Spotting Sun Bears: Sabah

Sabah aka Northern Borneo is teeming with so much wildlife it has its own Big Five (orangutan, proboscis monkey, pygmy elephant, estuarine crocodile and rhinoceros hornbill.) Unfortunately, over the last decade much of that wildlife has been put at risk due to deforestation, hunting and poaching. As such, many of the animals you’ll see in Borneo may well be in the sanctuaries, conservation centres and rainforest parks in and around Sandakan.

A 45 minute flight from Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan is most famous for the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. What few know, however, is that Sepilok is a literal stone’s throw, or 2 minute walk, from the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, or BSBCC.

Photo by Dušan veverkolog on Unsplash

The Sun bear is a short-furred omnivore with a distinctive crescent marking on its chest that resembles the rising (or setting) sun. Hence its name. It also has a tongue so long it would give Gene Simmons the vapours.

The smallest bear in existence and exclusively found in South East Asia, the Sun bear is a solitary creature armed with 7.5 cm long claws that it uses to climb and rip open trees and the faces of the few unfortunate souls who catch it on a bad day.

While not as aggressive as it’s Grizzly cousin, Sun bears are not to be underestimated and, despite their Danny DeVito-like stature, are perfectly capable of fighting off leopards, tigers and pythons thank you very much.

But mostly they just look for insects, lizards and honey.
Photo by Darren Welsh on Unsplash

As with the orangutan, the Sun bear population is decreasing due to a loss of habitat and what is euphemistically referred to as “commercial hunting”. Because I don’t want to completely ruin your day, I’m not going to explain what that is. (If you’re curious, Google “bear bile”). What I will say is that calling a brutal, disgusting and inhumane practice “commercial hunting” gives it veneer of respectability it does not deserve.

More than just a place to gawp at critters, the BSBCC works throughout South East Asia providing education and awareness about the Sun bears and why they’re at risk, while also caring for and rehabilitating orphaned or ex-captive bears.

Like its spiritual cousin Sepilok, the centre’s ultimate goal is to release as many rehabilitated animals into the wild as they can, but they also provide a permanent home for bears unable to fend for themselves.

The only Sun bear rehabilitation centre in the world, the BSBCC, like most of the sanctuaries in Borneo, receives no funding from the Malaysian Government and runs entirely on tourism, donations, gift shop sales, volunteering, private fund raising and “adoption” programs.

And, again, just like its neighbour Sepilok, the centre ensures the animals remain safe, happy and healthy by keeping visitors at a respectful distance on raised walkways high above the forest floor. Which is great for the bears…

…not so good for your photos:

Well, these are terrible…

So thank goodness for Unsplash.

Photo by Darren Welsh on Unsplash

Further Reading and Resources:

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