Sabah, Borneo and the World’s Smallest Bear

A traditional Borneo longhouse in Sabah.
A traditional Borneo longhouse.

Searching Sabah for the Hard to Find Sun Bear in the Lost World of Borneo

By Michael Molyneux

Paul with a new friend. Michael Molyneaux photos.
Paul with a new friend. Michael Molyneux photos

Despite being the world’s smallest bear, the Sun bear (Helarctosmalaynus) produces a growl so fearsome that, hearing it from close range, even the most hardened jungle trekker would feel a cold shiver run through their boots.

As did our friend and guide, Paul, who once worked for the Sun Bear Conservation center near Sandakan in Sabah. He assures us the bear would “hear us and run the other way. Unless it felt threatened or hungry, in which case it’d kill and eat us.”

The waxy leaves were still dripping with last night’s downpour when we slung on our rucksacks and headed out on the trail from Tawau Hills Park to base camp, halfway up Mount Lucia (1189m). The old cabin refuge lay on the high plateau of a forest-covered ridge, flanked on both sides by long plains of low-lying dipterocarp rainforest.

Sundra Clouded Leopard

Paul’s assisting Oxford University in a study into the population distribution of the Sundra Clouded Leopard (Neofelisdiardi) in Borneo. His team of local researchers collects camera trap data and reports the findings back to the team at Oxford. The Sabah Wildlife Department will use the data to streamline conservation efforts here.

Sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) in Borneo.
Sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) in Borneo.

I’ve been invited to go with him to set up some of the cameras and see if there have been any sightings of the, now vulnerable, mythical beast that’s an evolutionary link between big cats and small cats.

As we’re traversing a narrow river, cutting away fallen trees with a well-used duct-taped machete, I notice Paul’s calf muscles resemble those of a Russian gymnast. That, and his vast wealth of conservation knowledge, are the only things that distinguish him from a western day-tripper.

Spiny orb-weaver (Gasteracantha arcuata) spider.
Spiny orb-weaver (Gasteracantha arcuata) spider.

He’s wearing a bright blue, XXL “I Love Chocolate” T-shirt, old Converse skateboard trainers and guzzles an endless supply of fizzy drinks. (Though I suppose the occasional can of Coke doesn’t necessarily preclude one from environmental sensitivity.)

After two hours, hacking our way along the trail, sweating heavily, we start to ascend the long eastern ridge that eventually forms the zenith of Mount Lucia. We stop part way up to take on water and look out at a sweeping vista Paul calls “Jurassic Park country”.

The unbroken, lowland canopy stretches out across the plains and rises up into another slope towards the horizon. The golden sun shows the evening mist starting to settle in.

Billion-Year-Old Silence

We stand there quietly for a while, looking out; listening to a billion-year-old silence grow older by the second. “Here, even the dead trees are full of life” Paul beams, with his characteristic child-like awe of nature. It spills out of him through bright wide eyes and a voice that swells with constant, unbridled admiration for the natural surroundings. It’s as though he’s always seeing the world for the first time.

Hot water for soup and coffee.
Hot water for soup and coffee on our camping stove.

Our feet and the hours start to drag. Our packs get heavier and our heads lighter, filled with simpler thoughts. There is something of the ecstatic in exhaustion.

In the literal meaning of the word: ekstasis, from the Ancient Greek ἔκστασις, “to be or stand outside oneself, displacement of the mind” from ek- “out,” and stasis “a stand.”

Perception of time shifts. The topology of conscious-experience slides back a few thousand years from where atavistic fears find a way into the body. From shadowed ground a dark osmosis seeds coming dreams.

Mind is elsewhere. The humidity starts to take your place. All the senses swell. You see snakes slip out of shadows where roots seem to be. The silence wraps around and loosens everything.

a bird

You keep on walking. Something keeps walking on your behalf. You find each rock, each solid foothold among the soak of leaves, entirely by instinct and your muscles never miss a step nor slip or slow. The cicada shriek burrows into the bone and the husk of your absence goes on ahead. Somehow you arrive.

