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Helarctos malayanus 

Scope: Global
Language: English
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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Carnivora Ursidae

Scientific Name: Helarctos malayanus (Raffles, 1821)
Common Name(s):
English Sun Bear, Malayan Sun Bear
French Ours des cocotiers, Ours Malais
Spanish Oso de Sol, Oso Malayo
Synonym(s):
Ursus malayanus Raffles, 1821
Taxonomic Notes: Sun Bears on Borneo (Helarctos malayanus euryspilus) are sufficiently different from those on the Asian mainland and Sumatra, representing the typical form (H. m. malayanus), as to warrant subspecific differentiation (Meijaard 2004). There was one case of a wild Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus) - Sun Bear hybrid recorded in Cambodia (Galbreath et al. 2008).

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Vulnerable A2cd+3cd+4cd ver 3.1
Year Published: 2017
Date Assessed: 2016-02-05
Assessor(s): Scotson, L., Fredriksson, G., Augeri, D., Cheah, C., Ngoprasert, D. & Wai-Ming, W.
Reviewer(s): Steinmetz, R. & Garshelis, D.L.
Contributor(s): Bendixsen, T., Choudhury, A., Galbreath, G., Goodrich, J., Htun, S., Hunt, M., Islam, M.A., Long, B., Olsson, A., Singh, P., Usher, G., Vongkhamheng, C., Wong, S.T., Zathang, L. & Sasidhran, S.
Justification:

Sun Bears are declining across their range. Although lacking direct empirical estimates of population trends, country experts from the IUCN SSC Bear Specialist Group made subjective estimates of rates of population loss over three generations (30 years in the past, a 30-year window overlapping the present, and 30 years into the future) based on dwindling geographic ranges, loss and degradation of habitat, and high levels of exploitation. Weighting each country’s estimate of population change by the country’s areal proportion of the geographic range yielded an overall estimated decline of ~35% for the past 30 years, and ~40% or more for time periods including the future. Thus, this species meets the criterion A threshold for Vulnerable.

Deforestation rates and reported high volumes of hunting and trade throughout the Sun Bear range form the basis for this assessment. Sun Bears are forest dependent species, and, thus area of forest loss is directly linked with population decline. Southeast Asia, which comprises nearly all of the species global range, has experienced a higher relative rate of forest loss over the past 30 years than any other part of the world (Sodhi et al. 2004, 2010; Miettinen et al. 2011; Margono et al. 2012, 2014; Dong et al. 2014). Extent of occurrence (EOO) appears to be shrinking, with just a few individuals left in China and Bangladesh, and rapid decline in Vietnam (projected 50–80% decline in the next 30 years). Area of occupancy (AOO) is declining and becoming increasingly fragmented, most noticeably in Borneo and Sumatra. In mainland Southeast Asia, some patches in southern Myanmar, central Thailand, southern Cambodia, and southern Vietnam appear to be completely isolated. Deforestation and degradation is expected to continue into the future. Coupled with this, and the persistent trade in bears and bear parts, sun bear populations are expected to decline even more rapidly in the future.

Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:The historic range of this species (within 500 years) extended across much of Southeast Asia, from Borneo and Sumatra north to at least Yunnan Province, China. Fossil records from the Pleistocene have been found much farther north (Erdbrink 1953). Assam, in northeast India, marks the northwestern confirmed historic range limit (Wroughton 1916, Higgins 1932). Reports of Sun Bears formerly occupying the Terai of Nepal (Hodgson 1844) appear to be erroneous. In the northeast, the range extends to northeastern Vietnam (Erdbrink 1953). The southern-most range limit is Indonesia; there are no records of Sun Bears ever occurring farther east than Borneo. Records exist from the Island of Java from middle-late Pleistocene (Erdbrink 1953) but there is no evidence of occurrence there within historic times.

In present day, Sun Bears occur patchily through much of the former range, and have been locally extirpated from many areas. This is particularly evident in Thailand, where bears are mainly limited to a patchwork of protected areas separated by expanses of agriculture (Kanchanasakha et al. 2010). The range extends westward to southern Bangladesh and northeastern India (West Garo Hills, Meghalaya), northwards to eastern Arunachal Pradesh (Chauhan 2006; Choudhury 2011; Sethy and Chauhan 2012, 2013) and northern Myanmar. The Sun Bear's range is sympatric with Asiatic Black Bears (Ursus thibetanus) across mainland Southeast Asia to about 9°N latitude (in peninsular Thailand), south of which Asiatic Black Bears do not occur. In the Sundaic region, its range extends south and eastwards to Sumatra and Borneo respectively (Steinmetz 2011).

