Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 80 – The Malayan Sun Bear


Sun Bear in captivity at the Columbus Zoo, Powell Ohio - Ryan E. Poplin

“It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else”
Maimonides

What is it about bears!  You would think they would be revered on account of their size alone.  And, in the case of this bear, its name.  After all, Inti or Apu-punchau, the Inca Sun God was worshipped by so many for so long.  But, these bears have not been afforded the same courtesy.  Instead these poor creatures are persecuted beyond belief.  Just like their cousins, the Asiatic black bears, they are trapped and incarcerated for their fur, bile and gall bladders.  Traditional Chinese Medicine is claiming their body parts and the paws of the bear are sold as a delicacy in restaurants.  Their habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate and, on top of all that, the ill-informed seem to think bear cubs make good pets (after killing the mother, that is).  All-in-all, a sad indictment of man’s behaviour toward animals.

Although considered a large animal, Malayan sun bears are the smallest of all bear species, with, incidentally, the largest canines. Reaching a maximum length (males) of almost four and a half feet, they can weigh up to one hundred and forty-four pounds. Males tend to be a lot larger than females.

Sun bear in tree. Photographer credit - UcumariMalayan sun bears (or honey bears as they are sometimes known) have short, smooth, water-repellent, dark-brown to black fur, with an orangey/yellow bow-shaped mark on their chests.  The same colour of fur surrounds the muzzle and the eyes.  The skin around the neck is loose, allowing the bear to twist and bite its attacker when necessary. They have strong paws with hairless soles and long curved claws.  Their snouts are flexible and they have extraordinarily long tongues – an adaptation for gathering termites from the nests and mounds.  Sun bears have very poor eyesight, but a keen sense of smell, which helps them to detect food.  They are good climbers and can often be found resting in trees. 

Despite being the smallest of the species, sun bears can be quite aggressive, and there have been recorded unprovoked attacks.  Sun bears have been observed living together whilst raising cubs, but, usually they are solitary and the mother and cubs are the only ones to stay together. 

Living in a tropical climate, with an all-year-round supply of food, the need to hibernate does not arise.

Baby sun bear Wellington ZooThere is no specific breeding season.  The gestation period following mating is roughly ninety-six days.  One to three tiny, altricial (furless, eyes closed and  dependent upon the parent) cubs will be born.  The cubs will continue to nurse for about eighteen months. Cubs remain with their mothers until  fully grown and are able to fend for themselves.  Female bears use holes inside large, old hollow trees to birth the babies.

Habitat
Tropical evergreen rainforest including swamps and limestone/karst hills, and lower montane forest.
Where
Bangladesh, Brunei, Darussalam, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam.
What they eat
Fruit (especially figs) and berries, insects, small vertebrates, eggs, honey and termites. They use their very long tongues to access the mounds and nests of termites, the hives of bees and tree holes with insects.
Threats
In most countries:  Habitat loss due to plantation development, unsustainable logging practices, illegal logging both within and outside protected areas.  Commercial poaching of bears for the wildlife trade is a huge threat.  Other reasons for killing bears include: Crop damage, capture of cubs for pets (the mother being killed in the process) and commercial hunting.
On the islands of Sumatra and Borneo:  Large-scale conversion of forest to oil palm plantations.
In Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Viet Nam:  Sun bears are commonly poached for their gall bladders and paws; the former is used as a Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the latter as an expensive delicacy.
In China and Viet Nam:  Bile is milked from commercially farmed bears;  however, although sun bears can be found on these farms, the majority of bears used in this practise are Asiatic black bears.  Bears are routinely removed from the wild to replenish stock on these small farms.
The Malayan sun bear has few natural predators.
Status: Vulnerable
The Malayan Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Vulnerable (considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild).  It has been listed on CITES Appendix I since 1979.
Killing bears is illegal in all range countries.  However, little enforcement of these laws occurs.  It has to be said, the areas which need patrolling are vast, making this an overwhelming task for rangers.  But, given exploitation for body parts is expected to continue, these bears will be gone if something effective is not done soon. .
In Thailand alone, it is estimated that commercial poaching of sun bears has reduced their numbers by 50% over the last twenty years.


Related Articles

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre – Hope at Last For Borneo
Baby bear found strapped to pole in northern Ontario
This article is not about sun bears, it is about a baby bear tormented by children in Canada.  It happened in 2012.  What is noteworthy is the appalling stance the comments took towards the bears, and the unacceptable  ‘kids will be kids’  attitude conveyed by those who clearly thought this behaviour was acceptable.  No wonder so many abuse animals if this is the sort of message children are receiving in a supposedly civilised western country. Though, I very much doubt this article reflects the good Canadian people in general.

