was an amazing surprise to find out. I was at Sepilok to see the orangutans when my guide casually asked whether I wanted to see the ‘baby sun bears’ – I had no idea what he was talking about but it sounded appealing. He was able to get us into the conservation center (it’s not open yet) and I was amazed by what I saw.

      Reserves like this are essential when animals are being rehabilitated. The great thing is that they are retrained to survive in the wild, where they belong. Many have been in captivity for years and lost their survival skills…

  • Leyla says:

    Well done, Jennifer, good for you! It’s sad to see animals lose their freedom (and in this case often their lives) because they happen to be physically appealing. There are few of these bears left and anything you can do to ensure their survival is essential.

  • Franca says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this post with us, I personally wasn’t aware of the Borneo Sun Bear situation . I’ve never been to Borneo and this might be a good enough reason to visit it one day and volunteer with these amazing and cute animals.

    • Leyla says:

      I can’t think of a more fun and rewarding thing to do than to spend a bit of time volunteering with these amazing animals – I hope you manage to do that! The center relies a lot on volunteers to help them.

  • Heather says:

    I’ve been living in China for two years and still get upset when I walk past traditional medicine shops because I know some of the ingredients come from endangered animals like these gorgeous bears. Public education is key, and fortunately celebrities like Jackie Chan and Yao Ming are now getting involved. But with 1.6 billion people, it’s impossible to get through to everyone. Thank goodness for conservation centers like this!

  • Laurence says:

    Darn that traditional medicine. It has a lot to answer for!

    • Leyla says:

      It certainly does! Some animal markets, especially in Asia, are enough to rob you of sleep for weeks. At least the tide is turning and more and more people are becoming aware of the importance of conservation – not just for the animals but for us generally.

  • Conservation is so critical in today’s modern environment, it’s great to drive awareness. Oh I almost forgot to mention OMG THOSE BEARS ARE CUTE 🙂

    • Leyla says:

      They ARE – I’m almost embarrassed to gush about them, being a grownup and all – when I visited we were all oohing and aaahing, including the workers at the center so that made me feel better. What’s so great about them is that they are curious. They haven’t seen crowds of gawking humans yet so they come right up to the fence, only a few feet away and those eyes!

  • Leigh says:

    Sometimes cute gets you into trouble – and what a shame people keep these wonderful looking bears as pets because of their cute factor. I feel sick when I see wild animals in small cages and think we need to do a much better job on education.
    A python can swallow a bear – that’s pretty darned amazing.
    Wonderful post – and thank you for the education.

    • Leyla says:

      Leigh, you’re right, cute CAN get you into trouble and that’s why traffic for ‘cute’ pets is so high – or for animals whose parts are believed to provide a health benefit. Like you I hate animal capture to feed the pet trade, and it’s fortunate that we have organizations that work to fight this kind of thing, even though they might be on a shoestring. Glad the post was informative!

  • We were so disappointed that we never saw a sun bear when we traveled through Borneo. Happy to hear these fascinating bears are about to get some meaningful protection.

  • Leyla says:

    They must be wonderful to see in the wild, Karen. But with as few as 10,000 left in the world it would be an amazing piece of luck to see one! I have to say they were stunning, even in the Center – so worth going!

  • I saw Sun bears 8 years ago at a small park in Malaysia, I never knew they were so in need of protection!

  • Leyla says:

    I’m the same as you, Bennett. I had no idea – and seeing them was a fluke. I was actually at Sepilok to see the orangutans when the gentleman who owns the lodge asked if I wanted to see the new sanctuary being built – you can imagine I jumped at the chance!

  • Peter Lee says:

    They are so cute. The time has come that we should really need to take few steps to protect them.

  • Mellisa Turner says:

    All heads up to this Conservation Center for Sun Bears. It is a shame that humans think themselves as the sole owners of this planet. They treat these innocent animals like their private property. Killing these lives for food and medicines is totally unacceptable. Now all hopes rest on such centres for saving these lovely bears.

  • Leyla says:

    Mellisa, I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve always believed we are here to protect and guide, not to exploit. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. And while this center will go a long way towards helping protect the disappearing sun bear, a lot more will be needed – awareness, education, funding… but yes, it is a great contribution to their conservation.

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  • Penny Sadler says:

    Wow, so cute is right! I have never even heard of these bears. The world is so amazing and all the creatures in it. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  • Leyla says:

    Thanks Penny – actually I’d never heard of them either. It was pure luck – I happened to be with someone who knew the researchers at the center. Lucky me!
    Leyla recently posted..Travel Resources for Solo Women TravelersMy Profile

  • An awareness post indeed! Albeit disappointed about cute bears that they have been becoming pets. They look graceful in nature not in front of a house! Local government should take some steps for it I think.
    Thanks Leyla for sharing this post! I wish you will be continuing your writing such this one.

    Best regards,
    Saiful Islam Khan recently posted..Bangladesh visa on arrival – who can get, rules, and feesMy Profile

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  • Milay says:

    Oh my god. How cute they are. Thanks for sharing!

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