IMCC5: Sarawak, sea turtles and some slightly obsessed scientists

By Kristen Louise McNamara (Perhentian Turtle Project)

Sea turtles, with their ancient lineages and countless unique traits as marine reptiles, attract many of us towards understanding their populations and conservation. Their populations, particularly in Malaysia, are under threat because of poaching, fisheries by-catch, marine debris, destruction of habitat, boat strikes and many other factors. As you can imagine, when a group of sea turtle researchers hailing from all over the world come together in the same room, there’s never a dull moment amongst old and new friends.

The 5th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC5) was held in Kuching, Sarawak from 24-29 June 2018. Here the Malaysian Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology came together to discuss the plight of sea turtles in the region for the first time. Being the first conference I attended, I had travelled from my project on the Perhentian Islands off the coast of Terengganu in Peninsular Malaysia, not really knowing what to expect. Throughout the week I started to recognise familiar faces attending turtle-related talks who seemed eager throughout the presentations. Once Wednesday 27th June came around, everybody was keen to share their findings and discuss the current landscape (or should I say seascape) for sea turtles in Southeast Asia.

The day started with Dr. Juanita Joseph from Universiti Malaysia Sabah giving a plenary talk about sea turtles to the whole of IMCC5. She spoke about the sad demise of the Leatherback Turtles in Malaysia and how she did not wish to see other sea turtle species have the same fate. From poaching to habitat loss and exploitation, the turtles in Malaysia, and for that matter around the world, have the odds stacked against them. After discussing such poignant literature, she called for more enforcement of legislation and further research to close current gaps and combat challenges in the field.

In the afternoon a symposium entirely dedicated to turtles in Southeast Asia took place, with all of the research and conservation efforts of those attending from turtle backgrounds combined. It might sound cliche but it was inspiring after all these years working in turtle conservation, to sit in a room filled with professionals in this field. Firstly, Gavin Jolis’ fascinating and also heartbreaking investigation into the illegal sea turtle trade in Sabah also captured everybody’s interest. As part of the WWF-Malaysia, his team in Semporna, Sabah had come across dozens of turtle skeletons in an area akin to a graveyard where adult turtles had been slaughtered and left at a stockpiling point. It was thought that foreign fishermen, likely from China would be called to collect them to be sold onto the market, fulfilling the demand for turtle meat and shells. Furthermore, it was estimated that between 1999 and 2016, more than 200,000 eggs have been poached and sent to the Philippines, Indonesia and throughout Malaysia. Gavin’s team, with the help of local community members have uncovered that these are well-planned operations. To combat this new mode of operation in poaching, enforcement, task force and advocacy throughout the region is the ultimate goal.

Dr. Jarina Mohd Jani from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu discussed the local challenges of sea turtle conservation in Terengganu, where the consumption and trade of turtle eggs have been commonplace since the arrival of modern infrastructure in the 1920s. She outlined that despite conservation efforts involving an egg tender system and hatchery, the Leatherback Turtle population in Terengganu was depleted by 2001 when no eggs hatched successfully. With the selling of turtle eggs still permitted in Peninsular Malaysia and poaching for meat continuing in northern Sabah, it is a critical time to reflect on the tragedy of losing Malaysia’s Leatherback Turtles. There is now much being done to conserve sea turtles throughout Malaysia, however with an increased market price for eggs being documented, poaching activities are also on the rise. Conservation efforts are being challenged because policies and initiatives for their protection have failed to take into account human interactions with the species. Her research thus implemented a livelihood approach framework in an attempt to better understand what sea turtles mean in the lives of whom they share marine resources with. She concluded by saying that alongside a wider research scope of the sea turtle’s life cycle, more information beyond their biological aspects is needed to mitigate the anthropogenic threats that sea turtles face.

Noor Azariyah Mohtar (Naja), also from WWF-Malaysia then spoke about her preliminary study of the geomorphology of Terengganu’s turtle nesting beaches and their vulnerability to climate change. With an intense northeast monsoon, the coastline of mainland Terengganu is very susceptible to erosion. Her research aimed to monitor how nesting beaches were affected due to erosion and anthropogenic activities such as oil and gas exploration and coastal development. With the shoreline shifting, nesting turtles are having to travel further to lay their eggs and are exposed to more risks in this process. Suggested mitigation methods for this included implementing erosion buffers, sustaining the integrity of the coast and organising a coastal watch with prescribed guidelines and protocols.