In mainland Southeast Asia Sun Bears appear to exhibit a natural population gradient from the north to south being most abundant in the southern regions and becoming less common towards the northern edge of their range (Steinmetz 2011). A north to south gradient probably applies to the entire range as well, with population abundance lower in mainland Southeast Asia than in Sundaic Southeast Asia. This is based on higher population densities (Ngoprasert et al. 2012, Lee 2014 unpubl. data) and higher sign densities (Steinmetz et al. 2011, Fredriksson 2012) in the Sundaic region compared to the mainland. This gradient of abundance is presumed to be natural and unrelated to human exploitation as it was apparent in historical times (e.g., in India, Higgins 1932) and is also reflected by the relative frequency of fossil records in the mainland and Sundaic regions (Vos and Long 1993, Tougard 2001, Meijaard 2004). As such, Sun Bears are rare in the western and northern edges of their range in southern Bangladesh and Northeast India. There are no records of Sun Bears north of the Brahmaputra River in Assam or Arunachal Pradesh (Chauhan 2006, Islam et al. 2013, Choudhury 2011). Sun Bears are relatively less common in the northern highlands of Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (hereafter Lao PDR), compared with the southern region (Scotson 2010, 2012). Current distribution in northeastern Myanmar is uncertain due to political instability in the area but presumes to be in decline (Saw Htun, Wildlife Conservation Society, pers. comm. 2014). The northeastern range ends in eastern Vietnam, at the Red River, limited presumably by colder climates and unfavourable habitats.

Sun Bears were thought to be extirpated in Bangladesh until recent confirmed records in 2014 and 2015 (Anwarul Islam, WildTeam pers. comm. 2015). It is possible that a population in a southern Bangladesh is maintained through immigration from core areas in western Myanmar. Likewise, the existence of this species in China remains in doubt. Surveys in the most likely regions (remnant lowland natural forests) of Yunnan Province confirmed their absence in all but one small area (<600 km²) that could not be surveyed (Wen and Wang 2013). In 2016, video footage of a Sun Bear was obtained from a camera trap in this area, indicating the presence of at least one bear, <1 km from the Myanmar border (Li et al. 2017).  It is unknown whether there is a transboundary population, or just a few individuals living near the border. Nevertheless, this represents the first confirmed record of the species in China in 45 years. Sun Bears most likely occurred in what is now Singapore, but were extirpated due to the widespread deforestation that occurred in the 1800s and 1900s (Corlett 1992, Brooks et al. 2003).
Countries occurrence:
Native:
Bangladesh; Brunei Darussalam; Cambodia; India; Indonesia; Lao People's Democratic Republic; Malaysia; Myanmar; Thailand; Viet Nam
Regionally extinct:
Singapore
Additional data:
Lower elevation limit (metres):1
Upper elevation limit (metres):3000
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:Regional experts reported declines of Sun Bears in eight of ten current range countries (trends in two other current range countries—Brunei and Bangladesh—are unknown). There are few reliable estimates of Sun Bear population size and few studies have quantified population trends. Previous attempts to extrapolate population size from anecdotal information on bear density derived from occasional bear sightings and sign surveys (e.g., Davies and Payne 1981, Meijaard 2001) have led to unreliable estimates (Garshelis 2002).

A camera-based mark-recapture survey in Thailand estimated population densities of 4.3 (95% Cl 1.6-11.6) and 5.9 (95% Cl 2.3-15.4) per 100 km² in two sites within Khao Yai National Park (Ngoprasert et al. 2012). In southern Sumatra, in Harapan Rainforest, a camera-based study estimated a density of Sun Bears of 26 bears per 100 km², 4-5 times higher than density estimates from Thailand (Lee 2014, unpubl. data). The methods used to estimate density in Thailand and Sumatra differed (capture-recapture and gas-model, respectively), but if results are comparable, they suggest substantially higher density of Sun Bears in the Sundaic portion of their range than on the mainland (where in part they coexist and potentially compete with Asiatic Black Bears).