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Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 75 – The Malayan Tapir


Malayan tapir in captivity

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe, the less taste we shall have for destruction”
Rachel Carson

Looking remarkably like a cross between a rhinoceros (to which it is related) and a huge prize boar wearing a saddle blanket, the Malayan tapir is yet another species suffering from habitat devastation. Once again, we bear witness to the terrible destruction caused by palm oil plantations.

These solitary, timid creatures are one of four species of tapir.  The others can be found Central and South America. The Malayan tapir, as the name would suggest, is native to Asia.

Malayan tapirs are surprisingly large, weighing up to seven hundred pounds; roughly as much as a Shetland pony.  But, far from being pony-like in its length, it can grow to as much as eight feet from head to tail.  Of all the tapirs, the Malayan tapir is the largest by far. Oddly, females are usually larger than males.

Tapirs are close relatives of (surprisingly) horses and (not so surprisingly) rhinos.  And, something you may not know, a group of tapirs is called a “candle”.

Malayan tapirs have long, flexible, prehensile trunks used extensively for grabbing leaves and plucking tasty fruit.  But, this proboscis also has another important role; that of a snorkel, used when the tapir goes swimming and diving for food and cover.

Malayan tapir - forestry commission IndonesiaIts sparse coat is a deep-dark-grey to black with a white ‘saddle’ running from the centre of its back to its tail, and white ears trims.  The coat is made up of very coarse hair which covers extremely tough skin. The tough skin comes in handy for protection against the claws and jaws of predators, and for withstanding the rigours of crashing through thick understorey vegetation when on the run.  It also has a very short stubby tail, small piggy-eyes and large ears. There are four toes on each fore foot and three toes on the hind ones.

It is said the disrupted colouration of the coat acts as camouflage, and predators most likely will mistake it for a large boulder when the animal is prone. This sounds a bit optimistic to me, but… let’s hope so!

Because tapirs are nocturnal and crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk), the short-sightedness of the species is a bit of a drawback, especially when searching for food or avoiding predators. However, this is well-compensated for by the acute sense of smell they possess and the excellent hearing they enjoy.

Malayan tapirs are superb swimmers too, and will, by preference,  live near water, where they will spend the majority of their time. They feed from the bottom of the rivers on aquatic plants, and are able to submerge themselves for several minutes before using their ‘snorkels’.  Water also helps to cool them down and remove parasites, and allows refuge from predators.

But, don’t be fooled into thinking these gentle-looking creatures cannot and will not attack if necessary.  When threatened, they will charge using their very dangerous teeth to defend themselves.  Deaths of humans have been recorded in both the wild and in captivity.  Well… I suppose at least one species is getting its own back!

Malayan tapir and babyThe breeding season for tapirs typically occurs between April and June.  A gestation period of up to three hundred and ninety-five days follows. After which, one single calf will be born weighing about fifteen pounds.  Looking nothing like the mother in colour, the baby will have brown hair, white spots and white stripes.  This colouring allows it to blend in with the variegated forest vegetation.  Between the ages of four and seven months, the, now juvenile’s, coat will turn to the colours of an adult tapir.  The young one will be weaned at six to eight months.  By this time it will be almost fully grown.  The mother will only produce a calf once every two years.

***
Habitat
Primary and secondary tropical moist forests and lower montane forests.
Where
Sumatra, Myanmar and Thailand.
What they eat
Young leaves, growing twigs and aquatic plants. And, seasonal fruits. They enjoy palm tree fruits as well as mango and fig. They also put a great deal of effort into finding salt licks.
Threats
Human activity: habitat conversion to palm oil plantations. illegal logging, deforestation for agricultural and flooding caused by dammed rivers for hydroelectric projects. Hunters seek out Malayan tapirs for food and sport.  Young tapirs are also trafficked.  Baby and adolescent tapirs can be worth as much as six thousand dollars on the black market. Some are known to have been traded through Indonesian zoos and some have gone to private collectors.  Natural predators are the leopard and the tiger.
Status: Endangered
The Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered.  It is also protected under Cites Appendix 1.  Remaining numbers are thought to be as few as fifteen hundred to two thousand and decreasing.
The species is protected against hunting in all locations, and, because of their pig-like appearance, tapir meat is taboo in Sumatra anyway, where most of the population is Muslim.  Sadly, nothing is being done to protect its habitat.  The Malayan tapir is, regrettably in the same position as all other tapirs – in danger of extinction.  But, there is an upside;  there are a number of tapirs in zoos around the world and captive breeding seems to be working.

Other names: Asian tapir, badak (Malaysia and Indonesia), som-set (Thailand).

