To the unknowing spectator, the photo attached looks like some tree roots in a bare, bear enclosure. However, contained within is something rather rare in Matang’s daily routine – there is a female sun bear taking care of her teeny bear cub.

This is Gabby’s (named for sun bear researcher Gabriella Fredriksson) third attempt at motherhood. Her first baby was born inside the night dens and the bear’s behaviour did not change at all – in the morning she was anxiously pacing to get to the outdoor enclosure and the food, as the bears are every morning. On the second occasion, her behaviour changed dramatically; she created a large den in the outdoor enclosure and remained inside of it for a couple of days. However, after this short time, she reverted to her normal routine of foraging outside the den during the day time, and returning to the night den for the evening. On checking the den and the enclosure, there was no sign of her cub to be found. We do not know if the cub died, therefore causing Gabby’s behaviour to return to the normal routine, or if her behaviour changed, causing the cub to die.

On this third attempt, her behaviour has followed that of the second birth – she has constructed a large den in the same location in the outdoor enclosure, and has so far remained mostly inside of it. We have observed her coming outside of it to forage for food on a couple of occasions, but for the majority of the time she has been out of sight. We have definitely heard the cub a few times; one morning while we were observing Gabby forage for 10-15 minutes, the sounds of a whinging, crying cub coming from the den were very clearly audible from our position outside the enclosure.

Perhaps most shockingly, this means that Gabby must have mated with Wong, the only male sun bear left at Matang Wildlife Centre. During all observations to date, whenever Wong even comes within the peripheral vision of Gabby, she would start growling and vocalising, making clear indications that she was not happy with him infringing on her personal space even slightly, and if he continued on his path despite her warnings, she would shout in his face and charge at him. We can only imagine that he must have tried his luck while she was sleeping.

Sun bears may stay inside the den with their cub for up to two months. We do not know how successful Gabby will be this time – all we can do is keep the stress around her area to an absolute minimum and hope that this time, she will figure out how to be a mother bear. It does mean that the other three bears in this area are confined to the night dens for the time being. This is a shame for them of course, but at the moment it looks like they are rather enjoying themselves and the change in the routine. Indeed, perhaps they feel like they are on holiday a bit, as they do not have to work very hard for their food and we are giving them lots of extra enrichment to play with. Every time I have observed them so far, they have either been wrestling and play-fighting with each other, or with an enrichment item in their cage.

It is obviously not ideal to have the bears confined to the night dens for the long term, so we will keep as close an eye as possible on Gabby and her progress with her cub. If we do manage to get any other photos, I will keep you all posted.