Volunteering With Asian Sun Bears

Volunteering With Asian Sun Bears
Tongue Twister” by Valerie is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Four years ago I was introduced to my first sun bear in Thailand.

To be honest, before that experience I couldn’t have told you what a sun bear was. Other than pandas, I could not name another species of bear living in Asia.

Sun bears are the smallest of all the bears, and get their name from the distinct yellow or white bib on their chest that resembles the rising sun. They have also been called “dog bears” because of their small ears and the fact that they bark when they feel threatened. Because of their shy personalities and remote habitats, they are the least studied species. It is estimated that at least 30% of the sun bear population has disappeared in the last couple decades.

After my first encounter, I became bit obsessed. I have always been fascinated with better-known species like Grizzlies, black bears, and pandas. When I saw that first sun bear my heart melted. She was the tiniest bear I had ever laid eyes on and she was scared of everything and everyone. Humans had used her at a medical testing facility her whole life, and she was unsure of her new freedom.

Responsible Travel: Sun Bears in Asia

Volunteering With Asian Sun Bears

My first experience with a sun bear was at Elephant Nature Park. They had one rescued bear, but volunteers didn’t work directly with her. Once I left ENP, I started researching sun bears and ways I could help them. This year I finally got my chance when I volunteered at the Tasikoi Wildlife Rescue Center in North Sulawesi, Borneo for four weeks over the summer.

Tasikoki has three resident sun bears at the center. Two of the bears, Bin Bin and Bon Bon, were rescued from a ship that was found transporting hoards of illegal wildlife across the South Pacific. The final destination of the boat was unknown. They could have been heading to a medical testing facility, somewhere to be trained as a tourist attractions, or even worse to be slaughtered for the bear meat trade.

BonBon-121 playing with his fruity ice block while we are setting up the enclosure with enrichments

The third bear at Tasikoi, Jelly, is new to the center. He was rescued from two men who were using him as some sort of tourist attraction. For the last few years, Jelly lived in a cage barely big enough for him to even turn around. Because of these circumstances, he is too aggressive to live in the same space as the other bears. Hopefully he can be rehabilitated and eventually join them.

In the wild, the bears spend a lot of their time foraging for food. Since they live in an enclosure, the volunteers had to make up puzzles with their food so they feel challenged. Every day we would hide these puzzles throughout the enclosure so the bears can search for them. While the bear team was hiding the enrichments, another team was rearranging the enclosure to give them a sense of a new setting. Once we were done setting up the enclosure, we were able to stand on the viewing platform and watch as the bears searched for their goodies.

Threats to Sun Bears

BonBon-1 eating one of the enrichments in the enclosure

Tasikoki’s main goal is to rescue animals from the illegal wildlife trade, rehabilitate them, and eventually set them free back into the wild. This is the perfect scenario.

The challenging part is that in order for the bears to go back into the wild, they have to be released exactly where they came from. So if a bear came from Borneo, they cannot be set free in Thailand.

Placing a bear in an unknown environment is not only dangerous for the rehabilitated bear but also for the bears who already live in that area. The native bears could potentially become aggressive toward the new bear intruding on their territory. The bear may have held a territory in its original habitat, and it would know the best places to find food and shelter.

Asian Sun Bears
Queen of bears” by jinterwas is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The first and biggest threat towards sun bears is deforestation. The forests throughout Southeast Asia are being cut down at an alarming rate to make room for plantations and farms. The biggest culprit is palm plantations because of the high demand for palm oil since it is in the majority of our food, cosmetics, and detergents. Sadly, because of deforestation the three bears at Tasikoki don’t have a home to return to. The forests they once lived in no longer exist and they will live the rest of their lives at the rescue center.

Another threat is poaching. Bin Bin and Bon Bon were both very young when they were found, which means that their mother was most likely killed in order to obtain the cubs. Once taken from their mother, cubs are sold on the black market to become personal pets or are trained to perform as tourist attractions.

Bile farming is another common threat to Sun Bears. Medical testing facilities harvest bear bile to use for research. The sun bear at Elephant Nature Park was rescued from one of these facilities. The sad truth is that the money Elephant Nature Park paid to rescue their bear more than likely went toward capturing other bears from the wild to use for testing. It’s a kind of catch-22 situation.

The most grim threat against sun bears is hunting them for their body parts. According to the Wildlife Protection Ordinance and International Trade in Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to sell any part of an endangered animal. Even so, stalls at local markets still sell them throughout Southeast Asia. If parts aren’t sold as souvenirs, they are sold for consumption. There is actually a popular soup made of bear paws! Since they are seen as a symbol of power, people in several Asian countries believe that consuming bears will fill them with the animals vigor and vitality.

How can you help Sun Bears?

BonBon-4 looking up at us on the viewing platform

There are only a few rescue centers and sanctuaries in Southeast Asia that are helping sun bears.

Free the Bears is a wonderful organization that has rescue centers in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. They offer volunteer placement at all of their rescue centers and are always in need of donations.

Tasikoki Wildlife Rescue Center is another great organization that not only has rescued sun bears but rescues many different animals from the illegal wildlife trade.

You can donate or “adopt” a bear at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Center. Funds raised from the adoption will go toward food and enrichments for the bears. Donations also help with the general upkeep of the facility.

Endangered Sunbears
pensive sunbear” by velmc is licensed under CC BY 2.0

If donating time and money isn’t an option you can also help by not visiting animal attractions. That includes attractions that use bears, monkeys, elephants, or any other animal. The animals are almost never treated well and should be left in the wild in the first place.

If you see someone selling bear parts or other illegal exotic meat at a market, notify the local authorities or let the front desk at your hotel or hostel call the police and report what you saw. CITES and the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network are cracking down on more illegal operations, but as the authorities get smarter, so do the criminals. The more we can help, the closer these organizations are to stopping these illegal practices.

Thankfully more and more people are becoming aware of the abusive training for captive animals. I traveled to Thailand for the first time 4 years ago, and almost no one was talking about the abusive elephant tourism industry. Now, I hear people talking about it all the time. Elephant Nature Park has grown exponentially since I first volunteered there, and that is all due to more people becoming aware. Through education and speaking up for what is right we can help make a difference for these animals.

About Sadie, Eclectic Trekker

Sadie at Eclectic Trekker

Sadie has been traveling the world off and on for the last eight years. She started volunteering abroad with various animal and environmental programs four years ago and fell in love with it. Now she tries to find new opportunities to give back everywhere she goes. You can follow Sadie’s adventures on her blog Eclectic Trekker.

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