In Thailand, Sun Bears have declined in some sites, for example Khao Yai National Park where camera trap photo encounter rates declined by nearly two-thirds from 0.73 per 100 days (over the period 1999-2003) to 0.27 (2003-2007) (Lynam et al. 2003, Jenks et al. 2011). But other populations seem to be doing better, with photo encounter rates stable in Kuiburi Natonal Park and Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary (Steinmetz, unpublished data). An earlier systematic mammal status assessment study with local people in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, Thailand, estimated that Sun Bear numbers declined by more than 40% in a 20-year period from 1984-2004 (Steinmetz et al. 2006). But improved protection and community engagement since then appears to have had a positive effect. In neighbouring Lao PDR, interviews in rural communities adjacent to bear habitat recorded widespread population declines (Scotson 2010, 2012). In west Sumatra, repeat camera trap surveys using an occupancy-based sampling framework revealed a decline in Sun Bear populations (5%/year) in response to high levels of deforestation (9%/year in the most deforested site) over 7-year period (Wong et al. 2013).

Sun Bear populations can recover in previously extirpated areas, given a nearby source population. In Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan), sign transects were used to monitor relative abundance of Sun Bears in forest affected by fires and adjacent unburned forest from 2000 to 2010. In the unburned forest, Sun Bear density remained stable. In the recently burned forest, Sun Bear sign density was close to zero post fires, but in 10 years reached 65% of the sign densities in adjacent unburned forest (Fredriksson 2012).
Current Population Trend:Decreasing
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:

Sun Bears are a forest-dependent species, favouring interior mature and/or heterogeneously structured primary forests (Augeri 2005). There are two ecologically distinct categories of tropical forest that comprise their natural range, distinguished by differences in climate, phenology, and floristic composition: seasonal evergreen and deciduous forest in the mainland (north of the Isthmus of Kra) and aseasonal evergreen rainforest in Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo.

In the far northern range limit in northeast India, Sun Bears were recorded in mountainous areas of subtropical climate (Higgins 1932, Chauhan and Singh 2006, Choudhury 2011). Their range may be limited farther north by colder climate and unsuitable habitat in the Himalayan sub-region, and limited farther northwest by competition with Sloth Bears (Melursus ursinus; Steinmetz, 2011). In Bangladesh, Northeast India, and throughout the rest of the mainland range (Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam) Sun Bears are sympatric with Asiatic Black Bears, inhabiting seasonal ecosystems with a long dry season (3-7 months), during which rainfall is <100 mm per month. Seasonal forest types usually occur in a mosaic that includes semi-evergreen, mixed deciduous, dry dipterocarp, and montane evergreen forest (Nguyen Xuan Dang 2006, Scotson 2010, Steinmetz 2011, Gray and Phan 2011). In Thailand, Sun Bears and Asiatic Black Bears use many of the same habitats and have extensive overlap in diet.  However, in montane forests >1,200 m elevation (where ground cover is sparse) Asiatic Black Bears are more abundant than sun bears, possibly due to the lower abundance of invertebrate prey (Vinitpornsawan et al. 2006, Steinmetz et al. 2011).

In southern Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia, Sun Bears inhabit tropical evergreen moist forest and lowland or hill dipterocarp forest (Kawanishi and Sunquist 2004, Nazeri et al. 2014). Tropical evergreen rainforest comprises the Sun Bear’s main habitat in Borneo, Sumatra, and Peninsular Malaysia. Climate is generally constant in this region, with high annual rainfall that is relatively evenly distributed throughout the year. The Sundaic tropical evergreen rainforest includes a wide diversity of forest types used by sun bears, including lowland and hill dipterocarp, peat swamp, freshwater swamp, limestone/karst hills and lower to sub-montane forest. Of these habitats, in Borneo and Sumatra, sun bear abundance (based on signs and camera trap records) was highest in primary lowland dipterocarp forest (Davies and Payne 1982, McConkey and Galetti 1999, Wong et al. 2002, Fredriksson 2005, Augeri 2005, Linkie et al. 2007, Wong and Linkie 2013). Sun Bears also occur in mangrove forest, although their occurrence in this forest type probably depends on proximity to other more favoured habitats (G. Fredriksson, pers. obs).

Broadly speaking, Sun Bears seem to be more abundant in lower elevations (Augeri 2005, Steinmetz 2011) but there is wide variation throughout the range. In India, Sun Bears were detected up to 3,000 m (Choudhury 2011) and occupancy was higher in high elevations, possibly because low elevations were more degraded (Karanth et al. 2009). In western Thailand, Sun Bears occurred primarily below 1,200 m (Vinitpornsawan et al. 2006) but have been observed up to 2,100 m in neighbouring Myanmar (Htun 2006), and up to 1,600 m in Lao PDR (Steinmetz et al. 1999). In Indonesia, sun bears occur primarily below 1,200 m although have been observed at 2,140 m in Sumatra (Augeri 2005, Wong and Linkie 2012). In Peninsular Malaysia Sun Bears were primarily below 1,200 m (Nazeri et al. 2014), whereas in Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo) Sun Bears were more frequently encountered at higher altitudes, though this might be the result of high levels of hunting and logging activities at lower altitudes, both having negative impacts on Sun Bear densities (Brodie et al. 2015).

