“Don’t Let Us Disappear Without Knowing What We Are,” by Kaleigh Rhoads, former Communications Intern for the Borneo Project
As might be expected, orangutans were the main attraction that made everyone in my volunteer group decide to embark on our journey to the Matang Wildlife Centre. We have gotten to know the individual personalities of the orangutan residents at center and are ever in awe of them. Over the past few weeks though, we have all come to fall in love with many of the other animals at Matang, some of which many people had never heard of before this trip. As the region’s only wildlife center to take in all protected species, Matang is in a unique position to raise awareness of Borneo’s lesser known endangered species.
When our volunteer coordinator, Natasha, showed up at the hotel to meet us for the first time, we asked her why the Orangutan Project t-shirt that she was wearing featured a sun bear instead of an orangutan. Her response was that everyone knows about orangutans but that many people have never even heard of a Malayan sun bear. This t-shirt can get the right attention and help spread the word about this important species. As we soon learned, Natasha loves her bears.
An immediate crowd pleaser, sun bears weigh only 60-140 pounds and are the world’s smallest bear species. They have impressively long claws which display surprising control as the bears use them for climbing, grasping objects, and maneuvering food out from small spaces. Though sun bears are admittedly adorable as they lick honey off of each of their claws, those claws are capable of serious damage, and the bears can be fast and aggressive when it comes to defending their food. As the lips curl back to reveal a serious set of teeth and a growl that seems too grand for such a small bear, we are reminded that these dog-sized mammals are indeed still bears, and definitely not a suitable pet.
A day on sun bear duty begins with the walk down the hill to the night dens, where five heads peek over the wall, curiously looking through the bars at who has come to visit them and what they might have brought. Visiting the sun bear night dens is reminiscent of coming home from work to a dog at the door, barely able to contain its excitement. We hide fruit and honey around the outdoor enclosure, trying to be as creative as possible with this placement to create a challenge and keep the bears interested. Once the bears are released into their large outdoor enclosure, they run all over searching for their breakfast with great eagerness. Sometimes referred to as “honey bears,” to say that these bears are enthusiastic about honey would be a great understatement. Their powerful noses find even the most well hidden honey inside of a log and when they do, they use their amazingly long claws to scrape out every last bit, licking each one clean. Their incredibly long tongues can reach all the way to the bottom of a bottle of honey if given the chance.
After some fun watching the bears, it is time to clean their night dens. Very generous with their waste, it is easy to see why sun bears are known as ecosystem engineers. In the wild, they would scatter many seeds throughout the forest, helping fruit trees to spread and populate wider areas. In their constant search for food, these bears overturn and drag logs with ease, which I can barely budge. Undeniably important to the success of this ecosystem, the forests of Borneo may look very different without the services that sun bears provide.
Sun bears, like so much of Borneo’s wildlife, face significant threats. Habitat loss, the illegal pet trade, and commercial hunting for Traditional Chinese Medicine have landed the sun bear on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable. Though many have never heard of a sun bear, they are an important species to preserve for a healthy ecosystem. The sun bears at Matang Wildlife Centre are fortunate to have ended up in a place where they are so loved and well cared for, but of course nothing compares to their natural forest home. To be able to get so close and get to know these animals has been an absolute honor and an amazing experience, and when back in California, I will be sure to share my experiences with the sun bears with anyone willing to listen. The slogan on the back of the Orangutan Project’s sun bear t-shirt makes a thought provoking plea for the conservation of Borneo’s lesser known wildlife: “Don’t Let Us Disappear Without Knowing What We Are.”
Photos by Kaleigh Rhoads