Honingbeer wandelt over een boomstam

The unloved panda?

About the sun bear, a little-known Asian teddy bear.

Few people have heard of the sun bear, which is the smallest of all 8 bear species.
Even biologists do not know much about him. He does not show himself very often and only the giant panda is rarer. The saying ‘unknown, unloved’ definitely applies here, although this is unwarranted. The ‘Helarctos malayanus’ has all the right traits to become popular: he has the right size, is very cute, a little mysterious and lives in a beautiful habitat. This shy animal is native to the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, from northeastern India, all the way to Borneo.

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has categorized the sun bear as vulnerable. In the often densely populated southeast Asia the habitats of the sun bear have become very fragmented. Heavy deforestation for lucrative palm oil plantations form another threat. Other threats include illegal hunting, forest fires, so-called medicine farms (to gain bear bile to use in traditional Chinese medicine) and even the habit to keep the bear as a pet. The mammal homo sapiens leaves its mark all over the planet…
CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) has forbidden the commercial harvest of bear bile. One of the pharmacologically active ingredients in bear bile is used to create Ursodiol, a medicine used to treat certain liver diseases or gallstones. However, it has been possible to create a synthetic version of this ingredient for a long time.

As his alternative name ‘honey bear’ suggests, the sun bear loves honey. His diet also consists of fruits such as figs and berries, as well as insects, eggs, birds and turtles. He has a long tongue which enables him to easily extract ants and termites. As an omnivore, he eats everything that crosses his path as long as it is not too big or fast.

His love for honey can sometimes get him into trouble, as it makes the sun bear approach villages and farms, especially during harvest. Most farmers consider him an unwelcome guest, though the damage done by the sun bear is often overestimated.

The sun bear is a small bear: he weighs 30 to 80kg, similar to a large dog. He is a great climber with large claws and enjoys sitting high in the trees (or in Malaysian: “basindo nan tenggil”). His only natural enemies are hungry tigers and leopards.

Despite his cuteness, the bear can strike with his huge claws and powerful bite when surprised. He is usually active during the day, as long as people do not disturb his habitat. He roams several kilometers per day in an area of about 15 km², which means he needs quite a lot of space. The sun bear also likes to hide in hollow fallen trees, which is why he can be found in deforested areas, as they contain these shelters. Sometimes he also makes nests high up in tree tops.

Sun bears are a crucial species in certain rainforests: they are vital for the spreading of seeds and keeping populations of smaller species in check (pest control) and for the natural cycle of nutrients. Although this has not been studied extensively, it is suspected that if the sun bear went extinct, it would have huge consequences for the biodiversity of some rainforests. We certainly need to do something to make this shy teddy bear more famous. Why? Just because he is there. When you look at some pictures, you will understand that this is reason enough.
Or you can watch these videos, as they show more than a thousand pictures.

Short BBC fragment of a sun bear cub that was brought into a shelter in Cambodia.

A sun bear in the wild.