In highly disturbed landscapes, habitat use may be driven more by hunting and habitat disturbance levels than by natural influences. For example, in the World Heritage Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai forest complex in Thailand, illegal rosewood (Dalbergia spp.) logging may cause Sun Bears to avoid interior forest, due to intensive logger traffic, most of whom are armed with guns (D. Ngoprasert, King Mongkut's University of Technology, pers. comm.). In some sites Sun Bears seem to prefer interior primary forest and density increases with increasing distance to roads and human settlements (Linkie et al. 2007, Nazeri et al. 2012, Wong and Linkie 2013). However, sun bears also use selectively logged areas (Wong et al. 2004, Meijaard et al. 2005, Linkie et al. 2007), but their occurrence in newly logged forest (<10 years) is much lower compared to forest that was logged more distantly in the past (Brodie et al. 2015).

Sun Bears have been observed in plantations (oil palm, sugar palm), agricultural lands (sweetcorn, cucumber, pumpkin, sesame), orchards (coconut, durian, banana, jackfruit, snakefruit, pineapple, apple) and near forest edges (Nomura et al. 2004, Augeri 2005, Fredriksson 2005, Wong et al. 2012, Chea 2013, Sethy and Chauhan, 2013, Scotson et al. 2014), where they may be considered pests. Scattered reports of predation on livestock (goats; Sumatra, Wong et al. 2015) and chickens (Borneo, Fredriksson 2005) exist. Crop raiding tends to occur most often during harvest time and is concentrated in areas where crops are planted along the forest edge (Santiapillai and Santiapillai 1996, Fredriksson 2005, Scotson et al. 2014). There is no evidence that Sun Bears can survive in deforested or agricultural areas in the absence of nearby forest (Augeri 2005). It is known that they can derive some nutritional benefit from consuming oil palm fruits (Nomura et al. 2004, Chea 2013), but it is doubtful that they could subsist on this, without other foods and cover provided by nearby natural forest.

Sun Bears are generalist omnivores, feeding primarily on termites, ants, beetle larvae, stingless bee larvae and honey, and a large variety of fruit species. Figs (Ficus spp.) are particularly important when available (McConkey and Galetti 1999, Wong et al. 2002, Augeri 2005, Fredriksson et al. 2006a). Occasionally, growth shoots of certain palms and some species of flowers are consumed (Fredriksson et al. 2006a), but otherwise vegetative matter rarely occurs in the diet. The Indonesian name for Sun Bears translates to ‘honey bear’ presumably because they are so attracted to honey. Their massive jaw muscles and disproportionately large canines (for the size of their head; Christiansen 2007, 2008) enable them to bite through the bark/stem of hardwood trees to consume stingless bees nests and honey, and their long tongues are used to extract insects and their products from crevices. Their long sharp claws enable them to dig easily into the ground and break into rotting logs (Wong et al. 2002). In Bornean lowland forests, fruits of the families Moraceae, Burseraceae and Myrtaceae make up more than 50% of the fruit diet (Fredriksson et al. 2006a), whereas in western Thailand fruits of Lauraceae, Fagaceae, Leguminosae, Labiatae, and Sapindaceae are the most commonly consumed (Vinitpornsawan et al. 2006, Steinmetz et al. 2013).

There is no evidence of Sun Bears hibernating, presumably because of year-round food availability across their range. There is also no evidence of parturient females entering a prolonged period of fasting, as do other bears species. Female bears use cavities of either standing or fallen large hollow trees as birthing sites. Both diurnal and nocturnal behaviour has been documented. Average home range estimates from Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia range from 7 km² to 27 km², respectively, with daily movements affected by food availability (Wong et al. 2004, Fredriksson 2012, Cheah 2013).

Little is known about social structure or reproduction. Sun Bears are largely solitary, except when with offspring. But they occasionally occur in pairs, and may congregate to feed from large fruiting trees. Faecal steroids from wild Sun Bears in Indonesia and from captive Sun Bears in European and American zoos indicated that Sun Bears are polyestrous, a seasonal breeders, usually producing a single cub (Schwarzenberger et al. 2004, Frederick et al. 2012).

