Let the Sun shine in our forests
Stretching over 2,150 sq km in the northern Sagaing region, the Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the last habitats where the threatened Sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) survives in Myanmar.
This is the smallest of the world’s eight bear species, about half the size of the American black bear, and is clearly distinguished from the others by a white or yellowish patch on the chest, which resembles a rising Sun. Each bear’s chest mark is unique, like human fingerprints.
Sun bears — also known as Malayan bears — are excellent climbers and spend considerable time on trees, where they set their home and harvest food. These skills earned them the Malay name “basindo nan tenggil” meaning “he who likes to sit high”.
Despite their small and agile stature, Sun bears have mighty jaws that are often used to tear into trees and with their exceptionally long tongue (20-25 cm) get the burrowing insects, larvae, or honey hidden beneath the bark. They feed on sweet fruits, coconuts, honey, small rodents, termites, and other insects. Their appetite for coconuts, oil palms, and other commercial crops has led to severe conflict with humans, who too often do not hesitate to kill the bears in order to secure their profit. Habitat destruction caused by clearance for shifting cultivation, plantation development and illegal logging are also major threats to the remaining critical population of this species.
Sun bear cubs are born hairless and helpless, unable to hear or smell, and are completely dependent upon their mother for food, warmth, and protection. Mothers sometimes walk upright and carry their babies in their paws or mouth to move them from place to place. For about two years, they stay with their mother, learning to become self-sufficient. During this time, Sun bear cubs are often captured to be sold in the pet trade, for private zoos and circuses. This also involves the killing of their protective mothers, who are either stuffed for display or slaughtered and their paws sold as a food delicacy. Like other bears in Asia, Sun bears are hunted for their gall bladders and other body parts for traditional Chinese medicine uses that have been widely challenged by the scientific community.
It is still unknown how many Sun bears are left in the wild, since their secretive nature makes them hard to locate. Thanks to the Segré Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in partnership with OIKOS has recently started to assess the bear population in key areas of the Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary in the northern Sagaing province, and of the Rakhine Yoma wildlife reserve, along the Arakan mountain range in the north-west Rakhine province.
Using the best practices developed during the past 22 years in Myanmar, WCS scientists will deploy camera traps, and collect biological samples to analyze the bear population density changes based on the occupancy model. This survey is expected to fill the existing knowledge gaps about the distribution of this threatened species, enabling a more targeted approach for the conservation of the Sun bear.
Effectively responding against the threat posed by trafficking in bear body parts requires strong law enforcement capacity. WCS closely collaborates with the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation. Through this partnership forestry personnel and park rangers can benefit from trainings that can both enhance their management skills and provide them the tools to achieve a stronger impact against wildlife crime.
Acknowledging their importance for the conservation of Sun bears, WCS and OIKOS also support local communities living in the bear habitat, and enable them to actively engage in conservation through community forestry and sustainable livelihood practices.
The future of Sun bears in Myanmar relies upon all of us. The wider community of Myanmar citizens and conservation advocates has the power to influence policy and business priorities. Only with your support the Sun bear will never set in the wild of Myanmar.