First Photo of the Elusive Sun Bear

In Isau-Isau Nature Reserve

Sun Bear is the smallest member of the bear family and lives an insular life in the dense lowland forests of Southeast Asia. Sun bears, also called Malayan sun bears, take their name from the bib-shaped golden or white patch on their chest, which legend says represents the rising sun. Photo: © Adobe Stock

By Pungky Nanda-Pratama

For the past 30 years, the Isau-Isau Nature Reserve has been void of wildlife research. In April this year, the Sumatra Camera Trap Project performed the first biodiversity study of the area, to showcase the vast array of elusive wildlife that this nature reserve has to offer. Our hope is to find new populations of Critically Endangered Sumatran Tigers, as well as to collect new data of various elusive species in order to raise awareness for biodiversity in Sumatra.

Camera trap used by the Sumatran Camera Trap Project for their biodiversity surveys. © Pungky Nana Pratama

We set up the first camera trap in April 2018. Its location was chosen based on information from local people living on the edge of the nature reserve who had reported sightings of Barking deer or Muntjack, Sambar deer, Mouse deer, Sun bear, Pangolin, Sumatran Serow, Malayan tapir and even Clouded Leopard. No one had ever seen a Sumatran Tiger alive inside the nature reserve. The only clue we had that they even existed in the area, was from old stories passed down from the elderly who had hunted deer in the jungle on their youth.

We used clues left by animals such footprints, scent markings, claw marks, pug marks, scrapes and scat deposits to select our camera trap site and left the camera trap in the jungle for 16 days. Unfortunately, our first attempt revealed only some blurry wild boar pictures which we have been working to identify as either a Eurasian Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) or Western Bearded Pig (Sus barbatus oi).

Wild boar on the left side, captured in the morning. Wild boar is potential prey for the Sumatran Tiger and other big cat species like the Clouded Leopard. The populations of wild boar are increasing and causing conflict with humans as they eat crops on the plantation, a sign there are few predators to control populations. © Sumatra Camera Trap Project

Whilst we still need clearer photos to make a 100% identification, we are quite certain that we have found the rarest pig in Isau-Isau Nature Reserve. The Western Bearded Pig is one of rarest pigs in Indonesia. It is listed as a Near Threatened pig subspecies by the IUCN and is found only in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsular. There are an estimated 500 individuals left living in the wild, and most of them have been recorded in Kerinci Seblat National Park. We have a good chance of finding a new population outside of Kerinci Seblat National Park with this project.

Pungky and his team make their way towards the forest. © Pungky Nanda Pratama

On our second data collection visit, we began our walk to the site from the nearest village at 08.00 am, just after the rainfall had stopped. We took about three hours to get to the edge of Isau-Isau Nature Reserve which is covered by lowland forest, hilly topography and is not without its challenges.

Pungky transfers data from the camera onto his laptop. © Sumatran Camera Trap Project.

The jungle looked dark, wet and covered in mist from the heavy rain. It is difficult to walk through, even in the dry season and we had to avoid the sharp thorns of the Rattan trees not to mention the Stinging Nettle trees which can cause a burning rash. The track was so slippery that we all fell numerous times.

We arrived at the site at noon and began transferring data from the camera trap to the laptop. At first, we didn’t think we had anything interesting until about halfway through the footage, when we realised we’d captured some pictures of a Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus). This is the first recorded image of a Sun Bear in this area in a decade!

We were screaming with happiness, this recording has made us optimistic that we might capture other targeted species such as the Malayan Tapir, Clouded Leopard, Northern Dhole, Sumatran Serow and the most targeted species Sumatran Tiger on camera soon. Not only did we capture Sun Bear images, but our camera captured a wild boar picture and one unusual mammal that looked like a mixture between a cat and a Civet! We hope to capture it more clearly next time!

Sun Bear claw marks. © Pungky Nanda Pratama

Wild cat footprints. © Pungky Nanda Pratama

Our third camera trap location was chosen based on our criteria — flat land with a big Fig tree as food source for a herbivore. We liked this spot because of the claw marks of a Sun Bear and Wild Cat footprints.

Pungky and his team setting up the camera. © Sumatra Camera Trap Project

After several checks to make sure our camera trap was working, we decided to head back to the village before dark. We will leave it for a month in the hope of capturing other targeted and elusive species. We hope this new data will help us understand wildlife population challenges and find ways to protect them. We also hope our efforts will strengthen the law, and the government will have more incentive to protect Isau-Isau Nature Reserve as a biodiversity hotspot and precious legacy for future generations.

To follow the research from the team, visit: Sumatra Camera Trap Project