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Anika Samant

Credit: Getty images/iStock photo -- Creator: Cede Prudente

[TW: animal abuse]

You’ve probably never even heard of this cute, sloth-like black bear with a funny birthmark (which some say represent the rising sun), but this creature needs your help. The sun bear, also known as Helarctos malayanus, is a bear native to southeast asian forests, sometimes found in Cambodia, in the Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces. Being excellent climbers, they spend time in trees eating sweet fruits, small rodents, birds, termites, other insects and honey. However, since 2007, the sun bear has been on the IUCN's red list, classified as "vulnerable". Although there are laws to prevent the killing of sun bears in Southeast Asia, these laws are not strictly enforced or regulated, which has helped cause the population of sun bears to decline by more than 30% over the past three decades, or three sun bear generations. Now, only 2000 sun bears remain in the wild.

Sun bears are threatened because they are hunted for their meat, fur, claws, and most importantly, bile. Used in acne cures, hangover, cold, sore throat, hemorrhoid, conjunctivitis, and cancer medications, bile extracted from the gallbladder of sun bears as the main ingredient in various Chinese medicines. It is also used in household products like shampoo and toothpaste. However, there is little scientific reasoning and evidence behind these medicines, and there are inexpensive alternative herbal treatments that contain ursodeoxycholic acid, a component of bear bile used in synthetic form, which have proven to be far more effective than bear bile medicine. Bear bile in medicine may actually pose a threat because it can be contaminated with blood, pus, feces, urine, bacteria and cancer cells.

Bear bile is not only unhelpful, but the process used to extract it from sun bears should be enough to prevent people from using medication containing it. Sun bears are imprisoned on farms, where they are forced into cages so small they are unable to stand on all fours or turn around. Most bears are dehydrated and starved, and suffer from malignant tumors and diseases. If they do not die from these appalling living conditions, however, it is the process of extracting bile that kills them. In order to extract bile, a bear will undergo surgery in which a passage from the gallbladder to the abdomen is created. This surgery is seldom performed by a doctor and usually takes place in contaminated and unhygienic environments, resulting in many bears dying from infections. There is permanent torment for those which survive, because as the body tries to repair itself, metal tubes are forced through the healing scar tissue to extract bile. Some bears are fitted with metal jackets designed to fix bile-drainage catheters in place. These jackets are spiky and covered in sharp strips of metal, jabbing the bears if they try to move. Overall, the process is torturous to the bears and needs to be stopped.

Alongside this horrible treatment, the declining population of sun bears has an intense negative impact on the surrounding environment. As a keystone species, they play a role in regulating the ecosystem and ensuring a forest is in good health. Their love of fruit makes them an excellent seed disperser, and they control forest pests like termites from overbreeding by consuming them. Whilst hunting for ants or bees they create new cavities in the wood with their sharp claws and provide homes for hornbills, flying squirrels and other animals. By digging for food in leaf litter and leaving scraps for scavengers like pheasants and partridges, they help a forest's nutrient cycle.

It may seem like there’s much that we can do for these amazing creatures, but as individuals there are a few actions we can take to try and stop the abuse they endure. The first step is always to read and educate yourself, your family, and your friends on the threats faced by sun bears and to spread awareness about what’s happening to them. The next is to donate to charities and websites such as WWF and which can be used to help both sun bears and other species. By doing so, one can hope that someday these beautiful bears can nourish and thrive without the constant danger of hunters.



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