First rehabilitated sun bear returns to the wild in Sabah

Wong Siew Te gently lifting a sedated Natalie in preparation for her health check and transportation. — Pictures courtesy of Sabah Wildlife Department and Borneon Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Wong Siew Te gently lifting a sedated Natalie in preparation for her health check and transportation. — Pictures courtesy of Sabah Wildlife Department and Borneon Sun Bear Conservation Centre

KOTA KINABALU, May 25 —  Natalie, the sun bear in Sabah who was rescued after poachers killed her mother, became the first to be released into the wild after she returned to the reserve forests of Lahad Datu last week.

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) founder Wong Siew Te said Natalie, who arrived at the centre in December 2010 aged three months, has come of age in the four and a half years under their care and that the rare sun bear is now ready to fend for herself.

“Releasing her was a moment of bittersweet joy,” Wong told Malay Mail Online today.

“I cared for her like a daughter. I had brought her for walks in the forest, fed her, taught her what food to identify and played with her. It was sad to let her go but I know she belongs in the forest,” he added.

Natalie was transported to her new home in a Lahad Datu forest reserve by a helicopter provided by Layang-Layang Aerospace Sdn Bhd.
Natalie was transported to her new home in a Lahad Datu forest reserve by a helicopter provided by Layang-Layang Aerospace Sdn Bhd.

Natalie was one of 35 sun bears kept in captivity, most of which were brought there as cubs after their mothers were killed by poachers. BSBCC has kept a total of 43 sun bears, which are the smallest bear species in the world, since the centre was established.

“Young sun bears are cute and people want to keep them as pets. The person who surrendered her claimed she was found abandoned in the forest,” Wong said.

The BSBCC and Sabah Wildlife Department have been monitoring Natalie’s movements and progress at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve through a satellite collar fitted on her, after she was airlifted by a helicopter from Layang-Layang Aerospace Sdn Bhd into the protected area, away from settlements and oil palm plantations.

Part of Natalie’s rehabilitation process included walks in the forest to learn to live like wild bears by developing essential survival skills like foraging, climbing, nest building and socialising.

“Natalie grew up in natural forest enclosures in BSBCC with tall trees, dense vegetation and significant amounts of natural food items such as termites, earthworms, insects and honey from bee hives,” said Wong.

He expressed confidence of her survival especially after an escape last year that saw her fend for herself for 37 days before she was recaptured and brought home in a healthy condition.

The field crew carried Natalie to the release spot.
The field crew carried Natalie to the release spot.

He said the release of Natalie was a joint effort of BSBCC, SWD and the Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU), Danau Girang Field Centre.

“The release of Natalie is a sign of BSBCC’s success and I believe more bears will be released into the wild in the near future,” said SWD director William Baya.

Meanwhile, Wong stressed that BSBCC aims to protect sun bears through a holistic approach that incorporates improvement of animal welfare for captive bears, education, research and rehabilitation.

Natalie's first moments of freedom in the wild.
Natalie's first moments of freedom in the wild.

Sun bears are a Totally Protected Species under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997. It is not known how many sun bears are in the wild but Wong estimated the numbers to be less than orangutans, which number about 11,000 in Sabah.

The Bornean sun bear is a subspecies of the Malayan sun bears. Its main threats are habitat loss and human poachers.

Traditional Asian medicine practitioners believes bear fat, gall, bile, meat, paws, spinal cord, blood, and bones can cure a range of complaints from baldness to rheumatism. The profitability of the bear’s gallbladder has been likened to the heroin trade, as dried gall can sell for 18 times the price of gold.

In Sabah, any offenders who are found guilty of harming, keeping sun bears, or possessing sun bear parts are subject to imprisonment of five years and a fine of RM50,000, or both.

In addition, killing a sun bear is punishable with a mandatory jail sentence of no less than six months but not exceeding five years. 

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