Sun bears at a Chinese zoo aren’t costumed people, the zoo claims

Courtesy Hangzhou zoo
Courtesy Hangzhou zoo

After videos of a Malayan sun bear standing on its hind legs and seeming uncannily human went viral, stoking speculations and conspiracy theories on Chinese social media, an eastern Chinese zoo has refuted claims that some of its bears are people in disguise.

Officials from the Hangzhou zoo complained that people “didn’t understand” sun bears in a statement penned from the viewpoint of “Angela,” a sun bear.

The statement began, “I’m Angela the sun bear. The head of the zoo called me after work yesterday asking if I was being lazy and skipped work today and found a human to take my place.”

Videos of a sun bear perched on a rock and gazing outside of its enclosure were posted on the well-known Chinese microblogging website Weibo.

Many Weibo users saw the bear’s erect stance and folds of loose fur on its back, which gave the bear a strange appearance and stoked rumors that a human imposter might be passing as the real thing.

It can seem like a ridiculous gambit. Zoos in China, however, have faced backlash in the past for attempting to pass off domestic pets like dogs as wild animals.

A local zoo in the Henan province’s central region infuriated tourists in 2013 by attempting to pass off a Tibetan Mastiff dog as a lion. When they heard the “lion” bark, visitors who had just entered the enclosure were startled.

A golden retriever was seen sitting in a cage marked as an African lion habitat, shocking visitors at another Chinese zoo in Sichuan province.

Threats to the ‘forgotten’ bears

The smallest bear species in the world, sun bears are indigenous to Southeast Asia’s tropical forests. According to scientists, adult bears can reach heights of up to 70 centimeters (28 inches) and weigh between 25 and 65 kilograms (55 and 143 pounds).

In addition to not hibernating, they have long tongues that enable them gather honey from bee hives and amber-colored crescent-shaped fur patches on their chests, giving them the moniker “beruang madu” (honey bear) in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has designated sun bears as vulnerable, and they are a protected species in their native nations like Malaysia.

According to conservation organizations like the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC) in Sabah, Malaysia, their numbers in the wild are under threat from poachers and deforestation and have decreased by 35% over the previous three decades.

43 rescued bears, each with its own personality and idiosyncrasies, are cared for at the facility.

Wildlife biologist and founder of the BSBCC Wong Siew Te said, “Sun bears are a very forgotten species. Not enough people are aware of them.”

“Most bear species can stand on their hind legs but sun bears stand up high to reach higher ground to investigate their surroundings so there is a purpose to why they do that. Female sun bears even hold their cubs with both hands and walk on their feet, very human like, so I guess that’s why people get mistaken.”

According to Wong, the bear’s sagging, loose skin also serves a vital purpose in the wild by serving as armor against predators, shielding them from more serious bites and wounds.

Sun bears are frequently chubby and rounded. Their skin gets loose when conditions are harsh and food is scarce, according to Wong.

There is a severe problem in Southeast Asia as forests are disappearing and moms are frequently slain by hunters who grab their pups. The brutal bear bile trade also affects sun bears, Wong continued.

Sun bears are a distinctive and endangered species, thus there needs to be greater awareness and education about them.