The Forgotten Bear | How Do We Improve Sun Bear Conservation?

Why should Sun Bear Conservation be at the front of our minds? The world is currently home to eight species of bears, that live across five of its seven continents. They can climb trees and swim & have a better sense of smell than dogs. And half of all its species are threatened with extinction. One of the most threatened species is the sun bear.

Sun bears can be found in tropical rainforests in 11 countries in South East Asia including Cambodia, India, China and Indonesia. We have known that they've lived there since first discovering them in 1825. And yet we’ve slowly taken their home away from them.

There are many contributing factors as to why these species are threatened. And although a lot of work is being done to protect the bears, is it enough? What does their future really look like?

The Forgotten Bear

Half the size of an American black bear, the sun bear is the world’s smallest bear. They live a reclusive life and are therefore often forgotten about. Here are some interesting facts about these bears to help you remember them:

  • These bears got their name from their patch on their chest. Legend says this crescent shape represents the rising sun.
  • Their coat is short enough to keep them cool and thick to provide protection from the elements and twigs in the jungle.
  • People have observed sun bears sleeping in the trees after making platforms out of branches and leaves.
  • Despite their name, these bears are nocturnal.
  • They have a long tongue which they use to eat bees and their honey; giving them the nickname of ‘honey bears’.
What are the threats?

The sun bear population is decreasing, so much so that they've been recognised as vulnerable on the IUCN Redlist. There are many threats that these bears face causing their numbers to drop so rapidly. The primary ones being deforestation and commercial hunting.

Southeast Asia is expected to lose 75-85% of its forests and biodiversity by 2100. This deforestation is due to legal & illegal logging, clear-cutting for palm oil or rubber plantations and forest fires. This is all creating less and less habitat for every creature and animal in the forest. As a forest dependent species, this will significantly impact the sun bears.

The other adversary facing sun bears are poachers. These bears are hunted mercilessly for their body parts. Bear paws and bear bile are valuable commodities as they are believed to have medicinal properties. Trading of these is now illegal in most countries, but yet many bears are still being hunted and farmed.

If they aren’t being targeted for their parts, sun bears can also be killed to prevent damage to crops and livestock. When farmers see the bears eating their crops they often kill the bears on site, instead of alerting the appropriate authorities for non-lethal alternatives.

While these factors are all playing a part in the decline of the population of sun bears, gathering this information is tricky. Their remote habitat and shy personalities mean that little to no data has been collected on these animals. Evaluating the population trend has generally been estimated by experts through interviews with local people. As well as assessing how threats such as deforestation and poaching are affecting the bears.

An action plan

A recent symposium brought together sun bear experts, field researchers and conservationists to discuss what can be done to safeguard the future of these bears. A plan was formed for the next 25 years for sun bear conservation with five goals in mind. The goals are:

  1. Eliminate illegal exploitation of sun bears.

The primary objectives of this goal are to reduce the demand of sun bears and their parts. And to improve the effectiveness of law enforcement around the hunting and trading of sun bears.

  1. Protect and restore sun bear habitats and populations across the species' natural range.

This goal will help us to properly identify where sun bears exist and to understand their habitat better. Efforts will also be made to more accurately review the amount of forest loss or gain in these areas. Additionally to improve regulations around logging and plantations.

  1. Devise and employ methods to reliably monitor trends in sun bear populations.

The three objectives of this goal are to develop protocols for monitoring these bears. To identify where this monitoring is needed. And to implement the recommended protocols.

  1. Maximise the contribution of ex situ sun bear populations to conservation.

This goal aims to improve the quality of the life of bears in conservation centres away from their natural habitat. The objectives will review the efficiencies and legislations in the centres; and ensure that they are up to standard. One objective will also improve the quality and quantity of research projects conducted with these ex-situ bears.

  1. Increase cross-sectoral support and collaboration for sun bear conservation.

Last, but not least, this goal is aiming to raise more awareness about this work. This will help to ensure that the poaching of sun bears and trading of their parts and products is no longer considered acceptable. Raising awareness will also improve efficiencies with research and conservation efforts.

The collective vision is that, by achieving these goals, humans and sun bears will be able to coexist. And that the populations of these bears will no longer be threatened. This also extends to any bears that are in captivity. The aim is that they live in high welfare standards and any bear that can be released back to the wild, is. There is also hope that by improving bear conservation it will aid conservation of other species and ecosystems. There is hope for these sun bears! But a lot of work needs to be done in the next 25 years to improve their vulnerable status.

The Cambodia Bear Sanctuary

Our partner at the Cambodia Bear Sanctuary has rescued over 100 bears from the illegal wildlife trade, bear bile farms and lives as domestic pets. Wherever possible they rehabilitate the bears in the hopes of releasing them back into the wild. In addition to caring for rescued bears, they work hard to raise awareness of animal welfare issues and the importance of sun bear conservation and the protection of their natural habitat.