Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus)
|Also known as:||sun bear|
|French:||Ours Des Cocotiers, Ours Malais|
|Spanish:||Oso De Sol, Oso Malayo|
|Size||Head-body length: 120 – 150 cm (2)|
Shoulder height: 70 cm (3)
Average weight at birth: 325 g (4)
|Weight||35 – 80 kg (3)|
The Malayan sun bear is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2008 (1) and is listed on Appendix I of CITES (5).
The smallest of the world’s eight living bear species, the Malayan sun bear has short, sleek fur which is usually black but can range from reddish-brown to grey. Almost every sun bear has an individually distinct chest patch that is typically yellow, orange, or white, and may sometimes be speckled or spotted (3) (6). The sun bear has a broad muzzle that is relatively short and a large head, giving the bear a dog-like appearance. It has small, rounded ears, a fleshy forehead that occasionally looks wrinkled, and an extremely long tongue (longest of all bear species). With feet turned slightly inward, large naked paws and long curved claws, the sun bear is well adapted for climbing trees. Its feet are extraordinarily large compared with its body size, potentially assisting in digging and breaking into dead wood in search of insects (3) (4) (6). The Malayan sun bears on Borneo are the smallest of this species and are considered by many to warrant subspecies status (Helarctos malayanus eurispylus) (1) (6).
The range of the Malayan sun bear is not well documented, either historically or presently. However, the sun bear has been encountered throughout Southeast Asia from the eastern edge of India and northern Burma, to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand and south to Peninsular Malaysia and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The range of the sun bear has been greatly reduced through large scale habitat destruction and poaching and is now thought to be extinct in Tibet, Bangladesh and possibly Yunnan, southern China (1) (3) (6).
The Malayan sun bear inhabits both primary and logged, dense Southeast Asian tropical forests, including tropical evergreen rainforest, montane forest and swamp habitat. It occurs up to 2,000 metres above sea level (4).
As the least studied bear species, comparatively little is known about the Malayan sun bear. It is an opportunistic omnivore, using its long tongue to eat termites and ants, beetle larvae, bee larvae, honey and a large variety of fruit species, especially figs (Ficus species) (4) (7) (8). Occasionally, it will also eat small rodents, birds and lizards (8). During periodic mass-fruiting events, fruit makes up most of the diet, providing the opportunity for sun bears to build up, or recover, fat and energy reserves for the prolonged period of low fruit availability following these events (9). The sun bear is mainly diurnal, spending most day hours foraging, although in human-disturbed areas it becomes more nocturnal (6) (10). Unlike other bears, it does not hibernate, as food is available year round (11).
Little is known about sun bear reproduction and cub rearing in the wild. Usually females are only seen with one cub and very rarely with two after a gestation period of approximately 95 days (4) (6) (12). It is possible that sun bears, like other bears, may have delayed implantation to ensure that cubs are born when the mother has sufficient fat reserves, the weather is favourable, and seasonally important foods are available, however this is not known (6). Sun bears give birth in dens or hollow trees where the cub is born naked and helpless. It remains protected for some period of time until it is able to venture out to accompany the mother while she forages and travels (6). It is thought that the cubs remain with their mother until they are fully grown at around two years old (12).
The Malayan sun bear has very loose skin around the neck so that if bitten on the back of the neck by another bear, a tiger or clouded leopard, the bear can turn in its skin to bite back of its attacker (11).
Malayan sun bears have recently been re-classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List (1), primarily due to the continued destruction of its habitat (6). Habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation of the sun bear’s tropical hardwood forest habitat is a huge threat to the Malayan sun bear population. This is caused particularly by human encroachment and illegal logging from both within and outside protected areas in order to grow coffee, rubber plants and oil palms (13). Another threat facing these bears is poaching, even within protected areas, to serve the trade in bear parts. Bear gall bladders and bile products are used in traditional medicines despite the fact that many herbal alternatives are equally beneficial, more readily available, legal and cheaper (3) (14). Further threats include the capture of sun bears as pets and the killing of bears due to increasing human-bear conflicts (3) (15). Catastrophic events such as fire and drought have also been having an impact on sun bear populations, causing a decrease in suitable habitat and food availability, resulting in many bears suffering from starvation (9). As a result of this ongoing habitat loss and excessive human-caused mortality, many sun bear populations have already become extinct (6).
The Malayan sun bear is understudied, and little conservation action has been targeted at it (3). The Malayan sun bear has been listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1979, which prohibits international trade (5), and the killing of the sun bear is prohibited under national wildlife protection laws, however, little enforcement of these laws occurs (3) (6). The Malayan sun bear is part of an international captive breeding programme and has a Species Survival Program under the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (11). More research is required as only recently have field studies started to investigate the basic biology, ecology, and behaviour of wild sun bears (6). Conservation of sun bears needs to focus on protection of their forest habitat, proper management of these areas, strict enforcement of their legal status, minimizing human-bear conflict near forest areas, and halting trade in bear parts (6).
For further information on the Malayan sun bear see:
- Servheen, C., Herrero, S. and Peyton, B. (1999) Bears Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. Available at:
- Govind, V. and Ho, S. (2001) The Consumer Reporton the Trade in Bear Gall Bladder and Bear Bile Products in Singapore. Animal Concerns Research and Education Society, UK. Available at:
Authenticated (01/04/08) by Dr. Gabriella Fredriksson, co-chair sun bear expert team, IUCN Bear Specialist Group.
- Diurnal: active during the day.
- Gestation: the state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- Hibernate: hibernation isa winter survival strategy characteristic of some mammals in which an animal’s metabolic rate slows down and a state of deep sleep is attained. Whilst hibernating, animals survive on stored reserves of fat that they have accumulated in summer.
- Larvae: stage in an animal’s lifecycle after it hatches from the egg. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but usually are unable to reproduce.
- Nocturnal: active at night.
- Omnivore: an organism that feeds on both plants and animals.
- Primary: relating to forest, forest that has remained undisturbed for a long time and has reached a mature condition.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
IUCN Red List (June, 2013)