Cabin in a Clearing

An abandoned, weather-exposed cabin in a clearing. Tired and silent, your body feels at home. Surely the most sacred funeral would be to be left there migrating slowly back to the heart of things; into the leaves and sky.

Yes, the body feels at home. Where the wind and the rivers tell you your age and name. The light and leaves, you realize, are your true words and attire. Somehow you were always already here. Peter Matthiessen, author of The Snow Leopard, referred to such experiences as a kind of “homegoing”. Earth’s household, it seems, is always waiting with open arms for its wandering prodigal sons, it sons of Abel.


There in the jungle, the smell of rot and genesis breathes you. Paul opens the cabin door – more cracks than wood – slaps the dust off the mattresses and checks for snakes.

Drunk with exhaustion and Linnaean Latin (he’d stopped to taste and describe and sniff every seed and insect and fruit we passed) we open the liter bottle of cold beer I had in my rucksack and it’s gone in two unspeakably cool gulps.

On the porch in the evening sun, Paul tells me about his new methods for camera trapping. They’re based on indigenous hunting methods and are yet to be trialed for data gathering anywhere in the world.

You lie down, mistaking night for death, on a moldy mattress with mildew for a pillow — blanketed by night’s starry shroud – and sleep like the one corpse you’ll never see. You rise early at first light, fresh as May buds.

Never once have I regretted going out early, rising out the warmth of a woman’s arms, against fatigue or dream to see the dawn, the trees fanning the morning sky or ink-black ocean waves or a city waking up in the blue half-light of dawn.

Jungle canopy

Sun Bear Poop

When I set out on the trail we’d later take to Mount Lucia, Paul is running back towards me, wide-eyed, holding something in his hand. It’s reddish-green, pebbly, and has the appearance of excrement. It is excrement. Paul handles it with the same care as a white-gloved auctioneer would hold the Elgin Marbles.

“It’s fresh”, he says, inhaling the aroma, “and, I’m pretty sure, it belongs to a Sun bear!” He has the enraptured voice of someone reading a story to a child. Continuing along the trail we stop to round a flooded pass and Paul bends down to show me something.

locals in the jungle in Sabah, Borneo.

This time he’s speechless. His eyes light up. I lean in to look.

The paw print can’t be more than an hour old. The wet mud hasn’t yet sagged around the claw tips. We look at each other and then up ahead and behind, scared and overjoyed.

It’s near. We’re following it, pursuing our own death, and it’s near. We talk loudly in order to scare it away. At one point we laugh and, a few hundred meters to the right of the trail, a tremendous growl shakes the ground and our hair stands on end.

We pick up the pace and, throwing furtive glances over our shoulders, we listen to the surroundings and start to imagine how we would respond, how we would fight and run, how we would stumble and how we would die.

Man is by far the biggest threat to the Sun Bear population in Borneo. Habit destruction (tens of thousands of hectares of primary forest have been replaced by Palm-oil plantations) is not the only reason. Chinese traditional medicine still uses the bile and gall bladders of Sun bears to produce certain tinctures. Though few of us could afford the high prices, it’s not uncommon to find them in high street pharmacies.

Before humans first settled in Sabah around 25,000 years ago, it would have been covered in the lush tropical rainforest you still find in patches today. Places like Maliau Basin, Danum Valley and Tawau Hills Parkare home to large swatches of primary evergreen rainforest and a bewildering diversity of wildlife, particularly insects and invertebrates.

The larger animals are stunning, too. The names alone enough to wet the lips of any nature lover: Rhinoceros hornbill, Bearded pig, Red leaf monkey, Flying Lemur. The list goes on.

Boiling wild Cassava leaves in the jungle.
Boiling wild Cassava leaves in the jungle.

Three Thousand Species

According to Junaidi Payne, conservation ecologist and author of Wild Sabah, over 3,000 tree species can be found in Sabah alone. Incredibly complex ecosystems exist among the slow-growing, closed-canopy rainforest here.

It’s as humbling as it is disorienting to walk among such grandiose, intricate biomes.

Doubly so, when you know there’s a chance you’ll cross paths with a wild bear or a leopard, an elephant or, equally enthralling, a reverent conservation volunteer with fizzy drinks and stories to spare.

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