There’s something to be said about conservationists and their quest to save the world. They’re relentless and driven. “We have to be,” remarks Wong Siew Te wryly, “...but it’s possible to make a difference,” he adds after a pause.
He looks a little travel-weary as he sits across me in the crowded KLIA2 cafeteria. Securing an interview with the CNN Hero hadn’t been easy, as he’s been “living out of his suitcase” as he describes it. “I use every opportunity I get to raise awareness,” he says, telling me that he had just flown from Hanoi after attending the 9th East and Southeast Asian Wild Animal Rescue Network Conference held in Vietnam. “We’ve got a few hours to talk before I fly back to Sabah,” he tells me matter-of-factly.
“You’ve been hailed as a ‘Superman of sorts’,” I begin, wasting no time and he laughs heartily. “It’s an amazing opportunity to put the plight of the sun bears in the international spotlight,” he says of his recent achievement of being hailed by the global television network CNN as a ‘CNN Hero’. For Wong, every media attention he has been getting is an “opportunity” to spread his message of conservationism. “I used to call the sun bear a forgotten species. When I first started almost two decades ago, most people didn’t know they even existed. Now that’s beginning to change and thanks to international attention, the message of protecting this wildlife is spreading to a larger audience.”
The 48-year-old wildlife biologist has been gaining attention both locally and internationally for his tireless work in championing and protecting the smallest bear species in the world — the sun bear. From being conferred the “Wira Negaraku” by the Prime Minister’s Office to being hailed as one of CNN’s Heroes, or as the global network describes as “everyday people doing extraordinary things to change the world”, Wong is not one to rest on his laurels. “There’s still so much to do,” he says earnestly. After all, the founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sepilok, Sabah is on a mission to “be the voice of the sun bears” and to fight for their survival in the wild.
Bear-ing a burden
Many have heard about larger bear species like the ferocious Grizzly or the more docile American Black Bears but the diminutive sun bears remain the least known and least studied species. Historically, sun bear populations were found in most of Southeast Asia but the total population has seen a drastic decline by at least 30 per cent (IUCN 2007). Although sun bears have been listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species in 2007, the current status remains unknown because there still isn’t enough information about wild sun bear populations. “It was worse when I first started,” recalls Wong.
As a young Masters student working on his thesis on the “The ecology of Malayan sun bear in the lowland tropical rainforest of Sabah, Borneo”, Wong worked alongside Dr Christopher Servheen from the University of Montana, where the former was pursuing his undergraduate studies on wildlife biology. The professor had come to his class to give a talk on his projects working with various bear species, and Wong soon found out that he was looking for a Malaysian research assistant to help him with his pioneering sun bear project in Malaysia. He quickly volunteered for the position: “I told him ‘Hey I’m your man!’”. In 1998, Wong completed his degree, got into the Masters programme and snagged the coveted position as Servheen’s research assistant for the sun bear project in Sabah.
Still, the project was fraught with many challenges. For one, there were no precedent for researching sun bears anywhere in the world. “It dawned on me that I was working with a very rare mammal whose numbers were very low and nobody had studied them before.” The lack of data meant that Wong had to rely on his own creativity to track down the elusive wildlife. “It was all one big question mark. How do we trap these bears to study them? How do we even see them?” he says, recounting with a chuckle that it took at least four very frustrating months of trying to outsmart the bears before he managed to trap his first wild sun bear. “I named it Dally” he says with a laugh because it was found within the 438-square-kilometre tract of the relatively undisturbed Danum Valley lowland dipterocarp forest in Sabah.
It was his study on the sun bears that precipitated his foray into sun bear conservation. “The more I studied about the sun bears, the more I began to discover that these beautiful creatures were facing a series of threats that were leading them into the slippery slope of extinction.”
In 2004, Wong conducted a survey on captive bears in Malaysia and uncovered heart-breaking stories about their deplorable conditions in zoos, crocodile farms, private menageries and even private homes. It was then that he started thinking about setting up a rescue centre for these animals.
There were two conflicting emotions that set into motion his desire to champion the bears, confides Wong. “For one, these beautiful creatures belong in the wild. They’re so secretive and elusive that I could barely catch glimpses of them in the forest. At the other end of the spectrum is the fact that there are people hunting down these animals, and some even keeping them as pets. It was horrible seeing them locked up in tiny cages and showing signs of distress.”
Looking steadily at me, his eyes glinting behind his wire-rimmed glasses, he adds softly: “The more I learnt about the sun bears, the more I wanted to do something to protect them. I guess you can say the rest is history.”
Small town boy
His own childhood history offers an interesting insight into his early encounters with animals. Born in 1969, Wong, the youngest son of a tailor, led a quintessentially small-town lifestyle in Bukit Mertajam, Penang. “Every weekend we’d go down to my father’s orchard in Sungai Bakap. He’d be busy with his fruit trees while we’d be playing-loh!” There was a little creek, he recalls, running through the orchard where he and his siblings would catch fishes. “I think my connection with nature began in that place.”
Animal rescue work began at a young age when his parents would bring him abandoned chicks of doves and sparrows to raise. “I always wanted to be an animal expert of sorts or a veterinarian. These two ambitions never changed for the next 12 years!” says Wong, smiling. Unsurprisingly, his childhood was littered by various kinds of pets and animals. “I used to breed birds, dogs and fishes for the pet shop as a small little side business when I was in high school.”
After resitting his STPM and failing to get into the local university (“Unfortunately I wasn’t exactly a top student, no matter how hard I tried”), Wong decided to pursue his studies abroad in Taiwan. He graduated with a diploma in Animal Science and Veterinary from the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology. In Taiwan, Wong met Professor Kurtis Pei who taught wildlife management and soon worked for him as a research assistant. After two years of working with Professor Pei on various wildlife projects, including the setting up of a wildlife rescue centre in Taiwan, Wong discovered that he preferred wildlife conservation to animal husbandry. “I later applied to study wildlife biology in the US and everything just fell into place from then on,” he says simply.
Small bears, big dreams
It has been a long road which ultimately led this small-town conservation champion to the plight of the sun bears, and yet there’s no stopping him. “There’s so much to be done,” he says again. Conducting research, fighting illegal poaching, rescuing sun bears, educating the world and breaking through the ignorance barrier — it’s a painful and often thankless task. But Wong persists and devotes his life to that purpose. “This is what I do best,” he explains simply, adding that he wants his sun bear centre to stand as a bastion of possibilities. “I hope it serves as a catalyst for other Malaysians to come forward and make a difference. If I can do it and be somewhat successful, anyone can.”
He looks at his watch and I realise it’s almost time for him to catch his next flight to Sabah. “It was Jane Goodall who said ‘Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. Only if we help, we shall be saved’. I live by that saying. I hope that more Malaysians will take the initiative to learn more about our fascinating natural heritage and do something to conserve it. Contrary to what most people think, we really do need nature for our own survival,” says Wong soberly.
Standing up, the stocky biologist hoists his backpack over his shoulder and concludes quietly: “We’ve already failed our wildlife in the past by losing some of our more iconic animals like the rhinoceros. I sometimes feel — like all conservationists do at some point — that I’m fighting a losing battle. However, I’ll do the best that I can to at least make a difference for this smallest bear species.”
As he waves me off with a friendly smile, I can’t help but think that he looks nothing at all like the ‘Superman of sorts’ that CNN had touted him to be. But then again, sometimes heroes emerge in the most unlikely forms, striving to save the world — and in the case of Wong — giving a voice to a tiny arboreal bear species struggling to survive in the wilds of Southeast Asia.