Sun bears and the Bornean sun bear conservation centre

Sun bear walking

Meet beautiful Chin, one of the 43 rescued Bornean sun bears which I had the privilege to help care for during two volunteer placements at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) [] in Sandakan, Sabah. I met Chin during my first volunteer holiday experience in 2017.

She has been one of my favourite sun bears ever since. Why? Each bear has a unique personality and story. Chin, like all the other bears, has lived through a lot of trauma but has this wonderful, positive aura about her. Seeing her outside in the forest enclosure – exploring, foraging, curious and playful – is a feel-good experience in an environment that can test your mental toughness at times. These humble bears are fascinating, adorable and in trouble. Join us in learning more about this little-known animal and find out what the BSBCC is doing to help – and how you can get involved!

The Bornean Sun Bear

Very few people have heard of the sun bear – which is also known as the honey bear (like their famous literary cousin Pooh – these guys adore honey!) Their name comes from the golden/tan crescent on their chests which is compared to the rising or setting sun.

Sun bears are the smallest of the eight bear species in the world. Their distribution is throughout parts of South East Asia, with Borneo being home to the smallest sub-species, the Bornean sun bear.

The sun bear has the distinction of being the most arboreal of all the bears; they are the most incredible climbers and particularly love playing high in the trees when it rains. Watching them can almost make your heart stop as you fear one of them could fall at any time.

Sun bear chest mark

Mary loves showing off her unique chest mark

While many people imagine bears to be bumbling, clumsy creatures, the sun bear is in fact super nimble, manipulating food and objects with ease.

This is due to their long tongues, strong canines, and long, powerful claws. Those claws – reminiscent of Freddy Kruger’s creepy bladed hands in the horror movies – can crack a coconut open with enviable ease. And the surprisingly long tongue (20-25 cm)  is a useful adaptation that allows them to guzzle termites right out of the nest or access fresh honey from inside hives and trees. The powerful teeth are not for carnivorous means for this omnivorous bear; they are used to rip into trees to get to insects or crack open hard fruit.

Sun bear climbing

Sun bears are incredible climbers 

Sun bear tongue

Their very long tongue is a useful tool in search  for food

Their Threats

Sun bears are the least studied bear, and — after the giant panda — are the rarest bear species on the planet, currently classified as vulnerable.

However, because they are so elusive in the wild, experts aren’t even sure how many there are left. These gorgeous animals may in fact be endangered – or worse – but nobody knows for sure.

It is estimated that populations have dropped by at least 30% in the last 30 years. []

This is gorgeous Tan Tan

As with most species found throughout Indonesia and Malaysia, sun bears are at huge risk due to habitat loss. Deforestation for palm oil, along with illegal logging, is an epidemic that is pushing all these precious creatures towards extinction.

Poaching of sun bears is by some experts now considered to be the biggest threat. These shy animals are trapped and killed and their body parts sold on the black market.  Bear paws, gall or bile bladders and various other parts are hugely sought after in traditional Chinese medicine. Bear bile farms throughout China, Korea and Vietnam are a horrific reality for so many sun bears.

To a lesser extent, mother bears are killed so that babies can be sold into the pet trade, where they suffer unimaginably, living their lives in tiny cages or chained up, deprived of a natural, wild life and traumatised beyond belief.

rescued sun bear

Little Noah in quarantine at the BSBCC not long after being rescued from a tiny cage.

The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is located in Sepilok, on the East coast of the Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo. Founded in 2008, it is currently the only sun bear conservation centre in the world and is tasked with caring for and rehabilitating rescued sun bears and raising awareness of the plight of this animal.

The 43 bears living at the centre are all rescued. Some may have been found as orphans and others confiscated from poachers or illegal holders. Many bears here can never be released due to physical disability or behavioural issues as a result of their history. These individuals will live at the centre for the rest of their lives.

Whether they are at the centre for short term rehabilitation or for life, BSBCC are committed to providing them with a safe, natural, and stimulating environment.

Along with caring for these animals, BSBCC aims to raise awareness, educate visitors as well as local communities about sun bears and their habitat and support further research into these animals so we can better protect them.

Dr Wong with volunteers

Founder Dr Wong is always approachable. Here we are with a group of volunteers

What can you do?

Adopt a sun bear

Virtually adopt one of the gorgeous bears at the BSBCC. Your money will directly help sun bear conservation and the care of these beautiful animals. You’ll get updates every four months, an adoption certificate and photo of your very own bear.

Borneo & Beyond proudly supports the BSBCC on an ongoing basis. We often take donations and supplies to the Centre and offer financial support through our ongoing adoption of Chin.

Sun bear adoption


If you’re up for some meaningful adventure, consider joining a volunteer placement at the centre to work alongside this dedicated team. You’ll get the chance to meet the bears, create enrichment, prepare food, observe behaviour and help the centre operate on a day to day basis. It’s an incredible way to travel while giving something back.

Borneo & Beyond continuously supports the centre and can assist with expert advice about the Sun Bear Volunteer program.

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Barbara Katsifolis

Author Barbara Katsifolis

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