A Wildlife Hero

-A +A

LIVE your passion — that piece of advice is everywhere from the Internet, articles, speeches and books to movies and songs. But subscribers to this maxim tend to downplay an important prerequisite to living your dream: the price that is paid to carve a career from a passion. The sacrifices are many but, for some, there simply is no other way.

Wong Siew Te knows about personal sacrifices. To start and run the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sandakan, Sabah, he lives apart from his wife and two daughters, spends many hours looking for funding and faces tough criticism from his peers. Among all the challenges, the most painful is being separated from his family.   

Says Wong, “I miss them so much [they live in Taiwan, where he pursued his undergraduate degree]. I am not there when my daughters are growing up. People say the sun bears are my family but that’s a joke. It is not the same.” He sends his wife almost all his monthly salary and the family meets up about twice a year.

But there was never any question in his mind about starting a sun bear conservation centre. It is something that he knew he had to do. “And if I didn’t, no one would,” he says. Sun bears don’t enjoy the celebrity status awarded to orang utans and pandas. Little is known about this mammal. Wong believes that they are more endangered than orang utans and harder to breed than pandas.

When researching sun bears, he came across many kept as pets in villagers in deplorable conditions. In most cases, poachers had killed the mother bear and sold their cubs. As is to be expected, baby bears are very cute. “Sun bears are meant to climb trees and live in wide open spaces. In small cages, their lives are hellish. Cage bears are miserable and sad. They should be kept in their natural habitat and rehabilitated. The forest needs the sun bear. And we, people, need the forest, else society will face problems like bad weather and water shortages, problems that you can find in Selangor,” says Wong.

The Penang-born wildlife biologist studied veterinary science but lost interest in being a vet when he realised that the career mainly serves the profit-driven farming industry and that the welfare of animals is not a priority. He switched to wildlife biology when pursuing his Masters in the US and was asked by a professor to research the Malayan sun bear. After about six years observing and learning about the species, he is now recognised as an expert.

“I could have written more papers on sun bears and lectured on wildlife and jungle ecology. But I believe that with my knowledge, I am the best person to start a conservation centre for sun bears. Running a conservation centre is a contentious subject. I am constantly criticised. Many question how this place operates, how I rehabilitate the bears, how I spend the funds. Can you believe a wildlife expert suggested that I euthanise all the bears in this centre and spend the rest of my funds researching wild bears in the forest?  This is my answer: Don’t judge my results now. The conservation centre started only in 2008. Wait another 10 years before judging me,” says Wong.

His biggest challenge now is funding the sun bear centre. This is an arduous and time-consuming process. New donors need to be convinced of his ability and existing donors constantly need documentation and updates on operations and his plans. He has already spent RM6 million to establish the centre on a 2.5ha site. Monthly operating expenses are high and every time heavy rain causes trees to fall on the electric fence, he spends at least RM10,000 on repairs.

“It’s not easy. I worry about money. I think about finding enough funds for the centre and about educating my children. So, although money doesn’t motivate me, I think about it a lot,” he says. He has plans to expand his centre and to provide the sun bears with more foraging grounds. Orphan baby bears are sent to him at an alarming pace. At the start, he thought that his centre would house about 20 bears, but now, there are about 33. Wong knows them all and plays mummy to the young cubs that need to learn how to climb and how to look for food.

“The level of awareness about sun bears is still so low. Their body parts are still used as traditional medicine and villagers still think of them as pets. Some zoos continue to keep them in cages and they live a life of misery. Besides rehabilitating rescued bears, this centre plays a role in educating the public. We need to know more about the natural environment and wildlife. We need to appreciate them. You may have a lot of material wealth but if there is no jungle, no animals and the environment is polluted, life will be unbearable. What’s the point in having so much money but an extremely poor quality of life?” he asks.

Location: The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is next to the the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok, Sandakan. Website: www.bsbcc.org.myThis article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Personal Money — a personal finance magazine published by The Edge Communications.