STW Sundays #3: Wong Siew Te, on Conserving Sun Bears in Borneo

Save-The-World Sundays is a series of interviews conducted with remarkable individuals who have started environmental initiatives and movements. This Sunday, we feature Wong Siew Te, CEO and founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sandakan. His pioneering studies of sun bear ecology in the Bornean rainforest revealed the elusive life history of sun bears, and raised conservation awareness significantly for this little known species. He also served as the former co-chair of the Sun Bear Expert Team, under the IUCN/SSC Bear Specialist Group.

Wong is a fellow of the Flying Elephant Fellowship, and was selected as one of the 40 wildlife heroes across the world, and was featured in the book “Wildlife Heroes: 40 Leading Conservationists and the Animals They Are Committed to Saving”. Here is his story:

1. Tell us about yourself.

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Wong, with a sun bear

I am a wildlife biologist, conservationist, and a tropical biologist. I was born and raised in Bukit Mertajam, Penang. Since childhood I always wanted to be a veterinarian or an animal expert although at that time I did not actually know what an animal expert does. The only things I knew at that time were that I like animals, and had many pet animals of all kinds. I started to watch wild birds when I was 16 years old before I realized there was an outdoor activity called “bird watching”.

My professional career started in late 80’s when I took up a diploma program on Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Science in Taiwan. In 1994 I went to USA to pursue my Bachelor of Science degree, followed by a MSc degree and a PhD on Wildlife Biology from University of Montana, Montana, USA.

I first came to Sabah in 1998 to study wild sun bears in the lowland rainforest of Danum Valley, Sabah, for my Master’s program. I continued the studies for my doctorate in 2005 and expanded on my work to bearded pigs and tropical forest ecology. In 2008, I founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC) in Sandakan, Sabah and have been the CEO of the centre since then.

2.  What is your Save-the-world project?

My project – not so much save the world, but save the sun bear for sure, is the founding of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sandakan. The centre aims to conserve sun bears in this region through holistic approaches that incorporate improved animal welfare for the captive sun bears, education, research, and rehabilitation.

Sun bears have been captured from the wild and kept as pets in cages. The centre is rescuing these captive bears, and giving them proper care and facilities to live in. Public knowledge of the sun bears remains limited, as they are the least known bears in the world. The centre is raising public awareness on sun bears at all levels. We conduct research to study the bears, and we try to create the opportunity for rescued sun bears to go back into the wild. We want to learn more about sun bears so that we can conserve them, and educate the public so that they can protect the bears and their habitats.

Here is a video from National Geographic that will give you a better picture of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.

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3.  What inspired you to start the project?

In 2004 I received a grant to travel across Malaysia to understand better the situation of captive sun bears in this country. I saw many sun bears being kept as pets and displayed in inappropriate places such as mini zoos, crocodile farms and amusement parks. I also interviewed people and found that the general public knows virtually nothing about the sun bears, except that they are consumed as a delicacy or as traditional medicine. The need to set up a conservation centre to conserve sun bears through promoting animal welfare, education, research and rehabilitation therefore is highly needed in this country.

As the first biologist to study sun bears in Malaysia and one who knows about the conservation issues of sun bears more than anyone else, I felt the obligation to help them as much as I could. Therefore, I started to talk to relevant government agencies, NGOs and interest parties about the creation of the BSBCC. Finally in 2008, after I completed my field work in Danum Valley, I moved to Sepilok forest in Sandakan, and started the project. At that time we took care of seven captive bears under the care of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Today the number of sun bears we have in the centre has increased to 28.

4. How did you start the project?

Step 1: Identify the problem.
Through years of studying sun bears and collecting information about the situation of captive sun bears in the country, I identified the conservation issues and problems faced by the sun bears.

Step 2: Find a solution to solve the problem.
The creation of a conservation centre incorporating the four objectives mentioned above (animal welfare, education, research and rehabilitation) seemed to be the most critical element if we were to conserve sun bears.

Step 3: How and what was needed to create the centre?
We identified the resources that we needed to create the centre and came up with the solutions to get them. We created a core founding team to brainstorm ideas and all the resources that we needed, and listed down what needed to be done for us to get all of those resources.

Step 4: Action time!
At this stage, we started to do what we planned in Step 3. Each of us had special tasks to achieve the goals and assignments. These tasks are always full of challenges and difficulties (who said it is going to be easy?) but with determination and persistence, we managed to achieve these goals.

There are many details and stories during the entire process. It may sound easy to you but on the ground, nothing is easy. Luckily we managed to receive help and support from many people across the world and in Sabah, to come this far.

5. At what stage of your project are you right now?

The centre has been in operation for the past 5 years. Both visitor facilities and bear housing facilities have been constructed at the centre. There are two buildings under construction now, scheduled to be completed at the end of the year. The centre will be open to the public once the visitor centre is complete. It will be a milestone once we are open to the public. However, we are still not done with the construction phase of the centre. We are still raising funds to build the forest enclosure of the 2nd bear house, and other facilities associated with it.

6. What difficulties did you face while working on the project?

We faced a lot of difficulties while working on the project. The biggest difficulty is to raise sufficient funds to establish the centre and to pay the operation cost of the centre. Both capital cost and operational cost are not cheap. At the end of the day, I spend the majority of my time fund raising. For example, on the 20th of July we are holding a “Big Dreams, Little Bears” fundraising dinner in Sandakan.

7. What is rewarding about your project?

Seeing our rescued sun bears with a good home is the most rewarding of this project. I used to see so many very sad sun bears in captivity, in cages. If not for this project, they would still be locked up in small cages with little room to move. Now, the rescued sun bears can roam the forest enclosure at the centre and engage in their natural behaviour and daily activities.

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The second reward of this project is to see more and more people getting involved in sun bear conservation. From this project, many more people are getting to know about sun bears, and starting to support our cause. Obviously no one can save the sun bear alone. It is very rewarding to see them help us.

8. What are the lessons that you have learnt from your project?

Never give up. When Plan A doesn’t work, there are always Plan B, Plan C… until we achieve our goals. Conservation is not an easy field. It is a complicated and difficult field to begin with. There are no easy solutions to solve the conservation problems. There are more sad stories than happy stories for the wildlife when it comes to the competition between human and wildlife for food, space, resources and safety. However, despite the difficulties and challenges, we should never give up because if we did, the bears will have no hope at all.

9. Would you be willing to talk to (and share resources possibly with) people who are interested to start a project similar to yours?

Sure yes!

10. Any advice that you would like to give to someone else who wants to make a difference?

Anyone can make a difference as long as you believe in yourself! Do what you do best to make a difference! Be determined, persistent, and stay focused until you achieve your goals. Need an example? How about me?

For more information and pictures, check out the BSBCC website.

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