What A Newborn Sun Bear Teaches Us About the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Usually sun bears saved from the wildlife trade are too traumatized to reproduce, so a rare birth is cause for celebration.

MANY OF THE sun bears found in zoos around the world have been rescued from rough lives in the illegal wildlife trade. That's why a recent birth of a baby sun bear to rescued parents is an unusual piece of good news for the species.

Poachers target these bears for their body parts, which are used to make traditional medicines with no scientifically proven value. Bears who aren’t butchered are sold to exotic pet traders or bile farms, which extract bile from the bears’ gallbladders for use in traditional medicine.

Often, when these bears are rescued, they’re too traumatized to engage in typical behaviors such as reproduction, says Mike Jordan, collections director at England’s Chester Zoo. “Lots of animals never get over that trauma and become fully functional,” Jordan says.

The Chester Zoo is home to two sun bears, named Milli and Tony, who were rescued from poachers in Cambodia back in 2009. Because of their history, it was unclear if they could be bred. But the zookeepers succeeded, and last week, Milli gave birth to a cub. It’s the first sun bear to be born in captivity in the United Kingdom, according to the zoo.

“It’s momentous for them and, with it being a U.K. first breeding of this species, momentous for the zoo too,” says Tim Rowlands, the Chester Zoo’s curator of mammals.

A Rare Breed

Sun bears are the world’s smallest and least well-known of the bear species — and are quickly becoming one of the rarest.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly how many sun bears are left in the wild, but the species is currently listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Habitat loss and poaching across Southeast Asia has taken a heavy toll on the bears, whose numbers are believed to have declined by more than a third over the last 30 years.

Sun bears are targeted by poachers who can earn a small fortune selling their gall bladders, paws, and live cubs. Their paws are considered a delicacy, and their gall bladders are used to to make traditional Chinese medicines.

Conservationists have tried to breed sun bears in zoos since the late 1960s, but their success has been limited.

“Chester Zoo was specially selected to work with Milli and Toni and continue their care following the harrowing and horrible experiences they had in their younger lives,” says Rowlands. “It’s simply fantastic that we’ve been able to help them come this far and have a cub together.”

Jordan says the birth of this bear has given him hope that animals who’ve been victimized by the illegal wildlife trade can be successfully rehabilitated. Because the captive breeding pool for sun bears is limited to less than 100 individuals, the birth of one cub is considered a significant contribution.

The Next Generation

Sun bears, also called honey bears, inhabit tropical forests across southeast Asia. These bears scale the forest’s tallest trees in search of bugs, fruit, and honey. 

Female sun bears, called sows, are about five feet long and weigh up 60 pounds. At birth, their cubs weigh less than a can of soup. Sows have been observed cradling their tiny babies in their arms while walking on their hind legs. Cubs are weaned after four months, but usually stay by their mother’s side until they are two years old.

The cub born at the Chester Zoo will likely remain with his mother for the next two years. After that, he’ll be given the opportunity to start his own family, either at Chester or another zoo.

“It’s crucial that the cub helps us to raise much-needed awareness of the illegal wildlife trade, which is one of the greatest threats to the future of wildlife,” Jordan says.

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