Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Svetlana the Bear: Human-Animal Conflicts in and Around Kerinci Seblat National Park

This is Svetlana (1).  Svetlana is a Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus; "Beruang Madu" or "honey bear" in Indonesian) and is a temporary border at the headquarters of Kerinci Seblat National Park here in Sungai Penuh town.  Svetlana was caught in a trap near Sungai Asam village at the foot of Gunung Tujuh in the northern part of Kerinci district.  Villagers called the park authorities (though Svetlana was not trapped inside the park), who came, tranquilizered her with a blowgun, and spirited her away to the park office for medical treatment.  Svetlana was seriously injured by the snare in which she was caught, with wire cutting through the skin of her neck into her muscle.  Fortunately park officials got to her quickly, and our local veterinarian, Dr. Dwi, was able to remove the wire and stitch up her neck.  She's currently irritable but recovering at the park office, but she doesn't seem to have much of an appetite.  Dr. Dwi hopes she will start eating again within a couple of days.  In the picture below you can see the damage the snare did to Svetlana's neck.

According to the villagers the snare was set to catch wild pigs, which  are seen as a crop pest here.  

The Malayan Sun Bear

Map from IUCN.  Visit their site to play with the cool map tool that shows
the ranges of a number of vulnerable and endangered species.
The Malayan sun bear is the smallest of all bear species (2), with females ranging between 27-50 kilograms and males between 27-65 kilograms.  Svetlana is a bit more than 50 kilograms, so she is on the larger end.  The sun bear's range stretches from India through most of mainland Southeast Asia and on down to Sumatra and Borneo.  They are quite flexible and inhabit most altitudinal zones from sea-level peat swamps to upper montane forests, though research indicates they favor lowland tropical hardwood forests (3).  Their snouts are flexible, and they have very long tongues.  Sun bears are omnivorous, meaning that they eat lots of different things, including fruit, plants, insects (the long tongue probably helps with this), and smaller creatures.  One of the first things you notice about the sun bear is its long claws, which allow it to climb trees with ease.  The sun bear has a wide range on Sumatra and is not just confined to protected areas like Kerinci Seblat National Park; they are also occasionally found in production and protection forests as well, though according to Indonesia-specific research they are very susceptible to edge effects and tend to avoid disturbed or degraded forests.  Though some sources say they are aggressive, most of the folks I've talked to here say that the sun bear only attacks if it feels threatened and that it's not likely to attack without reason. 

Close up of IUCN map showing current and former bear habitat in this area of Sumatra.

Across their habitat bears have an important role in the maintenance of ecosystem balance.  Augeri, who did his doctoral dissertation research on sun bears at several Indonesian national parks (see references), found that bears eat a lot of fruit and later spread the seeds in their feces.  This helps with forest regeneration, persistence, and evolution.  Bears also help with soil mixing and aeration, biomass breakdown, and nutrient enhancement when they root around in the soil looking for termite and ant colonies.  

Villagers said that Svetlana was with two other bears, but this couldn't be confirmed by park officials.  Sun bears are not as solitary as clouded leopards or tigers, especially when raising their cubs, so it makes sense.  Authorities at the park say that these kinds of encounters are becoming increasingly frequent because of the diminishing size of the bear's natural habitat.  Although Malayan sun bears are not normally aggressive, they are said to become more dangerous if their habitat is disturbed or if they feel threatened. 

Human-Bear Conflicts

Bear parts seized by authorities in
Malaysia.  Photo from Shepherd &
Shepherd; see citation below
The sun bear is listed as a "vulnerable" species (a step above endangered) on the IUCN's Red List.  Though the sun bear is frequently described as the most under-studied of the world's bear species, the IUCN estimates that the global population of sun bears has declined by more than 30% over the past 30 years and various sources suggest that a total of around 5,000 sun bears remain in the wild.  Illegal logging, encroachment, and other forms of habitat destruction have all taken a toll on the sun bear population in the area and across its range.  The sun bear also faces poaching pressures, as its gall bladder is used for "medicinal" purposes and some people view bear meat as a delicacy.  On Sumatra there are frequent reports of palm oil plantation employees hunting bears to sell to restaurants.  Bear claws and teeth are also sold as souvenirs.    Like all poaching, the trade is completely unrecorded and under the radar so it's hard to get accurate estimates as to the scale of the problem.  The park authorities at KSNP handle on average between 2-4 instances of conflict per year, and most if not all of these can be traced to some form of habitat encroachment or destruction.  Outside the park there is are conflicts reported nearly every month.  In terms of poaching, even outside the park bears are a protected species under Law 5 from 1990 on the conservation of biodiversity.  Regardless of the law, though, Augeri's study found that according to "interviews with regional and village heads and traditional leaders...[there is] concerted interest each year to hunt bears for body parts or meat, to reduce fear of attacks, to take bears for the pet trade, and to kill bears perceived as pests" (285).  One of the main worries is that as sun bears are poached from the Malay peninsula the population will decrease there and then demand will shift to Indonesia, further exacerbating the poaching problem here.   

