Dave Garshelis, Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Rob Steinmetz, Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group
In 1819, Thomas Stamford Raffles, then Governor-General of Bencoolen, a province in southern Sumatra, received a pet sun bear, purchased for him from a villager. Although these bears were then common on the island, and common as village pets, the species had not yet been described to science. That pet bear became the basis for the first scientific description of the species. “He was brought up in the nursery with the children; and, when admitted to my table, as was frequently the case, gave proof of his taste by refusing to eat any fruit but mangosteens, or to drink any wine but Champaign” (Raffles 1821).
Since that time, research has progressed slowly on this species, while threats have dramatically increased, due (most recently) to habitat loss from rapidly expanding oil palm and rubber plantations, combined with hunting, spurred by a burgeoning commercial market for parts. Until very recently it was thought that the species had been completely extirpated from 2 of 11 range countries (Bangladesh and China). Populations were estimated to be declining (by 30–70% in 30 years) in all other range countries. No telemetry projects have been conducted in the last 5 years. The number of current field projects focused on this species could be counted on 1 hand.
This was the backdrop for the first scientific symposium devoted to this species, held in September 2017 in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, organized by Free the Bears, the Bear Specialist Group and TRAFFIC Southeast Asia. The First International Symposium on Sun Bear Conservation and Management attracted 100 participants, including range state government representatives, researchers and students, veterinarians and captive animal specialists, NGO representatives, and journalists and educators. The event was comprised of 2 parts: a 3-day scientific symposium, followed by a 2-day conservation planning workshop. As the ultimate goal was to draft a global action plan for the species, a special effort was made to support government representatives to attend, as government backing will be vital for implementing the plan.
The IUCN/SSC is committed to developing Conservation Action Plans for all 23,000 Threatened species on the Red List. That is a huge task, not to mention the even larger task of implementing such plans. Among the 8 bears, a global action plan has been created only for the polar bear. In Asia, country plans have been developed for bears in South Korea (2001), Taiwan (2012), and India (2012). The first step in developing a plan is to collect and summarize the available data on status and threats. That was the focus of the 3-day symposium.
The large number of participants and high level of interest generated by this symposium pleasantly surprised us. Having said that, we note that much of the work being done on this species is in captivity, as there are large numbers of animals in sanctuaries in Southeast Asia, derived from confiscations of pets, traded, and orphaned animals. It is ironic that the first scientific specimen was a pet, and captive bears remain both a continuing problem as well as a large focus of current studies.
The symposium encouraged presentation of information relevant specifically to conservation and management. The symposium differed from many scientific conferences (such as IBA conferences) in that the emphasis was on interactive workshops and group discussion, the results of which were systematically captured in SWOT analyses (Strengths, Weaknesses or internal constraints, Opportunities, and Threats or external constraints). There were no less than 22 workshops during the symposium, covering diverse topics from captive health and welfare, habitat use and ecology, monitoring methods, human behavior change to reduce demand for bear parts, and strategies to reduce snaring (which is at epidemic levels in Southeast Asia, directed at a host of species). There was a focus on building stronger links between ex-situ management and wild bear conservation. One workshop asked the question: what research issues and projects focused on captive bears can contribute to wild bear conservation?
A number of presentations documented experiments and efforts to test new methods to survey sun bears in the wild. Innovative new approaches included duct tape to capture hair samples (instead of barbed wire, which does not work well for the short hair of this species), mark–recapture camera trapping using unique chest marks, and large-scale interview surveys with local people. Symposium attendees “voted” to strive toward more unified monitoring methods (not just a single method) to facilitate comparison of results regionally. A standardized method of monitoring for Andean bears is now being used in several countries (Márquez et al. 2017), and was presented as a potential model for sun bears.
The symposium revealed that more data are being collected on sun bears than previously thought. Interesting results of sun bear surveys and ecological research was unveiled in previously little-known regions including western Myanmar, Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo), Bangladesh, and northeast India. These recent surveys are revealing that sun bears are still widespread in Southeast Asia’s forests, and persist even in some very degraded habitats — some new camera trap photos revealed that sun bears still exist in Bangladesh (just as recent camera trap video revealed presence of at least 1 bear in China, although only 1 km from the Myanmar border: Li et al 2017).
The 2-day conservation planning process that followed the symposium was expertly led by Caroline Lees of IUCN’s Conservation Planning Specialist Group. This specialist group is responsible for helping other specialist groups develop their conservation action plans. We began by creating an overarching vision that depicted our grand aspiration for sun bears (and their interactions with human society) in the future. Next we conducted an issues analysis that identified obstacles to achieving the vision. This led to the identification of 3 broad goals for sun bear conservation — reducing habitat loss, controlling poaching and trade in bear parts, and employing captive populations as ambassadors for changing human behavior. We defined detailed objectives, assumptions, actions, and steps forward toward achieving these goals.
A substantial part of the conservation planning process involved assessing what we know and what we don’t know (but need to know). For example, to what degree are sun bears truly “dependent” on forest? Other bear species have demonstrated great adaptability to land use changes caused by people. What about sun bears? Tropical forest is being rapidly converted to plantations in Southeast Asia, particularly oil palm plantations. But research on bears living at the edges of plantations has shown that some individuals may benefit nutritionally by feeding on the oil palm fruits. They enter at night to avoid people, and retreat to the forest during the day. Should we therefore be trying to make oil palm plantations more bear friendly? Or would this simply entice bears into a population sink? And would working with industry to mitigate the harshness of vast oil palm plantations justify continued conversion of forest? We cannot launch into an action plan aimed at such uncertain outcomes, so many of our recommendations were for more research.
Having participated in a few previous action plans, we know that sometimes plans are overambitious and unrealistic, and therefore cannot be implemented. But we also recognize that action plans serve to establish a shared strategy and context for disparate individuals and organizations to contribute to; they have also helped justify conservation projects, secure funding, and create a regional network of practitioners that support each other in the conservation of a species.
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.
Márquez, R., G. Bianchi, E. Isasi-Catalá, V. Ruiz Gutiérrez, and I. Goldstein. 2017. Guide for the Monitoring of Occupancy of Andean Bears. Andean Bear Conservation Alliance & Wildlife Conservation Society. http://www.andeanbearconservationalliance.org/assets/guia-monitoreo-ocupacion-oso-andino-2017.pdf
Raffles, T.S. 1821. Descriptive catalogue of a zoological collection, made on account of the honourable East India Company, in the island of Sumatra and its vicinity, under the direction of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant-Governor of Fort Marlborough; with additional notices illustrative of the natural history of those countries. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 13:239–274.
Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Grand Rapids, MN 55744, USA
Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group
World Wildlife Fund –Thailand
originally published in International Bear News 2017 Spring Vol. 26 No. 3 on pages 5-6