Related Articles
Nicaragua Hopes to Save Tapirs from Extinctions
Tapirs losing habitat and they’re still hunted!
Minnesota Zoo’s ‘Star’ Tapir Calf Named After Public Contest

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 70 – The Asian Elephant


Asian elephant

Image: World Wide Fund for Nature

“Compassion for animals is intimately connected with goodness of character; and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man”
Arthur Schopenhauer

Asian elephant pulling log uphill  Photo by Zafer KizilkayaEveryday, more elephants are captured for illegal logging operations.  Forced to aid the destruction of their own natural habitat, they move around in chains hauling away huge trees, clearing the way for more palm oil plantations.  With their habitat gone, the free herds are compelled to move towards human settlements in search of food and shelter. They have nowhere else to go.  They have no choice other than to leave behind the remnants of their forests and head towards the villages.  Those that do flee are often on the point of starvation. Unfortunately, on the move, they are inclined to do a great deal of damage.  This has brought humans and elephants to the point of war in Asia.

Villagers are laying traps for elephants, tormenting and torturing them, and even killing them.  But, it is hard to blame them sometimes.  A moving elephant can, and does, trample crops, demolish homes and kill people.  And it is happening a lot.  But, that doesn’t mean the fault lies with the elephant either.

The blame for this appalling situation falls squarely on the shoulders of the greedy, callous and criminal plantation owners.  Those who see littleDeforestationin Sumatra other than a cash crop.  The West cannot get enough of palm oil, and there are few products that do not contain it.  And, these insatiable pillagers of the forests intend to meet the demand regardless of the absolute devastation they are causing to the irreplaceable and magnificent rainforests and the dependent inhabitants.

As most of us are aware, elephants are not small.  The average Asian adult male comes in at about five and a half tons.  They grow up to nine feet at the shoulder and can be as long as twenty-one feet from trunk to tail  (the tail being just under five feet long).  Females tend to be smaller.  The ears of the Asian elephant are much smaller than those of the African elephant and coincidentally resemble the shape of the India subcontinent.

Asian elephants at mud-holeIn Asian elephants, unlike their African cousins, only the males have tusks.  If any are found in females, they  (the ‘tushes’)  are barely visible.  Tusks are, in fact, elongated incisors which continue to grow throughout the elephant’s life. They are used for eating, digging for water, debarking trees, social interactions and as weapons.

Elephants usually mate during the rainy season.  After a gestation period of twenty-two months, a single calf will be born (twins are very rare).  The calf will weigh about two hundred and fifty pounds at birth.   When born, calves suckle through the mouth.  At this point the trunk does not have enough developed muscle to be of any use.  Several months will need to pass before it is able to gain full use of it.  The bond between mother and calf is known to be strong, but others in the herd will help out with the infant’s care.   Once males have reached adolescence, they will be pushed away from the group.   Most will become part of bachelor groups until they reach full maturity and go it alone.

Habitat
A wide variety of forests, grasslands and scrublands.
Where
Asian elephants occur in isolated populations in thirteen range States in parts of India and South-east Asia, including Sumatra and Borneo.
What they eat
Grasses, roots, fruit, and bark – and in enormous quantities.  One adult alone can get through up to 300 pounds of food in a day. They are also known to eat cultivated crops such as sugar cane and bananas.
Threats
Capture for domestic use;  this has become a major problem for some populations and numbers have been reduced significantly.  Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation are also huge threats.  Poaching and conflict with humans is on the rise. 
Status: Endangered
The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered.  It is also protected under Cites Appendix 1. Estimates put the population, across all range States, as being between thirty-nine and fifty thousand in the wild, with a further thirteen thousand kept as working or former-working elephants. There are obvious difficulties in collecting this sort of data, so exact figures have never been published. What is certain, is that over half the elephants occur in India.
Various agencies and organisations are working towards reducing conflict between local communities and the elephants. This includes approaches to crop protection, community-based guarding methods to safely repel the onslaught of elephants and education and promotion of elephant conservation throughout Asia.

Related links
Deforestation is Killing the Asian Elephant

Asian Elephants Are Being Smuggled Into Thailand To Tightrope Walk For Tourists
A tusk-less future for the Asian elephant

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 38 – The Bengal Tiger


Bengal tiger

Photography by Nikolay Tonev

Description
One of the most persecuted creatures on the planet,  the Bengal tiger is also one of the most beautiful.  But greed and misguided myths are pushing the species to the brink of extinction.  Notwithstanding, it is still the most numerous tiger sub-species.

The Bengal tiger is a powerful killing machine.  One reported kill demonstrated this power when a Bengal took down, killed and dragged away a gaur  –  the largest living bovine.  These beasts weigh over a ton, so that’s quite some feat.  Bengals, like other tigers, hunt at night, killing their prey by severing the spinal cord, via a bite to the nape of the neck, or suffocating the prey by a bite to the throat.  Death is usually quick and painless.  Once dead, the prey is dragged to cover for consumption.  Tigers can gorge their way through sixty pounds of meat in one go.  If any is left, they cover the kill and save it for later.  Not known for their efficiency in hunting, they need to get as much down as possible before the next meal, which may elude them for several days.  They also have the longest canine teeth of any extant big cat, three to four inches.

