Notes from the Field: A New Day in the Sun for an Endangered Bear

At any given time, our scientists and local partners are working in nearly 30 countries worldwide. That work takes many forms: community engagement, biosurveillance and wildlife sampling, and using sampling data to create models of risk assessment to identify regions which are particularly at risk for disease outbreaks. These are the field notes from our partners conducting regular health screenings of some of Malaysia’s most unique and endangered species.

The Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) is the smallest bear in the world and resides in the forests of Southeast Asia. They are the least studied of the nine bear species in the world and, thusly, many like us are making efforts to better understand and raise the profile of these important animals.

Sun bear
Sun bear

Sun bears forage the forest for termites, honey, insect larvae, and a wide variety of fruits using their exceptionally long tongues and keen sense of smell. These solitary animals play a crucial role as engineers in the forest; while hunting for ants and bees, their sharp claws create new tree cavities that other animals then use as nests. They also play a major role in controlling the population number of forest pests and dispersing seeds.

Sun bears are currently classified as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List, facing threats from rapid deforestation, poaching for body parts, and the pet trade.

The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) opened in 2008 to better understand sun bears in Sabah, Malaysia and to fight for their conservation. Working with the Sabah Wildlife Department, they house and rehabilitate rescued bears to facilitate their reintroduction to the wild. The Centre also provides opportunities for volunteering and serves as an important education center for the public. EcoHealth Alliance has been involved with BSBCC since 2012 when we first began conducting viral screenings and health checks on these sun bears.

In August 2015, Tan-tan became the 44th sun bear to take up residence at the BSBCC after rangers from the Sabah Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Rescue Unit rescued her from Piatan, a remote region in Sabah. At the time, EcoHealth Alliance scientists were on hand to collect samples for viral screening and she was placed in the BSBCC’s rehabilitation program with other young orphans like herself.

In November 2018, the EcoHealth Alliance team in Malaysia headed back to Sandakan to carry out a second round of health screenings on all the sun bears at the BSBCC, as a part of a collective effort organized by EcoHealth Alliance and overseen by our Malaysian Field Manager Jimmy Lee working closely with four veterinarians: Dr. Nur Nabila Sarkawi from the Sabah Wildlife Department, Dr. Reza Tarmizi from Borneo Rhino Alliance, Dr. Navaneetha Roopan from Danau Girang Field Centre, and myself.

Our goal is to find any known or novel viruses these animals may be carrying, both to guarantee their own health and to make sure that when they are released into the wild they aren’t carrying any diseases which could infect other bears, animals, or humans. We collected samples from 44 bears (17 males and 27 females) in six days. These samples will be taken to the Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Lab that we established with Sabah Wildlife Department in 2013 for viral screening. We also performed physical examination, measurements, and dental charting for the bears to allow BSBCC staff to identify the specific health needs of each animal.

RELATED: Animal Sampling in Kuala Kangsar

We sampled Tan-tan on the fourth day and found her to be in good condition, weighing a healthy 65 pounds, a massive jump from the 10-pound cub we met nearly four years ago. The BSBCC staff are happy to report that, since 2015, Tan-tan has developed the necessary skills to survive in the wild and is thriving in the outdoor enclosures. Tan-tan is now shortlisted to be released in early 2020, provided she has a clean bill of health from this viral screening.

As a veterinarian, I find great joy in being part of a significant step in the conservation of these amazing animals that too many people in Southeast Asia do not even know exist.

Collected samples will be tested and the results should be available sometime in March.

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