Tue, 19 Aug 2003

Malayan sun bears still await uncertain future

Bambang M, Contributor, Yogyakarta

Tiring, that's the right word to describe the process when a rescue team from the Jogja Animal Rescue Center confiscated a rare female Malayan sun bear owned by Jazuli Umar, an "animal lover" from Yogyakarta.

It took the team five hours simply to persuade the animal to leave its pen and move to the team's temporary cage, which would transport it to the center.

"We did not dare use an anesthetic as the bear was pregnant," explained the center's Ferry Ardyanto.

The Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) is a protected mammal that is still kept as a "pet" by members of the community. Jazuli has four sun bears that he kept in a mini zoo at the back of his large house in Jl. Gandekan Lor, Yogyakarta. According to his son-in-law, Rudi, all the bears were obtained from Sumatra.

Earlier, the center also confiscated a Malayan sun bear from an animal show owner in Sleman, and soon it would confiscate another bear owned by a police officer in Janti, also in Yogyakarta.

Investigations carried out by ProFauna, an institution concerned with animal protection, found that Malayan sun bears were widely kept in major cities such as Bengkulu, Denpasar, Jakarta, Lampung, Medan, Pontianak, Samarinda and Surabaya. The investigation findings were published in Suara Satwa bulletin, Vol. VII No.1, 2003.

Since there is no captive breeding of Malayan sub bears in the country so far, it means all the kept bears had been illegally captured and traded.

In their natural habitat, Sumatra and Kalimantan, these black bears are now rare, the population decline blamed on illegal hunting and diminishing forests in the two islands.

Since 1994, Malayan sun bears have been listed as a vulnerable species under The World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Animals. However, director of The Gibbon Foundation Willie Smith once said that these bears could reproduce themselves quickly. Apart from in Sumatra and Kalimantan, they can also be found in Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and China.

In fact, it's not only the sun bear that is threatened with extinction. Seven other bear species in the world -- giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), sloth bears (Melursus ursinus), Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), polar bears (Ursus maritimus), spectacled bears (Tremarctos ornatus), brown bears (Ursus arctos) and American black bears (Ursus americanus) do not have a bright future either.

The Indonesian government, in an effort to prevent Malayan sun bears from extinction, has also given these animals, which rely on fruit, freshwater fish, insects and honey to survive, protected status under Minister of Agriculture decree No. 66/1973.

The decree is supported by Law No. 5/1990 on conservation of natural resources and their ecosystems, as well as government regulation No. 7/1999 on preservation of flora and fauna.

Still, the law is on paper only. These bears are still hunted, some are killed for their body parts -- like claws, skin and fangs -- as souvenirs.

In other cases, the bears are sold alive. In big cities, a living Malayan sun bear can fetch a high price. ProFauna's investigations found that in Jakarta's Pramuka Market, this bear is sold at Rp 2 million, and ironically, the buyers usually claim themselves to be "animal lovers."

"We keep these bears because we love animals," said Rudi.

True, young Malayan sun bears are very cute. Their plump bodies and thick fur make them look like teddy bears, children's favorites. Still, that is no reason to turn them into pets.

Some people, like the Javanese, keep the bears because they believe they possess supernatural powers. "The sun bear is believed to possess a strong aura that can heal and give power to its owner," explained Sugihartono, the rescue center's director.

The practice that causes most concern is the hunting down of these bears for their gallbladders and bile -- main materials of traditional Chinese medicine. Reportedly, the gallbladder and bile contain UrsoDeoxyCholic Acid (UDCA), believed to be effective in destroying kidney stones, sharpening eyesight, healing fever and rheumatism, and protecting the liver.

Although bears are reportedly bred in captivity in China, the hunting continues as there are not enough of them to meet the demand, as well as a strong belief that gallbladders of bears captured in the wild are more potent than those of bears bred in captivity.

According to ProFauna, at first, only the gallbladders of Asian black bears and brown bears were in demand for medicine. But as these two species kept declining in numbers, sun bears, including those in Indonesia, became the next victim of hunting.

An investigation by ProFauna, with support from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) from late 2000 up to early 2002, showed that Pontianak harbor, Entikong and Seluas in West Kalimantan are the main gateway for smuggling these bears out of the country. Usually, they are sold to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and China.

If the Indonesian government does not act firmly and quickly, the population of these bears will become extinct, despite the fact that environmental organizations like the Gibbon Foundation are ready to help stop the illegal hunting of these bears.

In Samboja, East Kalimantan, for instance, The Gibbon Foundation has prepared a 4,000-hectare plot of land to be used as a sanctuary for confiscated bears.

"Five Malayan sun bears now kept at the rescue center will also be sent (to the sanctuary)," said Sugihartono.

It turns out that in reality, the bears are not as happy as teddy bears. They are always hunted down, while teddy bears are well protected in the cozy bedrooms of well-off families. But, are we only going to see teddy bears in the future? Let's hope not