Sun Bear Conservation Genetics and Genomics

Despite its vulnerable status in the IUCN Red List and serious conservation concerns, the sun bear Helarctos malayanus remains the least studied bear species. In this project, we use a range of genetic and genomic approaches to support on-going conservation efforts with new molecular tools.

Project details
Duration: Since 2018
Third-party funded: Yes
Involved Department(s): Dept Evolutionary Genetics
Leibniz-IZW Project Leader(s):
Daniel Förster (Dept Evolutionary Genetics)
Leibniz-IZW Project Team:
Miriam N Kunde, Renata Martins, Joe Premier, Jörns Fickel, Daniel Förster
(all: Dept Evolutionary Genetics)
Consortium Partner(s): Free the Bears (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam); Animals Asia (Vietnam); Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (Malaysia); Danau Girang Field Centre (Malaysia); Sabah Wildlife Department (Malaysia); Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre (Vietnam); Vertebrate Genomes Project (USA); Institute Of Molecular And Cellular Biology SB RAS (Russia); Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (USA); University of Potsdam (Germany); Nottingham Trent University (UK); University of Leicester (UK)
Current Funding Organisation: Leibniz Competition; Revive&Restore “Wild Genomes”
Research Foci:
The sun bear is listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List and is a CITES appendix 1 species, with the highest research priority within the bear family (Ursidae). The IUCN status of the sun bear will likely be changed to endangered (overall) at the 2021 IUCN SSC Meeting, with some populations even designated as critically endangered (e.g. in Vietnam).

The “Sun Bears: Global Status Review & Conservation Action Plan” identified 19 objectives (comprising 63 actions) to attain the following five goals between 2019-2028:

  1. Eliminate illegal exploitation;
  2. Protect and restore habitats and populations;
  3. Devise and employ reliable monitoring methods;
  4. Maximize ex situ contributions to conservation; and
  5. Increase cross-sectoral support and collaboration for sun bear conservation

To assess existing populations across the species’ range, conservation practitioners have requested reliable tools to monitor sun bear populations (and their genetic diversity), guide captive breeding (studbook keeping), and identify populations of conservation priority. For populations too depleted to be viable, conservation actions such as augmentations have been proposed (i.e., genetic rescue).

Sun bear conservation practitioners currently release captive bears back into forested and occupied sun bear habitats without the aid of genetic monitoring tools and without knowing if the genotype of a bear fits into the population at the release site. They thus have a strong interest in the development of molecular tools to assess and monitor wild sun bear populations and ex situ populations in rescue centers, assignment tests for the bear cubs in their care, and forensic tools to combat the illegal trade.

Using a variety of conservation genetic and genomic approaches, we aim to contribute directly to goals #3 and #4 and support goals #1 and #2 of the sun bear Action Plan.

Selected Publications

Kunde M N, Barlow A, Klittich A M, Yakupova A, Patel R P, Fickel J, Förster DW (2023): First mitogenome phylogeny of the sun bear Helarctos malayanus reveals a deep split between. Ecology and Evolution, 13, e9969.

Kunde MN, Martins RF, Premier J, Fickel J, Förster DW (2020): Population and landscape genetic analysis of the Malayan sun bear Helarctos malayanus. CONSERV GENET 21, 123–135. doi:10.1007/s10592-019-01233-w