Saving Sun Bears in Sumatra

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The sun bears in Sumatra, Indonesia, definitely don’t get the same attention as some of the more notable species found on the island, but they really should. 

These beautiful animals share the Sumatran rainforest with orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos, and are just as vulnerable to the destruction of that habitat.

With palm oil and rubber plantations, logging, and poaching still rampant throughout Sumatra (and similar problems in their other habitats throughout Southeast Asia), these enchanting bears are in trouble and need help…

Which is why The Sumatran Sun Bear Team (SSBT) was launched.

This Australian not-for-profit charity is dedicated to preventing and relieving the suffering of Sun Bears in any way possible.

We chatted to founder Lesley Small about these fascinating animals, and some of the impressive work SSBT have been doing to make a difference.

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All About Sumatra's Sun Bears

Sun bears are the world’s smallest bear species. Their hair is short, sleek, and usually black, but can appear slightly red or grey. They have cute little rounded ears and a distinctive creamy/yellowish marking on their upper chest and neck area.

They are found in tropical rainforests throughout Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, Myanmar, northeastern India, Peninsular Malaysia Cambodia, Vietnam, and China’s Yunnan Province.

In Indonesia, they are only found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo (Kalimantan).

Sun bears are the most arboreal of all bears (meaning they spend a lot of time in the trees!)

They have super-long tongues, which they use to fish insects out of cracks and crevices – as well as honey out of beehives.

While they aren’t hugely carnivorous (eating mostly fruit and insects), they have enormous canine teeth, powerful jaws, and long, sharp claws – all useful for breaking open the tough, spiky fruit found in the rainforest, or ripping open old logs in search of creepy crawlies.

If you’re hoping to see one of these elusive animals in the wild during a trek, you might need to lower your expectations; these solitary bears are timid. You’re far more likely to see fresh scratches on a tree, which is pretty exciting in itself!

To learn more about the fascinating life and habits of sun bears, click here.

Why do Sun Bears Need Help?

While not exclusively found on the island of Sumatra, sun bears are a vital part of the ecosystem in all their ranges.

“Sun bears are an extremely valuable animal for the forest, they are seed dispersers, so they keep the forest vegetation diverse,” says Lesley Small.

“They create nesting sites for other vulnerable species such as the hornbills. They improve the quality of the forest floor by helping with the breakdown of materials that contribute to the nutrients in the forest substrates. They keep the forest healthy.”

Classified as vulnerable, their populations are at risk due to hunting and habitat loss. From conflict over crop damage to capture of cubs for pets, there are many issues threatening sun bears in Sumatra.

While the Sumatran government do confiscate any animals they find in the wildlife trade, they lack adequate facilities to care for them appropriately. Without specialist care and management, there is little chance for animals to be rehabilitated and released to the wild.

Setting Up The Sumatran Sun Bear Team

Caged Sun Bear
Photo courtesy of SSBT

Lesley Small has worked with animals for more than 35 years, but always felt a special bond with sun bears.

For more than two decades, she has worked with these smart little bears and has travelled to rescue facilities in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Borneo.

In 2013, a trip to Sumatra left Lesley feeling frustrated. But like all great conservationists, she used that frustration as fuel to make a difference.

While many adult sun bears can be released after undergoing rehabilitation, many are not suitable for release. The sun bears that cannot be released normally end up in holding pens, often staying in small cages indefinitely, with little stimulation.”

Caring for, releasing, and rehabilitating sun bears is a complicated process, and failure rates are high, even with well-managed programs.

Attempts to release confiscated and rescued sun bears that do not have sound forest skills or without the correct procedures and experience will most certainly cause death to the sun bears; therefore, a safe rescue and conservation centre is needed for Sun bears in Sumatra,” state SSBT on their website.

Following this 2013 trip, Lesley set out to find and unite friends and colleagues in the conservation industry to help bring her idea to life.

Building a Sumatran Sanctuary for Sun Bears

Sun bear in tree
Image credit: Pixabay lesjbohlen

The SSBT are involved in numerous projects in North Sumatra, but Lesley told us that their central goal is:

“To build a conservation and rescue centre to hold sun bears that have been victims of the illegal wildlife trade and are either in government facilities or are victims of snares that are requiring intervention, support, rehabilitation, and hopefully release.”

So, no small task anywhere, let alone in a developing country with more than its fair share of conservation issues and endless (often very questionable) red tape!

But Lesley and her team didn’t let any of those roadblocks get in their way.

From the moment we realised it needed to be done, it became a reality. We started looking for suitable land that would be able to house the conservation and rescue centre, which will benefit and support not only the bears but also the local community.”

In September 2017, they hit the jackpot, finding 5.3 hectares of land in Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra, that was perfect for their project: a safe place where rescued sun bears could climb, forage, and rest in a safe, natural environment.

Discussions with local village leaders were positive, and the SSBT began to look for local support for the project.

They now need to work with another local NGO and get all of the governmental permits in order. They also need to continue fundraising to purchase the land and start building.

Staying Strong for Sun Bears

Enrichment for sun bears
Adding enrichment for captive sun bears - SSBT

Working in conservation is often heart-breaking and exhausting. We asked Lesley what keeps her going when things get tough.

Seeing these beautiful, intelligent, majestic animals in small wire cages instead of climbing, foraging, exploring, and behaving like a sun bear should is heartbreaking. There is currently nowhere in Sumatra that will be able to rehabilitate sun bears, or there is not enough support to go and assist bears that have been caught in snares.

Many bears are left to die in snares, and there are reports of large numbers being found just as skeletons. We need to have a team of people that can react to reports of a bear caught in a snare.”

Earlier in the year, SSBT collaborated with local NGOs to improve the lives of captive sun bears at Medan Zoo in North Sumatra by providing much-needed mulch pits, logs, hammocks and beds.

More recently, SSBT partnered with the fantastic Stay Wild team (an NGO also based in North Sumatra) to install a solar-powered electric fence around a durian farm.

It’s initiatives like this that reduce conflict between farmers (who desperately rely on their fruit and veg for an income), and sun bears.

Why Sumatra is Incredible

Bukit Lawang, Sumatra
Photo courtesy of SSBT

Sumatra seems to captivate everyone who takes the time to dive in and embrace its diversity, natural beauty, and hospitable locals. Lesley shared with us what made her fall in love with Sumatra, and where she most enjoys spending time.

“We love Sumatra. We love the people, and we love the fact that there is still a large amount of natural forest. But it does need to be saved, and it does need to be protected; we need to make sure that we can work to help make it happen in a way that will benefit the people as well as the wildlife.

People should come and visit Sumatra so they can see the beauty as well as the difficulties people face. People should visit and also see why this beautiful part of the world is worth saving and working for.

I think my favourite place in Sumatra is Bukit Lawang. It’s beautiful, it’s rugged, it’s enchanting, and it holds some history. It also is just next door to some of the most beautiful and diverse wildlife that you will ever see in the Gunung Leuser National Park.”

How You Can Help Sun Bears

Supporting the SSBT is a fantastic way to help sun bears in Sumatra directly. Here’s how you can play a part in their future:

People can support us by finding ways to best help finance our work. We are starting from scratch and we have a huge task ahead of us. 

People can help share and promote our work, but ultimately, we do need to raise a lot of finances to make this happen. We need people who want to help us help them.”

Visit their website to donate:

And follow them on social media for updates and lots of sun bear info:


Instagram: Sumatran Sun Bear Team


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Horas, mejuah juah, and terima kasih, Agung and Carly

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