The latest arrivals at Edinburgh Zoo went on public display today (7 July 2010). Having flown over 6,000 miles from Cambodia, the two Malayan sun bear brothers, named Rotana and Somnang, are the only bears of their kind in Scotland and are one of the rarest in the world.
Rescued in 2004 in Cambodia by Free the Bears Fund from a private owner who kept them in a tiny cage with barely enough room for them to stand and taken to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, the brothers originally would have been bought from an illegal wildlife trader who would have captured them in the forest and shot their mother. Classed as “vulnerable” by conservation experts (IUCN) these bears face a number of significant challenges for survival with the biggest being from the illegal wildlife trade; where bears are captured as pets, or used as a source material for traditional medicine and for the restaurant trade and from habitat loss due to timber harvesting.
The smallest of the world’s eight bear species (1.2 m standing), similar in size to a chubby Rottweiler dog but with claws longer than a tiger, the sun bear is known as the climber of the bear world and has large inward, long curved claws to help with climbing and digging for its food. With a dark brown/black coat and a very long tongue, it gets its name from the white or yellowish crescent on it has chest which looks like a rising or setting sun.
Darren McGarry, Animal Collection Manager, at Edinburgh Zoo said: “Sun bears are very interesting bears and are easily recognisable not only because of their size but their amazingly long tongue used for extracting honey from tree trunks. Having travelled from so far away there is always a bit of apprehension about how they will settle in but even in the relatively short time they have been with us we are really pleased to say they seem to be very at home. We’ve definitely got two characters and they are often seen rolling around on their backs and sniffing out tasty hidden food goodies or asleep high up in one of the trees placed in their specially designed enclosure.”
Somnang, meaning lucky in Cambodian, and Rotana, a popular Cambodian name, are thought to be around seven years old but could live up to 25 years in captivity.
Iain Valentine, Director of Animals, Education and Conservation at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the charity which owns Edinburgh Zoo, said: “Our policy at Edinburgh Zoo is to ensure that we focus our collections on species that are really struggling so that we can activity contribute to managing the captive collections that could, in the future, be the only real safeguard for wild populations. With sun bears declining we saw an opportunity to bring them to Scotland. From the animal conservation perspective we are bringing new blood lines into the captive populations at the same time providing a charismatic creature which will hopefully encourage our visitors to come and find out more about the conservation work that goes on at Edinburgh Zoo.”
Earlier in the year, RZSS’s vet team went out to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre in Cambodia to meet our bears and also share and train local vets in more specialised skills for treatment of rescued bears. Matt Hunt, CEO of Free the Bears Fund who fund the Cambodian Bear Sanctuary at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre said: “Since the war in Cambodia ended we have seen a radical shift in the fate of wild bears. Political instability has given way to commerce and exploitation. As quality of life has improved and wealth increased, wildlife crime is more prevalent with bears being bought and sold illegally for pets due to the perceived status this gives the owner and also for their body parts which are often used in traditional medicines.
“As a result, the injuries we see can range from missing limbs due to snaring to poor development due to being kept in poor conditions in tiny cages, in turn creating severe behavioural issues. Our work is focused on the welfare of the bears in our care and thanks to the visit from RZSS’s vet team, we can now treat some long-term conditions better, use anaesthetics more effectively and diagnose other conditions more successfully using the techniques shared.”
The new sun bear enclosure is located in the north east of the Zoo between swamp wallabies and the Magic Forest where several enclosures have been combined into a new purpose-built exhibit almost three times its original size. The refurbishment has cost £150,000 and includes; an indoor pool; indoor and outdoor climbing structures; a waterfall; and, several enrichment devices such as a honey drip and fruit shaker tree.
The two bears remain the property of the Royal Government of Cambodia and will remain in Edinburgh as part of a long-term breeding loan. Under the terms of the breeding loan agreement RZSS has committed to provide annual support to efforts to conserve wild bears in Cambodia and provide assistance to Cambodian Forestry Administration for the care of thousands of other wild animals at Phnom Tamao.
Edinburgh Zoo has been home to many types of bear at some point in its history as well as many famous bears; Mercedes (polar bear now residing at Highland Wildlife Park); Voytek Soldier Bear (brown bear); and, Hercules the TV star (grizzly bear). Between 1951 and 1965, Edinburgh Zoo had seven sun bears in its collection at varying times. On 24 July, staff will be welcoming the sun bears to Scotland and Edinburgh Zoo with family fun day with special activities throughout the day.