In my first three weeks in Sabah, Borneo, we were building a bridge from the Orang-Utan sanctuary to the brand new Sun Bear Sanctuary, both at Sepilok, which will help bring tourists and therefore money to the latter. We sawed wood, we dug dirt, we banged (bung?) in nails, we mixed concrete, all the while sweating in the sweltering heat and humidity while monkeys, and a baby pygmy elephant called Curtis, watched us from the nearby trees.
There were 12 bears at the centre when we were there in February and they are hoping to get more as soon as possible. The aim is to rescue, rehabilitate and release the bears, which are the smallest of only 8 bear species in the world. They are endangered and very little is known about them, but I learnt a little bit whilst on the project: they are dark brown and each with a distinct yellow (sun-like) marking on their chest- each one is different, like snow flakes. They have very sharp claws for climbing trees, an amazing sense of smell for sniffing out where there is a bee hive within a tree and extremely long tongues to reach the honey inside.
Unfortunately, people are charmed by these very cute bears when they are young and keep them as pets. When they are older, the owners cannot control this wild animal so keep it in a small cage and feed it scraps of food (mostly rice) with very little nutrients in, so its fur falls out and it grows thin and even more aggravated. The sun bears are also accidently caught in snares or shot dead for their organs, which are used in Chinese medicine; some believe that the gall bladder gives youthfulness and vitality when ingested, whereas others believe the middle claw will help you be ‘the middle man’ in any conflict. Obviously there is no scientific evidence for either of these claims.
This is the only Sun Bear Sanctuary in the world and I really hope I have made a small difference to ensuring its growth and successful maintenance in the future.