Here on Sumatra the greatest threat to the bear is habitat loss and fragmentation.  Habitat loss forces more bears into a smaller area, since they tend to avoid disturbed areas.  Augeri found that 92.7% of observed bear activity occurred in undisturbed forest and that tree species diversity, forage abundance, mature stand traits, and forest cover were important variables associated with 97% of habitat use.  Since bears are large omnivores, they don't rely on once source of food and move around to find small animals, insects, fruits, and honey which vary temporally and spatially in their availability.  Food sources are much less abundant in degraded and secondary forests, and Augeri found that it takes 25-30 years for cleared or degraded forests to recover to the point that sun bears feel comfortable there.  Augeri argues that sun bears prefer security over food, and so they are more susceptible to forest loss than a lot of other species.  When habitats are fragmented small sub-populations of bears are created, and these are more susceptible to local extinctions.  This is why habitat corridors are very important in sun bear (and other animal) conservation.  Moreover more bears in smaller areas increases stress and decreases reproductive success and persistence. One might ask why, if sun bears tend to avoid degraded areas, are human-bear conflicts a problem here.  The answer to this question could be that forest loss forces too many bears into too small an area, and so some are forced to raid human occupied areas.  

Protecting the Sun Bear

Augeri presents some interesting recommendations for protecting the sun bear in Indonesia and brings up two key points that will be important in future conservation efforts:

  1. Predicting how biogeography, changing landscape structures, random environmental events, and anthropogenic (people-caused) disturbances like hunting affect bear movements and foraging patterns across time and in increasing patchy landscapes;
  2. Facilitating increased access for bears to available critical resources and habitat over the long term.

Based on this Augeri recommends that Indonesia provide landscape-level protection of the largest remaining forests in the region, make a strong effort to restore degraded lands, and implement and enforce stronger conservation policies and protective mechanisms.  Augeri found that bear use of habitat didn't reach consistently high levels until 10 kilometers from disturbed areas.  This is quite a long way and suggests the need for large, effective protected areas like Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra and Kerinci Seblat National Park here in central, west, and south Sumatra.  These are the only two parks on Sumatra that fit the recommended 10,000 square kilometers.  In addition Augeri suggests that these core areas be connected by corridors (at least 8-10 kilometers wide) to other patches of primary forest of at least 200 square kilometers so that fragmented populations can interact and mix.  Another part of this "time-space mosaic" is a buffer zone surrounding the core areas at least 5 kilometers wide.  The buffer zone can be secondary forest, but it must be remembered that a minimum of 25-30 years are required for forests to regenerate to the level where they can support moderate bear populations.  Augeri suggests that agroforestry projects like organic shade-grown tea or coffee can take place in some of the buffer zone but there shouldn't be anything in these areas to attract foraging bears and that garbage and other food should be disposed of in bear-proof containers that can be emptied outside the buffer zone in proper disposal sites.  Below you can see a diagram of Augeri's proposed system of parks and reserves for bears, taken from his dissertation.  

Augeri's plan is pretty ambitious especially given the pressures facing bears here and the current lack of political will in many areas of Sumatra to actually make protected areas work.  Hopefully though Augeri's very thorough research will be of use in future conservation areas.  Meanwhile, bears continue to be affected by a high rate of forest clearance and degradation.  The plan is to release Svetlana back into the park if and when she recovers fully from her injuries, which will hopefully happen in within two or three weeks.  My friends at the park told me that she will be released in the Bukit Tapan area since it is sparsely populated, but it is also a significant distance from where she was found


(1)  I was raised in an era when bears were associated with the Red Menace, hence the Russian name.  The folks at the park office are calling the bear "Manis", which translates to "sweety" or "sweetness".

(2)  Though it's described as about half the size of the American black bear, by which I've personally been chased, my ranger friends say "you think it's small until you meet one in the forest".

(3)  The problem with this is that these are the types of forests that are easiest to log or to convert to other uses.

References and For Further Reading

IUCN Redlist page here.

Augeri, David.  2005.  On the Biogeographic Ecology of the Malayan Sun Bear.  PhD dissertation, Darwin College, Cambridge.  Available online here

Shepherd, Chris and Loretta Ann Shepherd.  2010.  The Poaching and Trade of Malayan Sun Bears in Peninsular Malaysia.  TRAFFIC Bulletin 23:1 pp49-52


Thanks to Julian Bloomer for mentioning Geografika Nusantara as a good source of information in his blog.  Julian has been bicycling around the world since 2008 in support of the Peter McVerry Trust in Ireland, a charity that provides support for houseless people there.  Peter recently passed through this area (though unfortunately I didn't have a chance to meet him in person) and has some pretty interesting stories, which you can read about on his blog.    


  1. In our work, the kinds of animal is going less and less, as I know this caused by many different reason, such as global temperature is increasing, pollution, and human interaction. After I read this article, the number of Malayan sun bear is significant decrease is due to human interaction. In Indonesia, people set the snare to catch the bear and sale it. It does make me feel very uncomfortable about this action. I think Indonesia government need to do something to protect all kind of extinct animal.

  2. This entrie is interesting because although the Sun Bear isn't an endangered species, it is vulnerable, and still desereves attention to prevent it from becoming one day endangered then exstinct. I feel that Augeri's plan for the Sun Bear is well thought out and is going to require political assistence and time to be exicuted. Do you think that this system for the sun bear could be paired with other vulnerable animales in Indo?

    1. That's kind of how it works now....the sun bear is protected at Kerinci Seblat National Park along with tigers, tapirs, and a lot of other animals.

  3. After I read your blog, I was surprised that sun bears decrease because of human interaction.
    Protecting sun bears is necessary and Augeri's plan is good way to protect them.
    From your blog, I learned that increase forest area is important to protect sun bears.
    However, I heard that deforestation grows Indonesia economy.
    So, I think that if people stop deforestation for sun bear, growth of economy will stop, too…