Tanya Leibrick from the Turtle Watch Camp at Pulau Tengah then discussed her findings and recommendations for the first sea turtle conservation project in Johor, Malaysia. Here the turtle population faces problems due to lack of enforcement where both unlicensed and licensed egg collectors sell turtle eggs for consumption. The project aims to protect the population by distributing eggs laid there and on the neighbouring islands into a hatchery along with the implementation of regular patrolling efforts, an outreach/awareness program and liaison of information to the marine protected areas (MPA) authorities. In this way, Tanya and her team hope to better understand the population and eventually improve the legislation and enforcement to protect sea turtles in the area.

Sue Audrey Ong from LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute) outlined her work on Apo Island in the Philippines. The island is a popular tourist destination for turtle snorkelling activities, having recorded 71,000 visitors to the island in 2015. The aim of the project is to understand the size, aggregation and seasonality of the turtle population, their habitat use and the impact of tourism in the area. This is done by performing photo identification of foraging turtles, surveys of turtle and tourist interactions both in and out of the water, and ascertaining the local perception of turtles through various levels of engagement.

K.L. Chew then shared her collaborative research from the Lang Tengah Turtle Watch (LTTW) and Perhentian Turtle Project (PTP). Like LAMAVE, these two projects are also using photo identification to understand the movement patterns of green turtles throughout their foraging and nesting habitats in the East coast of Peninsular Malaysia. After collating the known populations between the two projects, it was discovered that a turtle who is known to nest at Lang Tengah Island has also been seen feeding in the waters around Perhentian Islands. This offers some insight into the movement of green turtles between the two sites. The sharing of databases amongst projects that use photo identification will no doubt reap benefits in the coming years by using a non-invasive effort to understand the movement of turtles throughout the area.

Last, but not least, Dr. Nicolas Pilcher, founder of Marine Research Foundation (MRF), spoke about the implementation of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) throughout Malaysia. With a significant number of turtles lost to fisheries each year, the long-term engagement of the Malaysian Department of Fisheries (DoF) to make TEDs a legal requirement has been a decade-long journey. This has been no small task. Dr. Pilcher spoke about his efforts to combine science-based evidence of by-catch with the engagement of fishers and finding solutions to socioeconomic challenges. He spoke about the challenges and triumphs throughout the process, but with TEDs ultimately offering a win-win situation for fishers and turtles, their gradual implementation will surely help to reduce by-catch rates over the coming decades.

Symposium group photo (left to right): Seh Ling, Sue, Dr. Jarina, Tanya, K.L., Naja, Dr. Nick and Gavin.

Following the symposium, the Turtle Working Group of SCB Malaysia Chapter ran their first meeting to further discuss the work that everybody was involved with. It was recognised that despite the growing body of data pertaining to turtle populations and mortalities, it is still biased by the reporting agencies’ location. To gain a whole understanding of sea turtle mortality throughout Malaysia, more data is vital. As active conservation efforts and awareness increases around the country however, people are becoming more compelled to report mortalities. This will allow understanding the scope of threats in a more wholesome sense. Alongside this, it was mentioned that growing interest in turtle conservation and their life cycle will require some guidelines in protocol and best practice in the field. Everyone in attendance discussed their specific concerns and how best to combat them. It was clear this would require more collaboration towards influencing conservation efforts throughout the region, but this meeting served as the perfect starting point for the group. I tingled with excitement while everyone talked eagerly around me. This was a completely new experience and incredibly inspiring.

After the meeting I attended the poster session where Nur Izzati Roslan and Alberto Garcia Baciero from the Juara Turtle Project (JTP) presented their research about using multi-disciplinary conservation strategies to recover sea turtles on Tioman Island, Pahang. These strategies involved collecting eggs for a hatchery and calculating hatching success rates, and how the involvement of the local community can serve as a cornerstone for successful conservation efforts in the region.

Enjoying the poster presentation by Izzati and Beto from JTP

The day wrapped up well after dark and I arrived back to my accommodation almost overflowing with new knowledge and ideas. No aspect of the IMCC5 had been left untouched by the turtle working group and couldn’t wait to share my experience with my colleagues back on Perhentian.