Systems:Terrestrial
Generation Length (years):10

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade:

Sun Bears are commonly poached for their gall bladders (i.e., bile) and paws; the former is used as a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the latter as an expensive delicacy. Traditionally, bear bile was used to treat a wide range of ailments and for promoting general good health and strength. Use was largely subsistence based, until around the mid 1900s, when international trade routes opened and commercial interest in bear bile began to grow. Bear bile forms a component of traditional Chinese medicine but has not commonly been part of traditional medicinal practices in Southeast Asian cultures. Thus, it is not typically used locally, but rather sold to consuming markets. Sun bears (or parts thereof) were one of the most commonly seized bear species in Asia from 2000-2011 (Burgess et al. 2014). Illegal import of Sun Bears or parts has been detected in the USA, New Zealand, UK and France, and illegal exportation from China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Lao PDR, Indonesia and the USA (Foley et al. 2011, Burgess et al. 2014).

Domestic hunting and trade of Sun Bears is illegal throughout the entire range except Sarawak, where it is permitted under license (although no license has ever been issued; Krishnasamy and Shepherd, 2014). Sun bears have been listed in Appendix I of CITES since 1979 and international commercial trade is therefore illegal. Monitoring illegal bear trade in Asia has been difficult and little quantitative information has been collected on the scale of trade or trends over time. However, records of perceived high volume of use and trade have existed for decades (e.g., Caldecott 1988, Meijaard 1999, Pereira 2002, Foley et al. 2011), and the high and increasing value of parts indicate that trade is still booming. In Lao PDR, trading values for wild cubs increased 2.6 times and gall bladder values increased 180 times from the early 1990s to 2013 (data for Sun Bears and Asiatic Black Bears combined; Livingstone and Shepherd 2014). Prices vary widely throughout the range. In Lao PDR, in 2014, poachers sold cubs for ~$US 600 and gall bladders ~US$ 700. In Southern Yunnan, in 2014, a Sun Bear carcass from Myanmar, with gall bladder intact, was traded for ~US$ 4,000 (Roshan Guharajan pers. comm. 2015). In Japan and South Korea, values for gallbladders can exceed the value of gold (INTERPOL 2014). In Cambodia, annual confiscation rates of sun bears more than doubled from 1998 to 2008, with a ratio of around 3:1 Sun Bears to Asiatic Black Bears confiscated. Sun Bear confiscations decreased in subsequent years, although given the prevalent high value of bears this may be due to declining bear populations and trade becoming more secretive, as opposed to reduced trade (Broadis 2011).

Sun Bear cubs (wild caught), although mostly traded as pets, are also ‘farmed’ for their bile in commercial bear farms in China, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam. However, this industry is by far dominated by Asiatic Black Bears and the proportion of Sun Bears held on farms is relatively small (Foley et al. 2011, Livingstone and Shepherd 2014). Indeed, Sun Bears seem to produce much lower levels of the medicinal bile acids (ursodeoxycholic acid) than found in Asiatic Black Bears (Hagey et al. 1993). Nevertheless, Sun Bears were observed in small private bile farm enterprises in Vietnam (Nguyen 2006, Foley et al. 2011). Proponents of the bear farming industry claim that the availability of farmed bile will satisfy the growing demand for bear bile and gall bladders within Southeast and East Asian (China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia and the Russian Far East) markets. However, there is no evidence that this is the case; instead, there is evidence for the opposite - that the demand for wild products continues to rise in the presence of bear farming (Liu et al. 2011, Livingstone and Shepherd 2014). Furthermore, mortality rates of farmed bears are high and farms in Southeast Asia rely on wild cubs to replenish their stock. There may be complex interactions between the markets for farmed and wild sourced bear bile, and the availability of farmed bile may drive up the value and demand for the wild product (Dutton et al. 2011). As such, the IUCN has called for a situation analysis to investigate the true nature of the relationship between the market for farmed bile and the market for wild bile (Garshelis and Scotson 2012).

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s):

Sun Bears are threatened primarily by deforestation and commercial hunting, which occurs to varying degrees throughout the range (Duckworth et al. 2012, Stibig et al. 2014). Killing due to human-bear conflicts is an additional threat, although less obvious in its impact.

