It’s ironic that an animal whose name includes the word sun would be a creature of the night. But once darkness descends, the Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus)—the smallest member of the bear family—lumbers through the dense, lowland forests of Southeast Asia, snacking on berries, birds, fruits, insects, lizards, rodents and roots.
Sun bears grow to only about half the size of American black bears. Males, slightly larger than females, are about five feet in length and weigh up to 150 pounds. Their sleek, black coats are short to avoid overheating in the tropical weather but thick and coarse to provide protection from branches, twigs and rain. A sun bear has an excellent sense of smell and claws that exceed four inches in length, which it uses to rip open trees and termite nests.
Their small stature suits the sun bears’ arboreal lifestyle and allows them to move easily through the trees. They have even been observed making sleeping platforms high above the ground out of branches and leaves. In fact, the Malay name for the sun bear means “he who likes to sit high.” Another nickname, “honey bear,” refers to the bears’ almost comically long tongues, which they use to extract honey from bees’ nests.
Little is known about the social life of sun bears, but there is some evidence to suggest that they may be monogamous. Sows make ground nests and give birth to one or two blind, helpless babies that weigh about 11 ounces. Mother sun bears have been observed cradling a cub in their arms while walking on their hind legs, a rare trait among bears.
Unfortunately, gathering conservation data on sun bears is difficult because of their remote habitats—from southern China to eastern India and as far south as Indonesia—and shy personalities. What is known is that their homelands are being rapidly lost to deforestation, and some farmers kill them on sight because they often eat crops. According to World Wildlife Fund, poachers hunt them for their fur and for their body parts, which are used for medicinal purposes even though scientists have proved that bear body parts have no medical value at all. Adult females are also frequently killed so that their cubs can be taken and sold in the pet trade.
The IUCN lists sun bears as vulnerable to extinction; sadly, lack of data prevents them from being listed as endangered. It is unknown how many are left in the wild since sun bears’ secretive natures make them hard to find, and few studies have focused on these animals. Wild sun bear populations are believed to be quickly dwindling, however; it is thought they have declined more than 30 percent in the last 30 years. Although it is illegal to kill sun bears, laws protecting them are rarely enforced.
Watch the first video below from National Geographic. With the help of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center, it will familiarize you with some of the facts regarding sun bears. Then view the second video, from National Geographic Short Film Showcase. In a creative, storytelling format, it illustrates the very real dangers that sun bears face throughout Southeast Asia. Despite being small, these shy creatures fulfill vital roles in the health of their forest ecosystems.
Some claim that the name of the nocturnal Malayan sun bears isn’t a result of irony but was granted due to the bib-shaped, golden or white patch on their chests. Legend has it that this attribute represents the rising sun.
Let’s hope it hasn’t set on this diminutive, charismatic and rare bear.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,