Sun bear at Wellington Zoo, New Zealand (captive) (Peter Halasz – Creative Commons Licence)
Sun bears are the smallest and rarest of the bear species and are found in the lowland forests of Southeast Asia. They have short black to dark brown fur with a golden crescent on the chest from which they take their name. Their snout is cream coloured and relatively short and their claws are long (around 10 cm).
The bears do not hibernate and seem to be largely nocturnal, often sleeping on tree platforms during the day. Omnivorous, their varied diet includes termites and honey, using their long claws to obtain the former and their very long tongues the latter.
Male sun bears are around 150 centimetres in length, females around 120 centimetres. Males weigh between 27 and 70 kilograms, females between 27 and 50 kilograms. Sun bears are known to be very aggressive and may attack without apparent provocation.
Except for females with cubs the bears are solitary although there is a suggestion that same may form long-term monogamous relationships. Litters are of from 1 to 3 cubs with no apparent set period for mating or birth. The cubs are born in ground nests and stay with the mother for two years or longer.
Sun bears are classed as vulnerable and the population is almost certainly decreasing due to habitat loss, poaching and the taking of cubs as pets. Longevity in the wild is unknown but can be up to 28 years in captivity.
Status: Classified as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List” and listed in Appendix I of CITES. Numbers are decreasing although there is a lack of reliable population estimates.
Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Carnivora Family: Ursidae
Genusand species: Helarctos malayanus (Raffles, 1821)
Size: Males up to 150cm in length, females up to 120cm.
Weight: 30kg to 70kg
Life Expectancy: Unknown in the wild; up to 28 years in captivity.
Also known as: Honey bear, dog bear.
Range: Sun bears are found primarily in the dense lowland tropical forests of southeast Asia; specifically in Bangladesh; Brunei Darussalam; Cambodia; China; India; Indonesia; Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Malaysia; Myanmar (Burma); Thailand and Vietnam. Their present range is highly fragmented (see map below)and they have been extirpated from much of their former habitat The sun bear is now regionally extinct in Singapore. The subspecies Helarctos malayanus euryspilus (Borneo sun bear) is found only on the island of Borneo (within the territories of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia).
It seems likely that the northern and western ranges have been reduced recently as a result of large scale habitat destruction and poaching. The widespread development of palm oil plantations, and to a lesser extent of rubber plantations, is reducing habitat in many areas. As with Yunnan, current distribution in Myanmar (Burma) is unknown.
For an up to date and detailed map of the distribution of Helarctos malayanus click here to open the IUCN species page .
SUN BEAR SUBSPECIES
Animals Asia works to end the barbaric bear bile trade, which sees over 10,000 bears – mainly Ursus thibetanus (moon bears) but also H. malayanus (sun bears) and U. arctos (brown bears) – kept on bile farms in China, and around 2,400 in Vietnam.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) was founded in Sabah, Malaysia in 2008 as a two-stage effort to provide for the care, rehabilitation and release of orphaned and captive sun bears, as well as address the lack of knowledge and awareness of this little-known bear both in Malaysia and internationally.
The Cambodia Bear Rescue Sanctuary rescues bears held in captivity and rehabilitates them as far as is feasible, in the hope that they can be reintroduced to the wild or provided with a safe environment in which to spend the rest of their lives which is as close to their natural habitat as possible, in which they can receive the best possible care. They also campaign against the exploitation and abuse of bears in Southeast Asia and work towards ending the trade in illegal bears and their body parts and to discourage people keeping bears as pets.
REACT is working to raise awarenes of sun bears through campaigns and education programmes.
“Predation on Sun Bears by Reticulated Python in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo”, by Fredriksson, Gabriella M. (2005). . Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 53 (1), 2005. Click here to open pdf file.
“Sun Bear: The Forgotten Bear”, by Wong, S. T. 2009. Published in Society & Environment, a monthly magazine published by Zayed International Prize for the Environment. July 2009: pp40-42.
“The status of Malayan sun bear in Malaysia”, by Wong, S.T. in Japan Bear Network (compiler) – “Understanding Asian bears to secure their future”. Japan Bear Network, Ibakari, Japan 2006: pp 66-72 145 pp. Click here to open pdf file.
“Home range, movement and activity patterns, and bedding sites of Malayan sun bears Helarctos malayanus in the Rainforest of Borneo” by Wong, S.T., C.W. Servheen, and L. Ambu.. Biological Conservation 119, 2004. Click here to open pdf file.
“Food Habits of Malayan Sun Bears in Lowland Tropical Forests of Borneo”, by Wong, S.T., C.W. Servheen, and L. Ambu in Ursus #13,2002. Click here to open pdf file.
Page updated 16 February 2021