Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Feature Talk: Dr. Wong Siew Te

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Feature Talk: Dr. Wong Siew Te

On Tuesday, Dr. Wong Siew Te, the founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sabah, Malaysia, gave a talk in the museum on the ecology and conservation issues facing the Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), as well as the efforts by the BSBCC to conserve them.

Dr. Tan Heok Hui (right) presenting Dr. Wong (left) with a token of appreciation – A copy of the book ‘Singapore Biodiversity: An Encyclopedia of the Natural Environment and Sustainable Development’.

Here is a summary of the key points of the talk:

-The Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) is found across Southeast Asia, living in tropical rainforests. Their common name arises from their horseshoe-shaped chest marks, which are said to look like the rising sun. Each sun bear has their own unique chest mark, just like human fingerprints, no two bears have the same one.

-Sun bears are highly arboreal, liking to spend a lot of their time in trees. They possess long, curved claws that enable them to climb up trees quickly, “much like Spiderman”, according to Dr. Wong. They also use their claws to tear open tree bark in search of food, such as termites.

-Sun bears are omnivores, and eat almost everything in the forest. According to Dr. Wong, it is “easier to list what they don’t eat”. They like to eat fruits, such as figs (Ficus spp.), and act as important seed dispersal agents that “plant trees” throughout the forest, such as the wild durian (Durio sp.).

-Sun bears play an important role in the forest ecosystem. By eating termites, especially those who attack and destroy living trees (e.g., Microcerotermes spp.), they act as a form of control for the termite population. In addition, the holes in trees dug by sun bears whilst foraging for food can be used as nests for birds such as the hornbill.

-However, life is hard for sun bears in the forest. They face various threats, such as food shortage, predators, habitat loss, as well as commercial hunting and trading of bear parts. Under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List for Threatened Species, the sun bear is listed as ‘Vulnerable’. The reproduction rate of sun bears is very low – according to Dr. Wong, a female will probably give birth to about 3 to 4 cubs in a lifetime.

-BSBCC was founded by Dr. Wong in 2008 and is the only sun bear conservation centre in the world. The aim of BSBCC is to provide care and rehabilitation for sun bears, as well as raise awareness on their conservation. There are currently 44 sun bears in the care of BSBCC. Due to the biggest threat against the sun bears being poaching, this year, there are four new objectives of BSBCC – ecotourism, community conservation, anti-poaching and captive breeding.

We thank Dr. Wong for taking time to share with us his expertise regarding the Malayan sun bears, and wish him all the best.