This comes as no surprise to her National Wildlife Rescue Centre (NWRC) caretakers, among whom the word “manja” is used a lot when it comes to this female bear. “Manja” is a wholly Malay word, whose closest English approximation is “affectionate and a bit clingy”, and this describes Avi well. Hand-reared after being found abandoned as a three-month-old cub near the National Zoo, Avi, almost two years old, is the most affectionate of the sun bear rescues at NWRC.
One of the two main keepers at the centre, Cik Mat, smiles as he talks about the release, but this has to be a sad moment. The boats are told to leave, as Avi is not expected to explore her new home with humans present, and Cik Mat is left with two years’ worth of memories – and photographs – of being a surrogate mother to the cub, bottle feeding in his arms like a baby, and then teaching her about being a bear.
Three other juveniles brought up from cubhood are also released on this bright, sunny September day, but they run off into the undergrowth as soon as their cage doors are raised. With seven bears released last year and one this past May, this brings to 12 sun bears released under the campaign, with five left at NWRC. However, three are infirm – one is too old, another is blind and the last had lost a paw – with no hope of survival in the wild and will spend the remainder of their days under care. The remaining two are still being rehabilitated, and will be assessed on their suitability to living wild, which includes ability to forage for food, climb trees and avoid conflict with humans.
This is not a comforting thought when Avi and the juveniles, who are under two years old, already weigh some 30kg and stand at three feet tall. Full adults can reach an imposing five feet and 80kg, with 10cm claws and scarily strong bite force. During the release event, the males already exhibit their aggressive tendencies, growling, grunting and barking their annoyance (their bark sounds like that of a large dog).
And then there’s the ever-present threat of poachers. The Malayan sun bear is listed as Vulnerable under the IUCN Red List, owing to destruction of its forest habitat and uncontrolled exploitation for body parts, for example its paws, claws and bile duct. In Malaysia, there’s also a market for exotic meats, and bear is high on the list of desirable delicacies.
As the boats back away, Avi is busy splashing away in the water. Her keepers later joke that given a chance, the bear would happily try to climb aboard one of the vessels to be with the only family she has ever known. This family will keep a watch on the release sites for up to a week, and on Avi and the others via their radio collars for up to a year, but that’s all that they can do.
The future is unknown for Avi, the “manja” individual who had taken to suckling her rear paw when stressed, as a child would suck its thumb to comfort itself. However, those who believe in Save The Sun Bear surely have to trust that they are doing the right thing for this Malayan sun bear and her kin, for the future of the species as a whole.