As the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, we spend a lot of time talking about orangutans. But we also know that every organism in a forest has a unique role to play in keeping the ecosystem healthy – and that includes sun bears.
Sun bears, the smallest bears in the world, are well known throughout their native range of Borneo, Sumatra, and Southeast Asia. The subspecies resident of Borneo is the smallest of the bunch with females weighing in at, on average, 25 kg and males at 40 kg. Despite their small size, they are no less intimidating with the longest canine teeth relative to skull size of any living bear.
These intimidating teeth, in conjunction with a strong bite force and extremely long tongues, are necessary for them to access all of the food on offer in the forests of Borneo. As generalist omnivores, they need to be able to eat everything from insects and honey to fruits and an occasional small animal.
Sun bears, like orangutans, spend most of their days in the trees and by themselves. The range of just one bear can be anywhere between 7 and 27 km2 across their forest homes. While sun bears have been spotted in agricultural areas that border forests, evidence shows that they do rely on intact forests for survival. And in the reverse, the forests also rely on them.
As a keystone species, the presence of sun bears is vital to the healthy functioning of their forest homes. When they use their long claws to dig out their meals, they not only create homes for smaller animals, such as squirrels and hornbills in trees but also drive nutrient cycling as they turn over soil, contributing to forest regeneration. Their mixed diets of insects and fruits also mean they serve as both pest control and seed dispersers!
Despite their ecological importance, the IUCN lists sun bears as Vulnerable to Extinction and they are part of the Appendix 1 of CITES. These listings, indicative of the potential for the species to go extinct, are due to the estimated 35% decline in their geographic range over the last 30 years. This vast deforestation is exceptionally detrimental for a forest-dependent species such as sun bears that cannot live on degraded landscapes. Furthermore, sun bears are also hunted commercially, primarily for their gallbladders, paws, teeth, bushmeat, and the illegal pet trade; killed in cases of human-wildlife conflict; and vulnerable to hunting snares intended for other species.
To directly address the threats to the survival of sun bears, what remains of their native habitat needs to be given conservation priority and an international effort must be undertaken to enforce the existing regulations and bring a halt to the illegal trade. To end the supply and demand, education and awareness-raising activities should focus both on populations that hunt the bears and the populations that demand bears as pets and their parts for use. For rescued sun bears, the rehabilitation and reintroduction of ex-captive individuals is especially tricky. Past attempts at reintroduction have been limited and failure common due to a lack of survival skills, killings by the resident wild bears, and killings by humans as the rehabilitated bears are more likely than their wild counterparts to wander into human settlements. But this does not mean all hope is lost for sun bears.
With the destruction of sun bear habitat driven by demand from around the world, it falls on all of us to take a stance. We may have started with orangutan conservation, but the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation calls on you to stand with us and demand a future for all sun bears.