How did you get involved in wildlife biology?
I have loved animals since I was little. My ambition was to be an animal expert or a veterinarian. I started keeping all kinds of conventional and unconventional pets in my childhood and my teenage years and became a pet breeder. I studied Veterinary and Animal Science at a university in Taiwan and started working with livestock animals. In university I joined the Bird Watching Club and started bird watching as a popular outdoor activity and started to learn more about wildlife and conservation. I decided to further my study in University of Montana, USA, majoring in Wildlife Biology in 1994. Since then, the focus of my studies and my work was all about wildlife biology, especially sun bears.
You founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in 2008 – what inspired you to do this?
I was given an opportunity to study wild sun bears in the rainforest of Borneo in 1998 for my Master program’s thesis. During the three years I studied wild sun bears in a Bornean rainforest, I managed to experience first hand the illusive life, history and ecology of the sun bears and how important they are in our rainforest ecosystem as a keystone species. The experience was just wonderful!
Unfortunately, things went to the opposite extreme when I came out from the forest. I witnessed large scale deforestation of sun bear habitat, illegal poaching of sun bears, and illegal keeping sun bears as pets and displayed animals for profits. All of the latter experiences made me feel like we need to do something to help the sad stage of sun bears in Sabah. At that time, there were about a dozen or two of captivated sun bears in Sabah that were kept in very poor condition. They urgently need a better home to improve their welfare and living conditions. The idea of founding the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre came to my mind after visiting The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: we need to establish a sun bear centre to help the sun bear just like the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre for the orangutan.
What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by sun bears?
There are three big challenges faced by the sun bears for their survival. First, habitat loss due to large scale deforestation across Southeast Asia as a result from human population growth and agriculture land extension have reduced vast sun bear habitats across this region over the 60 years. The sun bears that remain in patches of protected forests then face other challenges from poaching and hunting for their body parts as food, traditional medicines and trophies. Many sun bears become locally extinct because of poaching activities, especially from thousands of snares set by the poachers across Southeast Asia. The third challenge stems from the fact that the sun bears have a slow reproduction rate: A female sun bear can only give birth to 3-4 cubs in her lifetime. Their population cannot withstand any type and level of human-caused mortality with this kind of reproduction rate.
You are one of the few Malaysian wildlife biologists, what can be done to encourage more Malaysians into your field?
There are many things that can be done to encourage more Malaysians into my field. I believe everyone is born with “biophilia” – the innate human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings. First, we need to educate more Malaysians about the plight of sun bears and other wildlife when they are young. The topics of education slowly broaden as they age to cover forest, environment, climate and entire biome. Second, we need to encourage them to do various outdoor activities like hiking, bird watching and to be with Mother Nature in order to enhance the experience with wildlife, wildlife habitat and nature. Finally, they can study wildlife biology and other wildlife and nature related courses in university so that they are being properly trained to be a wildlife biologist and conservationist.
What role do sanctuaries and rescue centres play in conservation?
Sanctuaries and rescue centres can play many roles in conservation. Besides to improve animal welfare, which strictly speaking is not conservation, but I argue to differ that because sanctuaries and rescue centres can play active roles in education, research, rehabilitation, captive breeding in order to help the ex-situ conservation activities for a particular threatened and endangered species. Take the example of Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), we aim to conserve sun bears through holistic approaches that incorporate improved animal welfare, education, research, rehabilitation, ecotourism, captive breeding, community conservation, anti-poaching, and habitat connectivity in the future. All of these conservation actions would not be possible without a strong foundation which is BSBCC.
What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by sanctuaries and rescue centres in Malaysia?
It is hard to single out the biggest challenges but I would like to say three challenges: 1) raise sufficient funds to run the operation, 2) hiring competent and dedicated staff, and 3) getting support from the government.
What is your hope for the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in the next 10 years?
My hope for the centre in the next 10 years is to continue what we have been doing for the past 10 years but will not rescue pet sun bears because of the awareness and the law enforcement are good enough to prevent this kind of illegal activities from happening. However BSBCC will still remain as an important sun bear conservation hub for conducting education, research, captive breeding, community conservation, anti-poaching, forest restorations and ecotourism. The centre needs to put equal effort for conservation of sun bears (wildlife) and improve the livelihood of people so that both human and wildlife can live harmoniously with each other and co-exist with each other. At that time, sun bear population will be stable if not slowly increasing.