Active trade in wild Sun Bears and their parts (Foley et al. 2011, Burgess et al. 2014) is one of the two most serious threats to Sun Bear populations. Commercial poaching of Sun Bears was reported by regional experts in the Bear Specialist Group to be a moderate to major threat in all range countries except Brunei, for which there are no data (see also Meijaard 1999, Nea and Nong 2006, Nguyen 2006, Htun 2006, Tumbelaka and Fredriksson 2006, Wong 2006, Krishnasamy and Shepherd 2014). In Thailand, local hunters in one area estimated that commercial poaching reduced the abundance of Sun Bears by more than 40% in 20 years (Steinmetz et al. 2006). Poaching pressure is increasing within some Thai Protected Areas, based on encounter rates of poaching signs and poachers (Steinmetz and Ngoprasert, unpubl. data), though bears are not usually targeted as much as other species. In northeastern India, where Sun Bear populations occur naturally at low densities, bears are still caught and poaching is said to have reached "critical" levels (Chauhan and Singh 2006, Sethy and Chauhan 2012). In southern Lao PDR, sign surveys indicate that Sun Bear populations have been reduced to extremely low levels relative to other sites in Southeast Asia, with declines attributed to historically high poaching levels (Scotson 2012).

Of major concern is a widespread trend of wildlife snaring throughout much of the Sun Bear range. In northeastern Lao PDR, hunters use a snaring method that specifically targets bears and threatens to wipe out local populations (Scotson and Hunt 2012). Large and small mammal snares were detected in numerous protected areas throughout the county. Although not always specifically targeting bears this represents a major ongoing threat (Scotson and Brocklehurst 2013). Farmers affected by wildlife crop damage frequently set snares around the perimeter of crop fields (Fredriksson 2005), and in some instances catch bears (Hunt and Scotson 2011, Scotson et al. 2014). In Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia camera traps increasingly record bears with missing paws (apparent snare injuries) and in a radio collaring study in Peninsular Malaysia, three out of five captured Sun Bears had missing paws (Cheah 2013), indicating high snaring pressure using cable snares.

Enforcement of domestic and international wildlife laws is severely lacking in most cases and is failing to deter illegal bear trade (Shepherd and Nijman 2008, Foley et al. 2011, Burgess et al. 2014). Low risk of being prosecuted and high potential profits mean that the incentive to poach bears is very high. The value of bear parts on the illegal wildlife market has increased notably over the past two decades (Livingstone and Shepherd 2014).

Other motivations for killing bears include preventing damage to crops and livestock (Fredriksson 2005, Scotson et al. 2014, Wong et al. 2014), subsistence use such as wild meat consumption (Krishnasamy and Shepherd 2014), and fear of bears near villages. The rapid loss and fragmentation of forests across the Sun Bear range may bring bears closer to humans and thus increase the likelihood of human-bear interactions (Fredriksson 2005). In Lao PDR, where bear crop raiding occurs annually in many parts of the country, farmers showed a general reluctance to report crop raiding events to management authorities and may be more inclined to hunt bears that enter fields instead of seeking non-lethal mitigation methods (Scotson et al. 2014). Incidences of sun bears attacking humans are rare and usually result as an act of self defence—under normal circumstances, Sun Bears avoid humans.

As Sun Bears are a forest dependent species, population declines are likely to be associated with deforestation rates. Deforestation increased dramatically during 1990-2005 and in recent times Southeast Asia has experienced the highest annual rate of forest cover change in the world  (Sodhi et al. 2004, 2010; Miettinen et al. 2011; Margono et al. 2012, 2014; Dong et al. 2014). Some estimates project extremely high loss of natural forests and of biodiversity of up to 75% and 85% respectively by 2100 (Sodhi et al. 2004, 2010). Rate of forest loss is not uniform throughout the range, however, with some discrepancies among published estimates of forest lost due to varying analytical techniques (Dong et al. 2014).

Analyses by Stibig et al. (2014) indicated that Southeast Asia lost 11.9% of its forest cover during 1990-2000. The Sundaic region (Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei) experienced the highest rate of loss (Miettinen et al. 2011; Margono 2012, 2014; Sodhi et al. 2014); Stibig et al. (2014) calculated 13% of forest was lost during 1990-2000, and Miettinen et al. 2011 estimated a further 9.9% lost during 2000-2010. By 2012, primary forest loss in Indonesia was estimated to be double that in Brazil (Margono 2014). Hansen et al. (2009) estimated that in Sumatra and Kalimantan combined, 23.5% of total forest was lost from 1990-2005, with loss of lowland forest alone more than 40%. Brunei seems to be impacted the least, although deforestation and forest degradation are still evident (Bryan et al. 2013).