I was greeted by many familiar faces for the remainder of the week, and shared some insight into what I had learned from the talks I had attended and vice versa (it was impossible to attend everything we were interested in!). I took in all I could of Kuching, strolling along the riverfront with the majestic State Legislative Assembly Building in the frame of almost every photo I took. Being currently based in Terengganu, it was interesting to see the difference in culture between Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia. Kuching has strong roots tied to more than 40 indigenous groups with their own dialect, traditional dress and lifestyle. The diverse range of cultures resonated throughout the streets as I grew comfortable with the city over the week. All too soon however, my time at the IMCC5 had come to a close. The turtle working group said their goodbyes at the closing gala which was held at the Sarawak Cultural Village, each of us inviting the other to visit our bases dotted throughout Malaysia and nearby. As a working group in the SCB-Malaysia chapter, we’d been brought together by our common interest in turtles, and by the end of the week I could feel that here is where I had made some life-long friendships. Finally I had found a space to share my passion.

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Sea turtle symposium at IMCC 2018

Photo credit - Perhentian Turtle Project 2015

Photo courtesy of Perhentian Turtle Project

The 5th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) will be held in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia from 24th to 29th June 2018. The IMCC is the flagship biennial meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) Marine Section, previously held in Washington D.C, USA (2009), Victoria, Canada (2011), Glasgow, UK (2014) and St. John’s, Canada (2016). For the first time, the meeting will be held in Malaysia, a “low or middle income” country as defined by the World Bank, also one of the world’s most biologically diverse countries.

The IMCC brings together a large number of marine conservation biologists, social scientists, practitioners, policy makers, teachers and journalists to help “Make Marine Science Matter”, which presents a good opportunity for sea turtle conservationists to meet and share knowledge. Dr. Chen Pelf Nyok (from Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia) and I (from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu) will be organizing a sea turtle symposium titled Sea turtle conservation in Southeast Asia: where we are and how do we move forward”?

Sea turtles are ancient creatures that have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. Nearly all seven species of sea turtles that spend majority of the lifetime in the ocean are endangered due to fisheries bycatch, marine debris, harvesting for meat and eggs, destruction of habitat as well as boat strikes. In some countries, conservation efforts have begun more than half a century ago. Much has been studied about their life history, population trends, ecology, conservation genetics, conservation efforts, human-sea turtle interactions, policy and etc.

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Photos courtesy of Perhentian Turtle Project

The symposium will provide an avenue for sea turtle researchers, conservationists, non-academicians to promote their research, share their findings, identify common threats and legislation loopholes.It also provides a platform to discuss how these findings can be translated into advances in conservation policies and legislation, and communicated to the public.

Speakers will share on the various aspects of sea turtle research and conservation in the Southeast Asia region at this symposium, including Dr. Nicholas Pilcher from Marine Research Foundation who is also a member of IUCN SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group, Gavin Jolis and Noor Azariyah Mohtar from WWF-Malaysia, Dr. Jarina Mohd Jani who is a human ecologist from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, Sue A. Ong from Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines, The Cuong Chu from Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, K. L. Chew from Lang Tengah Turtle Watch as well as Tanya Leibrick from Turtle Watch Camp.

In addition to this symposium, there are numerous presentations on sea turtle research and conservation during the IMCC by Dr. Andrea Phillott (from FLAME University), Madhuri Ramesh (from Dakshin Foundation), Azalea Anota (from University of Papua New Guinea), Dr. Abdulmaula Hamza (from Universiti Malaysi Terengganu) and many more. Dr. Juanita Joseph from Universiti Malaysia Sabah will also be giving a plenary talk on the current status and challenges in saving sea turtles in Malaysia. Click here to check out all the amazing turtle talks at IMCC.

We look forward to meeting you at IMCC! Feel free to get in touch with Pelf (chenpn@gmail.com) or me (lsehling@gmail.com) for more information on the sea turtle symposium.

Seh Ling.PTP

Photo courtesy of Perhentian Turtle Project

Saving endangered sea turtles by operationalizing Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) in Sabah

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Sea turtles range extensively across the oceans and play an extremely important role in the marine ecosystems. They help maintain the health of the marine habitat mainly sea grass beds and corals that benefits species such as shrimp, fishes and lobsters – all commercially valuable species. They are also greatly important in terms of the tourism income. In Malaysia, there is not a single tourism poster, brochure or video which does not feature sea turtles. They are viewed as beautiful and majestic reptiles, becoming the main attraction to divers in all top diving locations and hatchery operation sites receives high number of tourist to witness sea turtles laying eggs and releasing hatchlings into the wild.

Sea turtles travel hundreds or even thousand miles from land to sea throughout their lifetime, thus exposing them to countless of threats. Trawl fisheries are considered the number one threat to sea turtles. The Marine Research Foundation (MRF) has been working tirelessly for decades to address the issue by introducing the Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs). TEDs offer practical low cost solutions allowing catch to be retained while accidental captured sea turtles are ejected from nets.

