Local pet artist Suzi Chua is fascinated by sun bears even though she has not seen them up close.

She first heard about sun bears from Wong Siew Te, a wildlife biologist and founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sandakan, Sabah, in 2008.

The sun bears, also known as honey bears, are found in the tropical rainforests of South-East Asia and on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia.

An animal lover who supports local dog and cat shelters, Chua, 57, is sad to learn that these cute and adorable sun bear cubs are sometimes hunted to be kept as exotic pets.

And when Chua learnt that the sun bears are an endangered species, she decided to start a project to save them by offering free art lessons to paint the sun bear.

“I wanted to raise awareness and save the sun bears,” says Chua, who painted five sun bears, including Koko who died from respiratory failure last year.

The painting of Koko was presented to BSBCC and is exhibited at its visitor centre. Three other sun bear paintings were sold and 30% of the proceeds was donated to BSBCC. Her latest painting is a portrait of Debbie, which was rescued as a cub and sent to BSBCC in 2012.

Chua shared her idea with her friend, Stacey Chiew, 49, a visual art teacher from KL Fairview International School, and both decided to work together. Chiew promoted the Saving Sun Bears, One Painting At A Time project to her students and thought it would be a great opportunity for them to learn about the smallest and second rarest bear species in the world, after the giant panda. She believes in using the power of art to save endangered animals.

Students of KL Fairview International School are trying their hand at painting the Little One, the sun bear that got killed by another sun bear.

Students of KL Fairview International School taking part in the ‘Saving Sun Bears, One Painting At A Time’ project.

“Art can create a powerful voice for sun bears. The main objective of this project is to let the younger generation know that forests are home to the sun bears, not cages,” she says.

“The students should know that we have the power to change and destroy habitats, putting sun bears on the ever-increasing endangered species list. More and more young people are waking up to the fact that the choices they make can have an impact on wildlife.”

By painting sun bears and donating the paintings to BSBCC, Chiew says the students can help raise awareness of the growing importance of saving endangered species from extinction.

“They can also gain a general understanding of how profound the loss would be if we don’t take action now to protect them. One day, we may never see the beautiful sun bears except in a picture book,” she adds.

On Aug 26, more than 40 students showed up for the project. They painted Si Kecil (the Little One), a rehabilitated sun bear cub cared for by sun bear biologist Gabriela Fredrikkson in East Kalimantan.

In 2000, Wong took a picture of Si Kecil when he visited Fredrikkson. Two months later, the cub was killed by another sun bear.

Wong told Fredrikkson that he wanted to make the photo of Si Kecil well-known across the world so that people can remember the cub’s story and the plight of the sun bears. Si Kecil has also become the centre’s icon.

Recently, KL Fairview students produced 33 paintings of Si Kecil.

“These paintings will be displayed at BSBCC’s visitor centre for public viewing. In future, we may sell or auction some of these paintings during special functions or fund-raising events,” Wong says, adding that BSBCC is home to 40 rescued sun bears. The youngest bear is Wawa (a nine-month-old cub) and the oldest is Amaco (a 23-year-old sun bear).

Sun bears across South-East Asia, Sabah included, are not doing well.

“They face tremendous threats from habitat lost across their distribution range. For the sun bears that manage to survive, their survival may be further threatened by poaching for body parts and the pet trade,” says Wong.

“Recently, the Sabah Wildlife Department prosecuted two separate cases of sun bear poaching within two weeks. These cases raised serious concern for wildlife poaching in the state. In addition, Facebook is being used as a platform for the illegal wildlife trade.”

Wong is thankful that Chua and Chiew had initiated a painting project to raise awareness of sun bears. He hopes more people can come forward to help the centre.