sun bear population


Sun Bear Travels

Francis at his old home, the Woodland Park Zoo.

There comes a time in every young animal’s life when they must move forward and start a life on their own. Four weeks ago I was fortunate to be a part of that process with our not-so-little-anymore sun bear, Palu.

To sustain a high genetic variability in the North American zoo Bornean sun bear population, Marcella, our adult female, needed to be paired with a new male. Francis, a 14-year-old-male at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, was selected by the American Zoos and Aquarium’s Sun Bear Species Survival Plan. To date, Marcella is the only female Bornean sun bear to successfully have and raise cubs. She has had three litters thus far, and we are hoping for more through this new pairing.

Palu was separated from his mother, Marcella, a few months ago when we noticed behavioral changes in both bears that indicated it was time for weaning (see post Big Move for Sun Bears). Palu was moved to an off-exhibit management area, where he spent a few months growing into himself before his long journey. I watched his progress and was incredibly impressed with his increase in independence and self-confidence. Palu had always been a bit of a mama’s bear, and I was curious to see how he would do on his own. Just as he would have had to do in the wild, he adapted very quickly and did well.

As the time for his shipment grew closer, we started a series of training sessions with the crate that he was to travel in. He did very well, and we were able to close the door successfully multiple times while he remained calm. On the big shipment day, our training sessions paid off, and we were able to crate him calmly and successfully.

So how does one transport a potentially dangerous animal thousands of miles? There is a lot to be planned before-hand. We took all the appropriate measurements to select a crate that would work well with the bear and fit in a large van. Of course, there was plenty of packing to be done. Among the things we included for Palu were: food, including his favorite treats, water bottles, enrichment items to keep him busy, extra substrate for the crate in case things got super messy, an emergency contact list of zoos and veterinarians along the way, towels, trash bags, maps, a tool kit, and ties to secure the crate. After he was crated, we loaded him in the van and secured him, and then my supervisor and I were off on our 23-hour adventure (one-way, that is) to Seattle.

Palu did incredibly well on the trip, and we were able to stop for a quick rest at night before continuing on. Upon arrival, he was successfully released to his quarantine area at the Woodland Park Zoo, and we got a chance to see him settle into his environment. The next day, staff told us that he was found sleeping peacefully with peanut shells all over his chest!

We met our new male, Francis, and walked around the beautiful zoo where Palu would soon live. The sun bear enclosure is incredible; with lots of natural substrate and live plants, I’m sure there is plenty to keep our busy boy occupied.

The next morning , Woodland Park Zoo keepers did an excellent job getting Francis calmly crated. Once he was loaded in the van, we started the next leg of our adventure. Francis took a while to settle in, and we ended up stopping for the night a little sooner than we did with Palu. Once we stopped, all three of us got some rest, and we had a smooth second half of the trip. We arrived safely at the San Diego Zoo, and our hospital staff got Francis settled into our quarantine facility.

He continues to be a little shy but has a much more intense energy level than Palu. Francis is also a little smaller and looks a lot lankier. He is very handsome and has a wide variety of behaviors that keepers have trained him to do. My favorite is his “bring” behavior. When asked to “bring,” he will go and get something in his enclosure and bring it back to the trainer and shove it through the bars. While we were in Seattle, when he was asked, he had nothing to bring, so instead he dragged some of his bedding over and gave us that—what a fun bear! I am hopeful and excited for his pairing with Marcella. If all goes well, we will once again hear the pitter patter of tiny sun bear feet.

I have been Palu’s primary keeper since he was born, and I can honestly say that the Woodland Park Zoo’s staff was extremely knowledgeable and gracious, and there is a wonderful space for him. It was truly an incredible experience for me to take him to his new home, and I hope that you will come visit Marcella at our Zoo while she waits for Francis to finish his 30-day quarantine. I will keep you posted as we progress!

Crystal Schalmo is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Sun Bears: “Bearly” Hanging On

Sun bear youngster Pagi

The sun bearis a bear species noted by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) to be vulnerable to extinction. This rare bear is thought to have declined more than 30 percent in the last 30 years. Primary factors in the decline of the species are deforestation and, to a lesser degree, commercial exploitation of the bears for body parts.

Deforestation is rampant throughout much of the sun bear’s Southeast Asian homeland. In some places, the bear has been completely eradicated, as no suitable habitat remains. Despite this, no countries that comprise the historical range for the species have any active conservation measures in place to aid the sun bear. This stands in contrast to the giant panda, a bear that is listed as endangered but has numerous reserves set aside and a number of legal protections within China.

Of the two subspecies of sun bear, the Malayan and the Borean, the Species Survival Plan (SSP) of the U.S. consortium of members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has chosen to focus on Bornean sun bears. These bears are perhaps more at risk due to the alarming rate of habitat destruction in Borneo: palm oil plantation farming, forest fires, and illegal lumber extraction are taking their toll. In 2007, the United Nations (UN) estimated that 73 percent of all logging in Indonesia is illegal and was taking place within national park boundaries. The UN predicted that 98 percent of current habitat would be gone by 2022.

To attempt to develop a breeding population of Bornean sun bears, the SSP imported 20 adult bears to the U.S. from Borneo about 10 years ago. These founder bears were primarily animals that had been confiscated from the pet trade or had otherwise been orphaned. It was hoped these animals could reproduce in U.S. zoos to hedge against extinction. Any focus by AZA institutions on the Malayan subspecies was set aside so that all resources could be brought to bear on behalf of the Borneans.

Siblings Palu, left, and Pagi

The San Diego Zoo is fortunate to house 3 Bornean sun bears: a female, Marcella, and her twin 16-month old cubs Pagi and Palu. She and her mate, Dibu, now at the Columbus Zoo, have successfully added four cubs to the U.S. contingent of Bornean sun bears. Unfortunately, no other Borneans have reproduced successfully since they arrived stateside. A variety of issues have hindered the breeding efforts, from aggressive behavior of mating pairs to individual health issues. But the work continues.

In the future, the SSP will shift another male to the San Diego Zoo in an attempt to breed Marcella with a male not yet represented in the next generation. Dibu, it is hoped, can do the same in Columbus. Their offspring Danum may yet breed in Brownesville, where he currently resides. Efforts continue to shake up the breeding pairs statewide to find matches that will be successful. Cross your fingers that the Bornean sun bear, threatened with a very uncertain future in the wild, will be able to find a solid footing in our captive breeding population.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.