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Trawl fishing vessel using Turtle Excluder Device (TED) (Image courtesy of MRF)

A TED is typically an oval frame with vertical bars that allow shrimp and fish to pass through to the back of the net, while turtles are forced out through an opening covered by a net flap. TEDs improve the quality of the catch, as large objects such as turtles do not crush it, and the reduction of debris in the back of the net saves fuel – a benefit to fishers.

MRF initiated the TEDs Programme in 2007. It began as a volunteer-based initiative, and in 2013, the programme achieved positive success as well as recognition when the Malaysian government made a commitment to develop the project into a nationwide National TEDs programme. Four states along the east cost of Peninsular Malaysia (Terengganu, Kelantan, Pahang and Johor) have fully adopted TEDs since November 2017 and by the year 2022, it will become a full-scale adoption Nationwide!

Sabah will become the fifth State to be fully TED equipped by 2019. With the support from our funders, MRF together with the Department of Fisheries Sabah (DOFS) will be carrying out multiple workshops throughout the next 2 years to all key fishing districts in Sabah. The workshops will include training fishing crews to build, install and repair TEDs, dialogue sessions with fishermen and DOFS, and demonstration at-sea trials (catch comparison with and without TED on shrimp fishing vessels). Our goal is to get as many fishers as possible be ready, knowledgeable and trained in the use of TEDs by this time.

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Demonstration and training to build, repair and install TED with fishing crews (Photo courtesy of MRF)

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At-sea trial to compare catch on trawl vessels with and without using TEDs (Photo courtesy of MRF)

We started the TEDs project in Sabah by training the DOFS Officers. This was essential in developing the necessary skills required to further champion and advocate for TEDs implementation across Sabah. It was the beginning in establishing the Department of Fisheries Sabah ‘TEDs All-Stars Team’! The team will work closely with MRF to conduct training and outreach activities with fisher communities in Sabah and will, gradually, organize and lead training activities in the future!

It has been estimated between 2000 – 4000 sea turtles are killed each year just in Sabah alone from accidental catch in shrimp trawl fishing. We envision, with effective training and in-depth understanding of the TED initiative, we will reduce the number of deaths of the endangered sea turtles in shrimp trawl fishing, while remaining sensitive to the livelihood of the local fisher communities in Sabah.

To explore in depth of MRF’s TEDs Project , feel free to visit our web page, TEDs Project in Malaysia.

Saving pangolins in Borneo

Why pangolins?

Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are extraordinary animals. They do not have teeth so they dig ant nests and termite mounds with their strong claws and swallow them together with tiny stones to help them digest their food. Their bodies are covered with hard overlapping scales and thick bristles that emerge from the scales, which is unique to Asian pangolins. Female pangolins carry their young on the back of their tails. When sleeping or threatened, pangolins curl into a protective ball. Being nocturnal and elusive, these solitary mammals are difficult to study in the wild, thus many mysteries remain about their behavior and habits which hampers conservation efforts. All pangolins species are rare with decreasing in number because of its value mainly in the Chinese traditional medicine and served as exotic meat. Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), found only in Southeast Asia, is one of the least studied species in the region. There are no detailed studies on the population levels, ecology or life histories of Sunda pangolins.

Worth to save!

One of the few people working on this species is Elisa Panjang, a local researcher based in Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC), Kinabatangan, Sabah, Malaysia. As part of her Ph.D. at Cardiff University, her research is focusing on gathering data on the spatial use, habitat selection and behavior in a fragmented and degraded landscape by using multiple approaches to study the species i.e. sign survey, camera trapping, radio and GPS telemetry as well as survey on local knowledge. During her study, she managed to attach radio and GPS units on three pangolins and able to track them for some time, and recorded interesting behaviour which have never been documented before. Her research on wild Sunda pangolins will provide invaluable information especially to make sure the survival of the species, which is already threatened by illegal wildlife trade.

Elisa measuring a Sunda pangolin to be attach with a GPS unit (Photo courtesy of Scubazoo)

Elisa tracks and monitors a GPS-tagged Sunda pangolin (Photo courtesy of Kyle Hendrikson/Danau Girang Field Centre)

Meanwhile, apart from doing research, Elisa is also focusing on public education and raising awareness. As a Pangolin Conservation Officer at DGFC, she works very close with the local villagers, plantation companies, conservation NGOs, zoos, and media to highlight about pangolin e.g. through public talks and exhibitions to increase awareness especially in Sabah. This year, about a thousand school students from three districts in Sabah learnt about pangolins during World Pangolin Day. Well done Elisa!