Deforestation in the Sundaic region is largely attributed to extensive clear-cutting for plantations (i.e., oil palm, rubber), unsustainable logging practices (Brown et al. 2005), legal and illegal logging, and forest fires (Meijaard et al. 2005, Tumbelaka and Fredriksson 2006, Wong 2006, Wong and Linkie 2012). Conversion of natural habitat to oil palm plantations is most extensive on Borneo and Sumatra (Miettinen et al. 2011; Wicke et al. 2011; Margono et al. 2012, 2014). Protected areas are not exempt from deforestation; 40% of the forest lost in Indonesia during 2000-2012 was lost in areas where logging is restricted (i.e. national parks and protected forests, Margano et al. 2014), and in Kalimantan alone, 56% of protected lowland forests were cleared from 1985-2001 (Curran et al. 2004).

Human-caused fires throughout the Sundaic region are also diminishing habitat quality and quantity for sun bears, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia. These fires are more extensive during El Niño-related droughts. Between 1997-2006 a total of 16.2 million ha of Borneo’s landmass (21% of total land surface area) were affected by fires (Langner and Siegert 2009). On Borneo, periods of prolonged drought have disrupted fruiting patterns (e.g., Harrison 2000), which in combination with reduced habitat availability due to clearing for agriculture, logging and fires, resulted in starvation among sun bears, even in protected primary forest areas (Wong et al. 2005, Fredriksson et al. 2007).

Given the Sun Bear’s affinity for primary and relatively mature, heterogeneously structured forests, along with its strongly frugivorous diet, such forest loss and fragmentation will exert significant effects on the bear’s regional and global populations along with its genetic and demographic structure and viability (Augeri 2005). Based on deforestation rates and increasingly fragmented range, and evidence of increasing trade of bears and their parts, it is likely that many isolated populations face a real threat of extirpation.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions:

Measures to reduce habitat loss and poaching throughout the entire Sun Bear range are key actions needed to conserve Sun Bears. In areas with the highest deforestation rates, such as Indonesia and Malaysia (two globally leading oil palm producers), immediate action should be taken to protect remaining high conservation value forests from conversion to other land-uses, eliminate unsustainable logging, and effectively manage forest fires. Additionally, new protected areas should be established and effectively managed in order to preempt land conversion (Augeri 2005, Tumbelaka and Fredriksson 2006, Wong 2006) and protect critical Sun Bear habitat. For example, in Peninsular Malaysia, Nazeri et al. (2012), using MaxEnt modelling, reported that Sun Bears favour dense tropical evergreen forest over cultivated landscapes and areas in close proximity to roads. Of habitat deemed ‘highly suitable’ only 22% is contained within protected areas. These findings suggest that the present geographical extent of protected areas in Peninsular Malaysia provide insufficient coverage of habitat crucial for conserving Sun Bears.

In conjunction with primary forest protection, degraded habitats and forest remnants in human-modified landscapes should be enhanced, through reforestation programs, corridor planning and elevated protected status. Additionally, there is the need to establish buffer zones and prevent further agricultural expansion surrounding protected areas. Achieving these measures requires increased levels of resources, the support of conservation constituencies in civil society, and strengthened government commitments to conservation. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the two main producers of palm oil, it will be difficult to stop forest conversion, given the impacts of their economies in the world markets. Furthermore, in present conditions the effective management of already established protected areas, let alone addition of new protected areas and land management outside of protected areas, has proven a highly challenging task.

Sun Bears are legally protected domestically and internationally from hunting and trade throughout most of their range. However, deficiencies in law enforcement are recognized as major ongoing weaknesses (Burgess et al. 2014). Some successes are evident where dedicated agencies operate with steady technical and funding support. For example, in Cambodia, a dedicated Wildlife Protection Mobile Unit, run by Forestry Officials and Military and funded by international NGOs, has confiscated more than 100 Sun Bears and Asiatic Black Bears since 1998 (Broadis 2011). Similar initiatives exist in parts of Malaysia and Indonesia but action is limited. Establishment of more focused wildlife protection/crime units is recommended for other range countries, where possible funded by local authorities responsible for wildlife law enforcement.

Reduction of mortality by clearing of snares from bear habitat is urgently needed throughout much of the range, and long term measures are needed to prevent the problem reoccurring. Efforts to do so are underway in several protected areas throughout the region, by park authorities often in collaboration with foreign NGOs. However, these projects usually do not extend throughout a protected area and can face difficulties in maintaining long-term funding and political support.

