At the end of January this year, a disturbing video was shared through news and social media channels of a sun bear, obviously suffering from extreme malnutrition and other possible ailments, being frightened away from workers on a palm oil plantation near Sibu in Sarawak. Though a team was sent to the area to try to track this bear down, they were unsuccessful and we assumed the bear would starve to death shortly thereafter.
It was therefore a great relief to hear at the end of March that the plantation workers had again sighted the bear, and this time managed to catch her. They notified Sarawak Forestry immediately, who then collected the bear and brought her to Matang Wildlife Centre. The bear was transferred into the quarantine area of the centre, and it is here that she currently resides. The sight of this bear was certainly shocking to say the least – no doubt the worst example of animal suffering that we have seen, and sadly we have seen too many animals kept in deplorable conditions and under immense stress.
We do not yet know if this is a wild sun bear, or an ex-pet that either escaped or was released by her owners. She is incredibly wary of humans, which is understandable given her known recent history, and at the moment prefers to keep to the platform in the back corner of the cage whenever people are loitering in her area. Her response is definitely due to nerves and fear, rather than aggression, so hopefully as she continues to learn that the only thing we will do to her is feed her, this will diminish and we will be better placed to be able to assess her behaviour.
From hardly being able to move during the first 24 hours, she quickly began to look more like a sun bear and, after a few days, explored her new cage. She has already gained strength in her limbs and is able to climb up the tree trunk in the cage, albeit not too gracefully. She has a good appetite, as all bears do, though we are taking care to feed her little and often due to her severely malnourished state. Mushy food is standard too, as her teeth are in terrible condition. We will certainly be looking to remove the worst of her broken and rotten teeth when she is in better physical condition.
For now, we are trying to give her as much peace and quiet, and calories, as possible. We want her to settle in to her new home well, and the sooner she sees us as non-threatening distributors of honey the better! We hope we can show her that humans can be kind and trusted, rather than are creatures to be feared and hated. In our experience, animals have a remarkable and incredibly humbling capacity for forgiveness, once they are shown kindness and care.
Even if we feel she is a wild sun bear in the future, the state of her teeth mean she will not be releasable to the wild again and will live out the rest of her life at Matang, hopefully finding companionship with the other resident bears and some form of peace and contentment. It can take a long time, but that is what we are here for, and the capacity to provide a stress-free sanctuary for animals that are rescued or confiscated is as meaningful for us as our wider conservation objectives. Animals like this bear that have suffered immensely deserve to know a better side of us, and to live out their lives with as much happiness as they are able.
We are quite in awe at the toughness of animals like this, and the extent of pain and suffering that they are able to endure and keep on surviving. However it is also, of course, heart-breaking.