Indonesian bear sanctuary fights closure

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  January/February 2013:

Balikpapan,  East Kalimantan,  Indonesia––Sun bears,  the smallest of the bear family,  are known for their seemingly ceaseless foraging in the wild.  Yet a decade after sun bears were made the official mascots of Balikpapan,  the most affluent city in East Kalimantan,  Indonesia,  in part in appreciation of their industriousness,  chief city councilor Andi Burhanuddin Solong reportedly wants to disenfranchise them because he views them as “lazy.”

More ominously for the six rescued sun bears kept at the Balikpapan Environmental Tourism & Education Centre,  known as the KWPLH in the locally spoken Malay language,  Solong wants to turn their $2 million habitat into a campground.

“Over the last eight years we have been helping to develop a world class environmental education center,  which has a large natural enclosure that houses the six sun bears as its centerpiece,”  Dutch conservationist Gabriella Fredriksson told ANIMAL PEOPLE.

“Although the number of bears under our care is not large by rescue center standards,”  Fredriksson said,  “the aim of our center is primarily environmental and sun bear education.  The number of local visitors & school children has risen from just several hundred in our first year to close to 70,000 people last year.

“Besides the sun bear part,”  Fredriksson continued,  “we also run a large domestic animal versus wild animal education program,  as many people in Indonesia still keep bears,  orangutans,  slow lorises,  other primates,  wild cats,  and so forth as pets.  In developing this program we have also become responsible for some 130 cats and dogs who were found on the site as strays,   who are now well taken care at the center.  The center also “provides the public with information on pet care,” Fredriksson said.

Though sun bears have long been among her primary interests,  Fredriksson may be best known for working with the Great Ape Trust to help protect orangutans in Sumatra.  There are believed to be about 41,000 orangutans left in the wild in Southeast Asia,  but only about 10,000 sun bears,  who have a wider range but a much more scattered population,  in part because of intensive poaching and habitat destruction,  partly because the Southeast Asian habitat has never been particularly congenial for small bears with big appetites.

“To date,”  Fredriksson continued,  “the KWPLH site developments have largely been funded through donations,  while the basic running costs have been funded by the city government.  The site currently employs 41 staff,”  including 36 locals.

At the end of 2012,  however,   the Balikpapan legislature refused to approve the 2013 KWPLH operating budget of about $160,000 U.S.

“This was not because of a shortage of funds,”  Fredriksson said.  “In 2012 the city budget was underspent by many millions of dollars.”

The underlying issue,  beyond Solong’s interest in developing an urban campground,  may be that the KWPLH educational exhibits have helped to increase public concern about the deforestation of East Kalimantan by loggers and oil palm plantation developers.

“I’ve been to this place few years back to help them with their domestic animal program,”  Hong Kong veterinarian Karthi Martelli told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “The bears are well kept with very good local management.  The bears spend most of their time in an outside enclosure in an almost natural setting.”

Martelli,  best known for work on contraception and sterilization of urban macaques,  has also treated wildlife and domestic animals for the Hong Kong SPCA,  International Animal Rescue,  the Ocean Park zoo in Hong Kong,  and dog sterilization projects in Thailand.

The Animals Asia Foundation,  whose global campaign recently saved the Vietnam Bear Rescue Center from a development scheme advanced by Tam Dao National Park director Do Dinh Tien,  has endorsed the effort to save the KWPLH,  as has Asian Animal Protection Network founder John Wedderburn.  The campaign web address is: <>.

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