Endangered Species Report #35
Written by: Holly L. Koppel
Folklore says that each day when the sun sets, it kisses the (sun) bear on the chest, leaving its mark. This story is based mostly on the strange V-shaped yellow patch that the sun bear has across its chest. This bear, the smallest of the bear species, is also a great climber, and one can perfectly picture a sun bear sitting high up in a tree as the sun sets.
The sun bear also is a bear of many names, such as the Malayan bear, and the honey bear. The bear's name changes depending on where you are traveling in the world. Unfortunately, no matter where you are traveling in the Far East, chances are that you will not ever see this species. The sun bear is an extremely rare species, and is listed in Appendix One of CITES, with a footnote stating that it is "data deficient"; this means that the IUCN has very little information on the bear. The sun bears are considered extinct in most of their historic range despite unconfirmed sightings throughout the years.
Since this species is so rare, very few scientists have been able to get close enough to it to study it. Research into its habits and habitat are one of the top priorities the IUCN wants to focus on in regards to helping save these species from extinction. What we do know about the sun bear is that it is the smallest of all the bear species in the world, growing to be about three feet long and weighing 60-100 pounds. The sun bears also have large paws and feet with no hair covering, this helps them climb trees in search of honey. Their claws are also more curved and have sharper points than those of their relatives the sloth bear. We also know that when the sun bear is attacked by a large predator, since the fur on their neck is very loose, it enables them to turn around and fight back against their attacker.
Scientists have also been given the opportunity to study the bear's reproduction in the captivity. Young are born throughout the year, as no set breeding season has been seen in the captive bears. The gestation time is about three months, after which time the female bear gives birth to one or two young, and the cubs will stay with their mother until adulthood.
Currently, the sun bear can be found primarily in the lowland forests of Borneo, southern China, the Malay Pennisula, Myammar, Sumatra, and Thailand. Historically, the sun bears could be found in the forests of southeastern Asia, and India. There have been several unconfirmed sightings of sun bears in India over the years; however, the last verified sighting was in 1964, when a sun bear was found around the Brahmapretra River, and was captured and sent to the Trivendrum Zoo. Since none of the recent sightings of sun bears have been verified, the sun bear is still considered to be extinct in India.
Even though scientists know very little about the sun bear, they have been able to single out a few key reasons as to why the sun bears are endangered. One of the big reasons for the decline in the sun bear population is because of loss of habitat. A good majority of the land they used to inhabit is being cleared for coffee, rubber, and oil palm plantations. One of the best things we can do to help this species when it comes to loss of habitat due to coffee plantations, is to implement the strategies being used in South America for the bird-friendly coffee. This is an initiative developed by the Smithsonian's Migratory Bird Center to help save birds that are being displaced from their natural habitat by the coffee plantations. The bird friendly coffees are planted under trees instead of being grown on land that has been cleared of all vegetation. Because these coffees are grown under a canopy of trees, they are oftentimes referred to as shade-grown coffee. This method could be used in areas where sun bears still live to help protect them from deforestation, and in addition, it would also help other species who are threatened by this development of coffee plantations.
One of the other big reasons the sun bears are endangered is due to illegal hunting and trading of bear parts in the Asian marketplaces. The sun bear is protected in Kalimantan and Sumatra in Indonesia, and this protection prohibits killing, trade in dead or live animals, and keeping the bears as pets. Despite being protected from hunting in Indonesia, the effectiveness of this protection is questionable. Most people who find sun bears on their property will still shoot the bears, fearing for their livestock. In actuality, sun bears have very little interest in killing and eating domestic animals. True, they are omnivorous (as are most other bear species), but they primarily will eat bees, termites, earthworms, small rodents, birds, and lizards.
In other parts of the world, including Malaysia, the sun bear is listed as a game species making it legal to hunt and kill this bear. In China, the sun bear is listed as a "first class conserved animal"; however, according to the IUCN, very little protection is offered to the sun bear outside of the nature preserves in China. In Thailand where the bear is reported as numerous, legislation is only just now being proposed to protect this species from hunters.
At the moment, the fate of the sun bear is uncertain. It currently has very little protection by the local governments in the land that it inhabits, but globally the IUCN is doing what it can to increase awareness of the bear's plight and to also learn more about this bear. Before any conservation plan can be drawn up for them, information on the status of the population, the bear's food habits, and their range must be understood, but we may not have that much time left. We must act now if we have any hope of having sun bears in this world much longer.