A Baby Bear Cuscus, One of Earth's Most Endangered Animals, Is Born at Poland's Wroclaw Zoo
February 20, 2021
A bear cuscus has been born at Zoo Wrocław!
Why is this birth so special? Only 4 zoos in the world house this species and only in Wrocław has it been bred successfully. In nature, bear cuscuses live only on the island of Celebes in Indonesia, and soon they may become completely extinct. The bear cuscus is one of the rarest, least known, and most endangered species of animals on Earth!
This animal has a massive body reaching up to 10 kg and 60 cm in length. Its bear-like fur is soft and dark. It has a large head with a short snout, piercing eyes and a pink nose, paws with sharp claws, and a long prehensile tail. It resembles a miniature bear but it is a marsupial. It lives in the rainforests on the island of Celebes. The bear cuscus is an arboreal animal but moves slowly, carefully reaching branches. It feeds mainly on leaves but also likes flowers, buds, and unripe fruits. These animals are not very social, they live in pairs or small groups and communicate via scents and vocalizations. They reproduce as they live-slowly. Although little is known about this process, it has been established that the female usually gives birth to one underdeveloped young per year that lives in her pouch for 6-7 months. The bear cuscus prefers to live in areas untouched by humans. Its inability to adapt to changing conditions makes all the obvious problems such as climate change, deforestation, or poaching even more threatening. It also hampers the research and conservation efforts. Despite such complications, the employees of the Wrocław zoo have successfully bred this species for the fourth time. This is a huge success on a global scale and a confirmation that the bear cuscus can be saved from extinction thanks to zoo breeding programs.
“It's an amazing feeling to participate in the reproduction of such a species and contribute to its protection. From the beginning, we've carefully observed our cuscuses and recorded everything-individual behavior, interactions, activity, eating habits, and even analyzed their bowel movements. We also try to give them as much peace and freedom as possible, which is why they live in a facility, where they have contact only with selected employees, and where no visitors are allowed. I believe that all this is the basis of our success,” says Radosław Ratajszczak, president of the zoo.
On July 20, 2020, the keepers spotted a young cuscus in its mother's pouch. Then everyone held their breath because this is a very critical stage. The young are underdeveloped and cannot survive on their own at this point. In September the baby started to peep out of the pouch. At the end of December, it began to leave the pouch and explore the surroundings.
“Currently, the youngster moves along the branches in the enclosure and tries to steal food from its mother. It still stays close to her and hops right back into the pouch when it feels insecure. For now, the small cuscus diet consists mainly of the mother's milk, but it is already trying to nibble on "adult" snacks, i.e. leaves. We suspect that the cub is a male, but we will be able to confirm this when it becomes more independent and gets used to us,” says the head of the small mammals' department Andrzej Miozga.
The cuscuses came to Wrocław in spring 2016 from an Indonesian animal rehabilitation center. They were confiscated from smugglers and could no longer return to nature.
The first cuscus was born in Zoo Wrocław in March 2017. The newest offspring was born on July 20, 2020, to 6-year-old parents: Garetto and Duży. When its gender is determined and it reaches maturity, it will go out into the world, to another zoo to play its role in conservation breeding. Currently, only 14 bear cuscuses live in 4 zoos in the world: Batu Secret in Java (Indonesia), Pairi Daiza in Belgium, Ústí nad Labem in the Czech Republic, Memphis Zoo & Aquarium in the USA, and Zoo Wrocław. Most of them are not available for viewing. Other zoos benefit from the experience of Zoo Wrocław employees who share their knowledge within the framework of the global and European association. Protecting endangered species as part of conservation breeding in zoological gardens is always teamwork.
“We are dealing with a species about which almost nothing is known! To protect it effectively in nature, basic information about its biology is required. Meanwhile, there’s none. That is why our work is so important-it provides crucial data. For example, thanks to us, the world learned about the slow pace of development of the young, which is of great importance for the survival of this species in nature. There is still much to discover, so we applied to EAZA to make the bear cuscus a part of the EAZA Ex-situ Programme (EEP). The application has been approved and we will coordinate this program,” says Radosław Ratajszczak, president of Zoo Wrocław.
However, Zoo Wrocław does not stop at breeding off-site. Preparations are currently underway to launch a cuscus conservation program in Java, Indonesia, under the Prigen project. Vegetation has already been planted there. It will become the food source for the cuscuses. Now, funds are needed to put up a fence to keep the animals safe from poachers, and to build enclosures for those in need of help from the breeding area and those that will be confiscated from smugglers. Zoo Wrocław appeals for funding support for wildlife conservation projects that save animals in their habitat. You can do that by choosing the SAVING WILDLIFE admission ticket when visiting Zoo Wrocław. You may also contribute directly to the Dodo Foundation - through the website fundacjadodo.pl/ or by donating 1% of your tax by entering the KRS number 0000623492.
On the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species the bear cuscus (Ailurops ursinus) is classified as Vulnerable (VU). It is estimated that within 10 years the population will decline by another 30% as a result of habitat loss and poaching. The rainforests in which it lives are cut down for farmland and fragmented by road constructions. Bear cuscus is also caught for meat and fur, and more and more often for the pet trade, where its survival rate is negligible.