Brian Crudge, Sun Bear Expert Team, IUCN Bear Specialist Group

Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) are often referred to as the least-known or most forgotten of all bear species. This can be attributed, in part, to the relative difficulty inherent in conducting ecological field research on this elusive forest-dwelling species. Also, until recently most sun bear range states did not have the capacity for, or interest in, conducting robust ecological research. And throughout much of their range, sun bears historically shared their habitat and the spotlight with such attention-grabbing species as tigers, elephants, and orangutans.

Participants in the 1st International Symposium for Sun Bear Conservation & Management, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, September 4–6, 2017. Photo credit: Free the Bears

Participants in the 1st International Symposium for Sun Bear Conservation & Management, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, September 4–6, 2017. Photo credit: Free the Bears

In September 2017, sun bears were front and centre when 100 experts, researchers, conservationists, government representatives and population managers from across the globe convened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the 1st International Symposium for Sun Bear Conservation and Management. The 3-day symposium was co-hosted by Free the Bears, the IUCN Bear Specialist Group, and TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

Logo for the 1st International Symposium on Sun Bear Conservation & Management.

Logo for the 1st International Symposium on Sun Bear Conservation & Management.

Although sun bears remain the least-studied bear species, research and conservation efforts have advanced greatly in the past few years and the symposium achieved what would have been inconceivable 10 years ago: over 30 presentations and more than 20 hour-long panel discussions and workshop sessions dedicated solely to the conservation and management of sun bears. A diverse array of topics was covered, including: updates to the IUCN Red List Assessment and range map; genetic analysis; assessing wild sun bear populations; health and welfare; thermoregulation and metabolic rates in captive sun bears; trade and use of sun bears as traditional medicine; education and behaviour change; status review and threat assessment of ex-situ sun bear populations; and habitat requirements of in-situ populations.

Among the participants were representatives from, or those knowledgeable about, 10 of 11 sun bear range states. China, which has just 1 recent record of an individual sun bear occurring in Yunnan Province (Li et al. 2017), was the only range state not represented. Sixty percent of participants are currently involved in sun bear conservation projects, while 43% are involved in sun bear research. Participants represented both in-situ and ex-situ sun bear populations and were affiliated with several international conservation and management bodies, including: the IUCN Bear Specialist Group; BSG Sun Bear Expert Team; BSG Captive Bears Expert Team; regional zoological associations (EAZA, AZA and ZAA); and regional Bear Taxon Advisory Groups.

Sun bear conservation action planning workshop facilitated by the Conservation Planning Specialist Group. Photo credit: Free the Bears

Sun bear conservation action planning workshop facilitated by the Conservation Planning Specialist Group. Photo credit: Free the Bears

The symposium was designed to capture the collective knowledge and expertise of those in attendance in order to inform the development of a range-wide conservation strategy for sun bears, which was initiated during a 2-day conservation planning workshop held immediately after the symposium. The conservation planning workshop was facilitated by Caroline Lees of the IUCN Conservation Planning Specialist Group (CPSG). The planning process followed the CPSG’s One Plan Approach which promotes integrated in-situ and ex-situ species conservation planning. The approach considers all populations of the species, inside and outside their natural range, under all conditions of management, and engages all responsible parties from the very start of any species conservation planning process (Byers et al. 2013).

The sun bear is arguably the least-known species of bear. Photo credit: Free the Bears

The sun bear is arguably the least-known species of bear. Photo credit: Free the Bears

During the conservation planning workshop, the 25 participants divided into working groups to discuss in depth the issues of: habitat protection; trade and consumption; ex-situ management; and communications. For each issue, a set of objectives were defined and prioritized, informed by the discussions during the symposium. Specific actions required to achieve the objectives were then identified for implementation over the next 5–10 years. The conservation strategy document will be finalized and circulated in 2018.
Despite the diversity of threats, opinions, and solutions that existed amongst participants, everyone was united by a common desire to see the sun bear survive and thrive in its natural environment as an important part of the forest ecosystem. It is hoped that this symposium and subsequent conservation action plan will help galvanise support for this often-overlooked species and ensure that the smallest of all bears continues to enjoy days in the sun for many years to come.

Acknowledgments
The organizing committee for the 1st International Symposium on Sun Bear Conservation and Management comprised: Brian Crudge and Matt Hunt (Free the Bears); David Garshelis (IUCN Bear Specialist Group Co-chair); Robert Steinmetz (IUCN Bear Specialist Group Co-chair; Sun Bear Expert Team Co-chair); Gabriella Fredriksson (Sun Bear Expert Team Co-chair); Lalita Gomez (TRAFFIC Southeast Asia); and Siew Te Wong (Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre).
The symposium and workshop were kindly supported by: Wildlife Reserves Singapore; Perth Zoo Wildlife Conservation Action; Taronga Conservation Society Australia; Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre; Hauser Bears; and the International Association for Bear Research and Management Research.
We thank Peppermint Narwhal for designing the symposium logo. We are grateful to all donors for their support of sun bear conservation in Southeast Asia and beyond, and for helping to shine a light on sun bears.
#savesunbears

Literature Cited
Byers, O., C. Lees, J. Wilcken, and C. Schwitzer. 2013. The One Plan Approach: The Philosophy and Implementation of CBSG’s Approach to Integrated Species Conservation Planning. WAZA magazine 14:2–5.
Li, F., X. Zheng, X.L. Jiang, and B.P.L. Chan. 2017. Rediscovery of the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) in Yingjiang County, Yunnan Province, China. Zoological Research 38:206–207.

Brian Crudge

Member: Sun Bear Expert Team, IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Research Programme Manager, Free the Bears
PO Box 723, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Email: research@freethebears.org

originally published in International Bear News 2017 Fall Vol. 26 No. 3 on pages 34-35