They are swift runners, excellent swimmers, hugely successful climbers and can leap great distances of over thirty feet.  Like domestic cats, they purr.  Purring can either denote happiness or pain.  Their almighty roar can be heard over a distance of two miles, allowing for communication with other tigers.

The largest of all living cats, there is no doubt these animals are a considerable size.  The male of the species can grow to ten feet in length and weigh up to six hundred and fifty pounds.  The females are slightly smaller and less heavy.  The unique appearance makes the tiger instantly recognisable. It has an orange coat with black stripes (no two have exactly the same stripes) and white patches on the face and neck with a white underside.

There is no specific mating season for tigers, it’s an all year round event, but November to April seems quite popular. The gestation period is one hundred and three days, after which a litter of up to six cubs are born.  Sadly, there is a very high mortality rate within the first year of their lives.  Those that do make it will stay with their mothers until they are about eighteen months old.

Habitat
Both tropical and subtropical rainforests, deciduous forests and scrub forests, alluvial grasslands and mangroves.
Where
Most are found in India with lesser populations in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Myanmar.
What they eat
Larger prey such as deer and wild cattle, and smaller hoofed prey including antelope, wild pigs and boar.  Though not strictly part of their natural diet, they have also been known to eat humans.
Threats
Poaching:  The tiger has been slaughtered for centuries because, according to the tenets of Chinese medicine, their bones and other parts have extensive healing properties.  As a result they are in high demand.  Skins are traded on the black market and fetch a considerable amount, as do the body parts.   Habitat loss due to illegal logging and plantations building is also playing a large part in their dwindling numbers.  Human/tiger conflict arises frequently.
Status: Endangered

The Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered, and on  Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora  (CITES).   In the 1970s game reserves were created.  These worked well for a short period of time and numbers became more stable. But, the potential profit involved in poaching is so great, it took hold once more, putting the Bengal at risk again.  Unless extensive and robust support is put in place, this species will no longer survive in the wild.   The World Bank is currently, amongst others, addressing this and making a significant contribution to the future of tigers in general.

“The first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else”
Barry Commoner

Recommended reading:   As Tigers Near Extinction, a Last-ditch Strategy Emerges

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 26 – The Fishing Cat


Fishing cat

Photograph: Mathieu Ourioux

Description
These cats not only like water,  they spend a great deal of their time either beside it or diving beneath the surface of it to catch their prey.  When wading in shallow water,  they use their paws to scoop the fish up .  When diving,  they use their teeth.

For all of this,  they possess the most remarkable two-layered coat.  The dense inner layer,  next to the skin,  provides waterproofing and all year round warmth;  the second layer,  which sprouts longer hairs  (guard hairs),  gives the cats their individual pattern.

They are nocturnal and  have stocky bodies,  short legs and tails,  round ears and relatively broad heads.  Their tails can act as rudders when swimming.  They are powerful swimmers who are equipped with partial membrane between the toes to aid movement in the water.  Unlike other cats,  their claws are not fully retractable. They have olive-green/grey fur.

The mother gives birth to two or three young after a gestation period of sixty-three days.  She raises them alone,  the male having left after mating.

Habitat
Wetlands: marshes, rivers,  streams and mangrove swamps.
Where
The Himalayan foothills in India and Nepal,  Bangladesh,  Sri Lanka,  Myanmar (Burma),  the Indonesian Islands of Sumatra and Java,  Vietnam,  Thailand and the Indus Valley in Pakistan.  Though widespread,  the fishing cat favours  only parts where wetlands are found.
What they eat
These cats are certainly not the pickiest of eaters.  Though primarily they feast on fish, they are not averse to nibbling on others’  left overs,  including tiger scraps,  and are quite able to kill and devour chickens,  dogs,  frogs,  cats,  rodents,  wild pig,  goats and calves.
Threats
The greatest threat is man.  His increasing settlement,  degradation and conversion of the wetlands,  and his drainage systems for agriculture,  have all led to extreme loss of habitat.   Over-exploitation of  fish stocks is also threatening fishing cat numbers.   And, they are  hunted for food,  medicine,  skins and body parts.   On top of all this,  they are often persecuted for preying on domestic livestock.
Status: Endangered

The fishing cat  (Prionailurus viverrinus),   is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.   The species is also protected by national legislation  in most,  but not all,   of the countries it inhabits. But,  legal protection is difficult to enforce and poaching continues.   Wetland destruction and degradation is the primary threat faced by the species.  Captive breeding programmes have been established and habitat loss is being addressed.

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
Rachel Carson