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S.D. Zoo’s Sun Bear Cub Dazzles Researchers, Zoo Visitors

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

There's a new face at the San Diego Zoo this week. Bulan is a five-month-old Bornean Sun Bear. KPBS Radio's Andrea Hsu says the young cub gives scientists -- and the public -- a rare chance to learn about the least studied and most threatened of bears.

Visitors to the zoo's Sun Bear Forest peer over a railing to catch a glimpse of Dibu -- Bulan's daddy. Dibu is black, with a little white polka dot on his nose. And of course - the signature yellowish marking on his chest that looks like a setting sun.

Hall: He's a beautiful animal.

Suzanne Hall researches endangered species at the zoo. Since Bulan has already gone in for the day, she takes me behind the scenes to see the rare cub and its mother, Marcella.

Hall: This is the back area of the sun bear facility. This is the kitchen where they prepare the meals.

In the wild, Bornean sun bears eat fruit and insects. Here, they feed on fruit and vegetables, also small brown pellets full of protein and calcium. And today, zookeeper Daniel Baublit has a special treat.

Baublit: This is peanut butter, they love peanut butter. Since we have people back here, we always try to make it a positive situation for them.

Marcella and Bulan zealously lick the peanut butter off their paws.

Marcella pleads for more, with a clucking sound. Hall explains that treats like peanut butter are important, because researchers must develop a good relationship with the bears to study them. Bulan is only the second Bornean Sun Bear born in captivity anywhere in the last decade. The first was Bulan's brother, born at the San Diego Zoo in 2004. Hall says he was so wily he could not be examined until he was 18 months old.

Hall: But this little guy -- we started early, and they were able to get several exams on him or her - before it turned into a Tasmanian devil and became very difficult to handle.

That's right - him or her. At five months, Bulan's sex is still undetermined.

Hall: It's sort of a testament to how little we know about the species that there seems to be some disagreement as to what the gender of this cub is. Originally we believed it to be a male, but when vets recently examined the cub, they weren't able to palpate any testes or have other evidence that we have a male. So we joke we'll just have to wait until mating season and see which position the cub takes.

Bulan is unbelievably cute. He's got a big head, round eyes, a pinkish nose -- and in spite of his youth -- impressively long claws.

Hall: These animals have very, very long claws, which is an adaptation to their wild environment. They use those claws to rip open rotting wood to get to the bugs inside to eat.

But fewer and fewer are doing so in the wild. Suzanne Hall says conservation managers agree that the Bornean Sun Bear is the bear species most likely to go extinct, due to severe loss of habitat in its native Southeast Asia. But amazingly, they're not officially listed as endangered.

Hall: And the reason for that is we don't have the data. We don't have the census, we don't have numbers on what wild populations are doing. So they're technically classified as data deficient.

The San Diego Zoo hopes its work will help change that. With Bulan, researchers have a unique opportunity to study reproductive biology and maternal care. Halls says it's a first step towards saving the Bornean sun bear.

For KPBS, I'm Andrea Hsu.

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