A black sun bear pokes its snout through the bars of a cage.

Witness by Emily Garthwaite. Highly commended 2018, Wildlife Photojournalist Award: Single Image.

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: a sun bear behind bars

This caged sun bear lives in filthy conditions in an Indonesian zoo. Its claws are overgrown, its belly is empty and its face is desperate.

The bear's hopeless situation in an Indonesian zoo was captured by 25-year-old photojournalist Emily Garthwaite on a trip to Sumatra, and the above image is in this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

Emily says that as soon as the bear saw her, it rushed to the front of its filthy cage. He was just one of several sun bears kept behind the scenes at the zoo, in conditions Emily described as 'appalling'.

It's not the first time that Indonesian zoos have been criticised for keeping animals in unacceptable conditions. In 2017, a video of sun bears in sparse cages begging tourists for food caused outrage around the world. According to the Jakarta Globe, last year only four of Indonesia's 58 registered zoos were deemed 'decent and appropriate'.

Emily had heard similar horror stories from conservationists working in the area, including tourists giving monkeys lit cigarettes. In May 2017, she was travelling in Sumatra with a team of conservationists and decided to pay this site a visit.

She says, 'As the zoo's entry fees remain so low, it is deemed a source of entertainment rather than an opportunity for education or conservation.

'When I visited I met three local street photographers who stopped to chat to me. One of them explained he knew the tiger keeper and could get me access behind the scenes.'

A tiger languishes in an cage in a zoo in Sumatra. Image: Emily Garthwaite.


The bear's enclosure was not an easy sight to take in. Emily says that its keeper was apathetic about the animal's poor living conditions. 

She says, 'It hurts my heart to witness animal cruelty, but I've never been one to look away. So it has been crucial to have a camera by my side to document what I feel passionate about.

'It's hard being a witness to something that, at that moment, you can't stop. Taking a photo provides relief - you have evidence. I've always seen bears as such powerful creatures, but the sun bear was broken, weak and imprisoned. It was calling out loudly and its long claws kept getting caught in the bars.'

Sun bears at risk

Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

They live in the forests of southeast Asia, feeding on termites, ants, beetle larvae, stingless bee larvae, honey and fruit. Large jaws and canines allow them to bite through bark to find bee nests and honey, and they use their long tongues to drag insects from crevices. Their long, sharp claws are for digging in the ground and breaking apart rotten logs.

Deforestation and commercial hunting are threatening sun bear populations across their range. According to the IUCN, sun bears are most often poached for their bile, which is used in Chinese medicine, and their paws, considered a delicacy in some cultures.

In the middle of the twentieth century, increasing international trade meant a rise in demand for bear bile. Sun bears were one of the most commonly seized bear species in Asia from 2000 to 2011. Cubs are often caught by poachers and sold as pets or farmed for their bile.

Conservation actions which could help the species include protecting forests from unsustainable logging, and better management of forest fires. Laws protecting the bears also need to be enforced more thoroughly across southeast Asia.

Bear rescue organisations have also been set up to provide sanctuary for bears that have been confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade.

The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is one of them. Established in 2008, it rescues and releases bears back into the wild, or provides a long-term home for those that cannot be released.

Emily believes that photography can also play a part in helping animals like the sun bear, especially as the species is not often documented in photography competitions or the media.

She says, 'I have come to understand that to protect species, we must first examine political and economic interests. I’ve thought about creating a fundraising site to have the sun bears moved from Medan to a conservation site in Borneo, but I know that won't solve the problem.

'The general public - and I - would no doubt be thrilled if this one sun bear was saved, but that doesn't address the greater issue.

'Conservation programmes such as the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre need to be supported more, and a wider awareness campaign that shows the plight of the sun bear.'

An Asian elephant stands visibly traumatised, chained to a temple pillar following a six-hour procession.

An Asian elephant stands visibly traumatised, chained to a temple pillar following a six-hour procession. This image was a Finalist in 2015's Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.


Championing photojournalism

Emily's journalistic work covers a broad range of subjects. Her next project will focus on four vulnerable women in London, to explore issues of social reform. But she also has a history of documenting animals in danger. In 2015, her photograph of an Asian elephant in chains (above) was also shown in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

The animal was chained to a temple pillar following a six-hour procession through the Indian city of Varanasi, in the build-up to Diwali. There are an estimated 3,600 domesticated Asian elephants in India, belonging to the government, wealthy families or temples, and used in festivals throughout the year.

Emily says, 'It's equally important that photojournalists examine animal stories as well as human stories, as all too often animals are caught up in human stories.

'The photojournalism category in Wildlife Photographer of the Year is incredibly important and the competition creates an international platform to share stories about species affected by deforestation, climate change, poaching or economic and political interests.

'It is important to document animals in distress, to get that information out into the world. When you see fear and sadness in an animal's eyes, you are reminded that we are not so dissimilar to them.

'The answer to everything is education. If people all over the world are supported and educated, we will solve many social issues, and conservation issues as well.'

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