To combat the growing impacts of human-bear conflict, funding and technical support is needed to promote non-lethal mitigation, especially in low-income regions where the incentive to hunt bears may outweigh incentives to stop conflict from occurring.

Non-government organizations (NGO’s) have established bear dedicated rescue centres in Cambodia, Vietnam, Lao, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia with the primary aim of providing sanctuary to bears confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade. Bear rescue centres can play a key role in raising local awareness on the threats to sun bears and the conservation value of ecological services provided by bear habitat. Some centres operate dedicated outreach teams, providing structured learning programs that can reach tens of thousands of people each year. Likewise, centres support capacity building of local conservationists, and facilitate in-situ and ex-situ research and conservation. Rehabilitation of ex-captive Sun Bears is another potential role. However this is rare and fraught with challenges, as most potential release sites are still threatened by forest loss and poaching. For example, in Cambodia, a pilot project to rehabilitate two Sun Bears that had been confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade ended after both bears were trapped in snares within two months, despite over two years of intensive snare-patrolling in the area prior to the release (M. Hunt, Free the Bears, pers. comm).

Ultimately, reducing the trade in bear parts would be one of the most highly beneficial steps for the persistence and recovery of Sun Bears throughout their range, especially as trade is increasingly moving towards the last strongholds for Sun Bears in Malaysia and Indonesia (Shepherd and Shepherd 2010, Krishnasamy and Shepherd 2014). Understanding consumer motivation, and educating and changing the behaviour of potential consumers of bear products, could be an incredibly effective tool. This is especially important given that law enforcement is generally underfunded and unfocused.

Increasing our scientific knowledge of Sun Bear ecology, population distribution, status and effects of threats is also needed. Aside from a now outdated global Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan for this species (Servheen et al. 1999), only one range country (India) has developed a National Conservation Action Plan for Sun Bears (Sathyakumar et al. 2012). Range mapping efforts, ongoing since 2006, have suffered from lack of presence data. But in 2014, the Bear Specialist Group mapped the current range-wide distribution of Sun Bears based on collation of more than 2000 presence points from throughout the range and with input from numerous experts. This has resulted in the most up to date range map for the species. The veracity of Probable range depicted by experts remains unclear. Habitat modelling approaches (e.g., Maxent; Nazeri et al. 2012) generate maps of potential distribution and may thereby help direct field surveys to promising locations to ascertain bear status; however such models are often generated with bear presence data from a small area and extrapolated broadly, and should thus be treated with caution. There remain large areas for which sun bear status is uncertain, most noticeably in Myanmar, where further research is needed.

Furthermore, it is important to establish the geographic distribution of Sun Bears at finer scales, taking into consideration habitat and fragmentation within and between countries, in order to better direct conservation actions and monitor habitat changes accurately (i.e., forest loss and fragmentation).

In 2006 The Bear Specialist Group mapped important habitat blocks for long-term survival of Sun Bears (Bear Conservation Units-BCUs). Anti-poaching efforts and forest boundary protection efforts within BCUs should be a high priority. Presently no BCUs receive support just for bears, but BCUs in some countries coincide with protected areas that receive substantial conservation support for other species (such as tigers), and bears benefit as a result (Steinmetz and Garshelis 2014). The possibilities to link bear conservation with that of other species should be explored and promoted more widely.

Efforts are currently underway to develop a standard methodology with which to monitor occurrence, relative abundance and trends of Asian bear populations through repeat sign transects. To this end, methodologies to distinguish Sun Bear claw marks from Asiatic Black Bear claw marks and to age claw marks have been developed (Steinmetz and Garshelis 2008, 2010). Surveys using this technique have been completed in Lao PDR and are planned for Vietnam and Cambodia. Trends in bear occurrence and relative abundance within the aforementioned BCUs should be monitored using standardized sign surveys and camera trapping by local government, communities, and NGOs. Results of such monitoring could indicate which management or ecological conditions promote successful bear conservation, and which do not, and provide a means to assess the results of conservation efforts (e.g., future range expansion and/or increased bear density being indicative of effective conservation efforts). Additional field studies would also be helpful in this regard, as few intensive studies have been conducted on Sun Bears.


Citation: Scotson, L., Fredriksson, G., Augeri, D., Cheah, C., Ngoprasert, D. & Wai-Ming, W. 2017. Helarctos malayanus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T9760A45033547. . Downloaded on 18 January 2018.
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