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Sun bears target of demand in traditional medicine

Hunted for generations in the jungles of Borneo for the bile from its gall bladder and for food, the Malayan Sun Bear (pic) continues to be a target for the ever present global demand in traditional medicine and exotic meat, threatening the world’s smallest bear which is said to have dwindled in numbers by 30 per cent in the last three decades. 

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) founder and chief executive officer Wong Siew Te said natives, particularly in Borneo, traditionally believe that the Sun Bear’s bile ejects itself out of the gall bladder and spreads inside a bear’s body, healing injuries in a fall. 

Sun Bears can climb high up on trees and normally climb down slowly from the tree.

However when they encounter human encroachment in the forest when they are on a tree, they tend to slide down quickly or even drop themselves from the tree. 

They then recover quickly and go about their day. 

This has erroneously made people believe that the phenomenon is due to the power of the Sun Bear bile that spreads within the body and heals the bears, allowing them to recover instantly. 

"This is why Sun Bears are traditionally hunted in the wild for their bile, apart from their meat," Wong said. 

He said in some parts of the world, Asiatic Black Bears are kept in unimaginably cruel conditions in small metal cages and their bile extracted for up to 20 years, and then killed once they are unable to produce the liquid.

While there are no bear bile farms in Malaysia, bear bile is consumed locally. 

Bear gall bladder, bear bile capsules and other bile products are sold illegally in traditional medicine stores. 

"With this demand, Sun Bears continue to be at risk of getting hunted in the wild," he said in a statement here today, to create awareness on the plight of Sun Bears. 

While the actual number of Sun Bears in the wild is unknown, its status as a 'Totally Protected' species under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment and its listing as “Vulnerable” on The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List is not keeping those after its bile away from the risk of prosecution. 

Under the Enactment, those found in possession of a Sun Bear or its product could face a fine of up to RM50,000 or a jail term of five years, or both. 

Wong said Sun Bears are still hunted in Borneo for their purported medicinal properties, and he cited a recent news report on bear meat and parts being sold at a market in Kapit, Sarawak.

Other threats that Sun Bears face include habitat loss and demand for the exotic pet trade. 

Sun Bear cubs are cute and there is demand for such a pet. 

To get a cub, the mother is killed to prevent hunters from getting harmed. 

Once these cubs grow, they become aggressive and it becomes dangerous to keep them as pets. 

"This is when they are surrendered to the authorities. They lose survival skills when kept as pets, as this is something they learn from their mothers," he said. 

Bears surrendered to or confiscated by the Sabah Wildlife Department are sent to the BSBCC adjacent to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. 

It is currently home to 28 Sun Bears. 

Awareness activities will be stepped up once the BSBCC is officially opened to the public, tentatively by early next year.

The BSBCC held a fund raiser on July 20 in Sandakan to meet the ever increasing costs of caring for Sun Bears in captivity and for awareness work. 

The fundraising dinner with the theme “Big Dreams, Little Bears” saw Wong sharing with guests updates on Sun Bears and an exclusive photographic art auction by Jonathan Tan as well as performances by Jaclyn Victor, Gary Chow, Pink Tan and Amir Yussof and friends. 

A free documentary screening is scheduled today at the Sabah Hotel for 500 students, teachers and representatives of local associations.  

The BSBCC is a non-governmental organisation set up in 2008 through collaboration of the Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department and Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP). 

Major funders for BSBCC include Yayasan Sime Darby, the federal Tourism Ministry, Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Ministry, the Sabah State Government and other foreign and local organisations. - Bernama, June 21, 2013.

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