Elisa delivered a talk to pre-schoolers during World Pangolin Day 2018 (Photo courtesy of Kinabalu International School)

 

Coral reefs an important natural resource

Malaysia has an estimated 4,000km2 of coral reefs, which has an economic valued of RM145 billion per year. Sadly, 90% of our reefs are under threat from over fishing, development, pollution and integrated local threats. But are we doing anything about it?

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Alvin Chelliah/ Reef Check Malaysia

Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) was registered in Malaysia as a non-profit company in 2007, and since then has established an annual survey programme to assess the health of coral reefs around Malaysia (reports are available for download from the website: www.reefcheck.org.my). In the last ten years, RCM has trained over 500 divers to conduct reef surveys at 200 permanent monitoring sites on coral reefs around the country.  RCM is also active in education and awareness programmes with students on Tioman, Sibu and Mantanani. In addition, we have been working with stakeholders in the Tioman island, Sibu Island, and in Mantanani to involve local communities in coral reef management.

Our survey data show that reefs monitored around Malaysia had an average of 43.71% live coral cover and it showed that reefs inside marine protected areas were healthier than those that were not protected by law. It is also clear that the best way to protect reefs is to improve the management of this ecosystem.

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Grant Tompson/ Reef Check Malaysia

We strongly advocate co-management and believe that stakeholders at all levels must be involved in the management and protection of natural resources. It is the only way to promote ownership and to get a fair representation for each stakeholder group. On Tioman, we are working with a group of local islanders know as the Tioman Marine Conservation Group to involve the local community in day-to-day conservation and management activities. They assist with tasks such as mooring buoy installations, reef rehabilitation, cleanups and reef health monitoring. On Mantanani, we are working with local stakeholders to set up a locally managed marine protected area that will benefit both tourism and local fishermen.

Malaysia is blessed with some of the most productive reefs in the world and it is vital that we sustainably manage this natural resource before it lost forever.

 

What can DNA metabarcoding tell us about the diet of cave nectar bats?

Imagine yourself in a supermarket; you grab a pack of cookies and you scan the barcode behind for the price of the cookies. Now, what if we use this concept to study the diet of nectarivorous bats and hence understand their roles in pollination? This is what VC Lim attempted to do for her PhD research in University of Malaya.

The cave nectar bat, Eonycteris spelaea, is one of only three nectarivorous bats present in Peninsular Malaysia. Through its feeding on nectar and pollen, the cave nectar bat pollinates the commercial crops (e.g., durian and petai) and mangrove plants (e.g., Sonneratia alba). Previously, the diet of cave nectar bat in Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia was studied by identifying the pollen grains collected from the faeces and body of the bats based on the physical features of pollen grains. However, these studies failed to identify many of the pollen grains which lack the distinctive physical features for identification.

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Close-up of Cave nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea), photographed by VC Lim.

Therefore, a new method to study the diet of cave nectar bat is necessary for fully understanding the ecological role of the bats. One potential method is to extract many short fragments of plant DNA from the faeces of bats and later match them to DNA reference sequences in a DNA library, consequently provide information on what plants the bats have been feeding on. This method is known as “DNA metabarcoding”, similar to how a supermarket scanner distinguishes consumer products using the black stripes of the Universal Product Code (UPC).

To date, there are no studies which use DNA metabarcoding to examine the diet of nectarivorous bats. Therefore, VC Lim, a PhD candidate in University of Malaya, teamed up with another researcher, Dr John James Wilson from University of South Wales to explore the potential of DNA metabarcoding in dietary study of cave nectar bats.

VC Lim is extracting DNA of plants from faeces of the cave nectar bats.

As a result, they discovered 55 plant species have been consumed by the cave nectar bats roosting in Dark Cave Conservation Site, Batu Caves between December 2015 and March 2016. Many of these plant species which were detected from the bat faeces had not been reported by previous studies of cave nectar bat’s diet.

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The Dark Cave Conservation Site is one of the caves in Batu Caves and is home to a large colony of cave nectar bats. Batu Caves serves as a temple for Hindu prayers and tourist attraction for its cultural and natural heritage. Photographed by VC Lim.

Several of the detected plants are found only in particular habitats such as mangroves, limestone hill and montane forests. Therefore, it is likely that the cave nectar bats are promoting genetic diversity among the populations of plants by dispersing pollen across different habitats. Commercial crops particularly jackfruits, bananas and water apple were frequently detected in the bat faeces, supporting the view that the cave nectar bats are economically important pollinators of commercial crops.

