Sun Bears Have Made a Return to Chester Zoo


Two bears - a female named Milli (8) and a male called Toni (11) – have arrived in Chester from the Rare Species Conservation Centre in Kent. They are the first sun bears to live at the zoo since 1976.

Previously the pair were rescued as cubs by conservationists working in Cambodia after their mothers were killed by poachers and they were found as mistreated pets, before moving to the UK in October 2013.

Once settled into their new home in Chester, zoo chiefs hope the bears will play an important role in the European breeding programme for the vulnerable species.

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Tim Rowlands, curator of mammals at the zoo, said:

“Several years ago these bears were rescued by a conservation team from Free the Bears working in Cambodia. Toni, whose mother was killed by poachers, was seized from an illegal wildlife trader while Milli was being kept as a pet and was badly mistreated. Happily they are both now well on the way to recovery and we’re thrilled that we’ve been specially selected to work with them and continue with their care.

“The bears’ new home will very closely mimic the diverse habitats of their native South East Asia, giving them plenty of trees to climb and places where they can forage for fruits, berries and nuts. Hopefully they’ll quickly feel very settled here and will one day go on to have cubs.

“Sun bear numbers are unfortunately rapidly declining as a result of deforestation and poaching but we hope that with our new arrivals acting as fine ambassadors for the species, they’ll also help us to highlight the vital research and conservation efforts needed to protect the species in the wild.” 

Sun bears are one of the world’s rarest species of bear and can be found in declining populations in Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, India, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam  and the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. However, the species is now thought to be extinct in Singapore and Yunnan, where they were once found in large numbers, and is on the edge of extinction in Bangladesh.  

A combination of large-scale deforestation, legal and illegal logging and the conversion of natural forests to oil palm plantations has led to sun bears being classified as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The species is also illegally exploited for its body parts, which are used in traditional Asian medicines – although scientific evidence has shown they have no medicinal value.

Malayan sun bear facts

  • Scientific name: Helarctos malayanus
  • Sun bears are the smallest of the world’s eight living species of bear
  • Sun bears get their iconic name from the yellow or orange crescent marking on their chest, which legend says resembles the rising or setting sun. The species is also known as the ‘honey bear’ due to its love for honey - which it extracts by using its famously long tongue
  • The Malay name for the tree-loving sun bear mean “he who likes to sit high”
  • Sun bears use their long tongue to eat termites and ants, beetle larvae, bee larvae, honey and a large variety of fruit species, especially figs
  • They have powerful jaws that can tear open trees in search of insects to eat
  • Their short black fur helps then to keep cool in hot climates
  • They have big paws with large claws and hairless soles to help them climb Sun Bears arrive at Chester Zoo
It has been 40 years since Sun Bears last lived at Chester Zoo.