Accepted scientific name: Helarctos malayanus euryspilus (Thomas Horsfield, 1825)
Description: The sun bear is the smallest of the eight bear species. Female Borneo sun bears are around 120 cm in length and males up to 150 cm. Females weigh between about 27 and 50 kg, males between about 30 and 65 kg. Their black fur is short and the bears’ muzzles range from light grey to yellowish or light orange. The crescent-shaped chest patch can be white, cream, yellow or light orange.
Range: Found only on the island of Borneo (see map).
Habitat: Tropical forests up to 2,300 metres in altitude.
Status: The largest of the remaining populations of sun bears is thought to be that of Borneo. However, whilst there is little robust information on present numbers, the population is known to be declining. Helarctus malayanus is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and is listed in Appendix I of CITES. The bears are protected by national laws but these are poorly enforced overall.
Life span: Up to 24 years in the wild although often considerably less. Up to 28 years in captivity.
Food: The Borneo sun bear relies on fruits from the Moraceae (fig), Burseraceae and Myrtaceae (Myrtle) families to make up over half its diet. The bears use their long, curved claws to dig out insects, particularly termites and bees. Also eat honey, small mammals and reptiles.
Behaviour: Mainly nocturnal and spend much of their time in trees. They do not hibernate and avoid human contact if possible, but can be very aggressive if humans are encountered. Relatively little is known about their reproductive behaviour but cubs generally remain with their mother for eighteen months or thereabouts. The bears seem to be mainly solitary but have been tracked travelling in pairs. It is possible that these are mating pairs as mating can occur at any time of the year.
Threats: Habitat loss and the resultant conflicts with humans. Poaching, often using logging roads for access. Poachers typically hunt the bears at night using a technique known in the UK as “lamping”; they shine lights into trees picking out the bears from the light reflected from their eyes. Transfixed by the bright light the bears are then shot and fall from the trees. Poaching is predominantly to obtain body parts for use in medicine.
Human-imposed threats to sun bears in Borneo Ursus Vol 11, pp 185-192 (1999) (pdf document)
The ecology of Malayan sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) in the tropical rainforests of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo University of Montana 2002 (pdf document)
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is a sun bear rescue and rehabilitation facility being developed in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Click here to go to their website.
Page updated 07 March 2020