Commercial crops, particularly jackfruit, banana and water apple were frequently detected in the faeces of cave nectar bats. Photographed by VC Lim.

However, non-native plants, which were introduced to Peninsular Malaysia many years ago, were also detected in the bat faeces. If the cave nectar bats preferentially feed on and potentially pollinate the non-native plants, the pollination and hence reproductive success of native plants may be adversely impacted. Therefore, it is important to consider the origin (i.e., native or non-native) of a plant species before gardening and agricultural activities.

Altogether this study has demonstrated the potential of DNA metabarcoding in studying the diet of nectarivorous bats, and revealed the important ecological and economic roles of cave nectar bats despite roosting in a highly disturbed urban cave.

For more details, check out the published work here!

Sunbears released after successful rehabilitation

By Wong Siew Te

The team at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) has recently released two rehabilitated sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) into the core area of Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Sabah, Malaysia on 7th March 2018.

One of the released bears, Debbie, was purchased by a guy from Tuaran, and subsequently surrendered to the Sabah Wildlife Department and sent to BSBCC in January 2012. I still remember the night she arrived at the Centre as a little cub. Although she weighed only a few kilograms at that time and estimated to be four months old, she was surely a feisty little black furry ball  nobody dared to approach including me. Over the years, Debbie has grown into a healthy sun bear. She is a keen explorer! After six years in rehabilitation, she has grown to be the perfect candidate for release.

Photo courtesy of BSBCC.

Another sun bear, Damai, arrived at BSBCC in November 2012, when she was found wandering in a car porch at a residential area called “Damai” at Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. We believed that somebody in the neighbourhood must have been keeping her as a pet from here she had escaped. She was rescued and transported to BSBCC.Damai is independent in nature. She knows what she wants and tries to take care of her own needs by herself. Now at six years old, beautiful Damai, weighing 39.6 kg, is ready to be released into the wild.

Both Debbie and Damai are now in excellent condition and are progressing well in BSBCC. Together with 42 other rescued sun bears currently housed at the Centre, they have learned many survival skills to prepare themselves to live in the rainforest for the second time. Both have become very skilled, they climb tall trees and build nests on these tall trees by using branches, liana and green leaves. They love to spend time up in these treetops! They are also excellent in foraging for termites, grubs and invertebrates. They have quickly picked up forest skills. Sometime they do not come back to their bear house for dinner. They prefer to skip dinner that we serve and forage for their own food in the forest enclosure. In short, these two rescued sun bears have completely rehabilitated and are ready to live independently in the wild.

Photo courtesy of BSBCC.

I treated all the rescued sun bears at the Centre as my own children. The bears are my family members, together with 26 full-time staff and volunteers at the Centre. The bond between our bears and staff is strong. We know each of our bears by their faces and individual characters. I remember clearly the night when Debbie and Damai arrived at BSBCC. I have been caring for them in the past six years and now the time to say goodbye has arrived. There is a mix of emotions running through me—bitter, sweet, worried and happy.

I had been feeling uneasy from the moment we left the Centre at 3 am on 7th March 2018., from the 5-hour road trip to Tabin Wildlife Reserve, to the last passage in a helicopter to the release site. My emotional turmoil reached its climax when I bid them goodbye for the very last time, right before I opened their cages and let them roam free in the forest—a forest without fence. Slowly, these black bodied animals with ID collars disappeared into the forest. This is it! From then on, my relationship with these two bears had ended. I could no longer take care of them nor ensure that they live happily ever after. Both Damai and Debbie are now on their own – they are subject to all the threats and challenges that a wild bear may face in the forest.

Photo courtesy of BSBCC.

I really hope that both Debbie and Damai can live long in the forest. It would be even better if they could find and mate with resident males, reproduce, and ensure the survival of the species in this part of the world.

Sun bear populations across Southeast Asia have been threatened from habitat loss over the past several decades of deforestation for timber extraction and agriculture. Today, the biggest threat for sun bears is poaching activities. I hope that these two releases will not only boost local bear population but also raise awareness of sun bear conservation in this part of the world. Sun bears play an important ecological role to maintain a healthy forest ecosystem where clean air, clean water and a stable climate are being generated. The protection of sun bear is the first step to ensure a better future for all of us!

Debbie and Damai are our hopes to achieve this goal!

Full story here: Damai and Debbie gain freedom in Tabin Wildlife Reserve