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A rescue group dedicated to protecting the sun bear – the smallest bear species in the world – has just released its first bear back into the wild.

‘Natalie’ arrived at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) four and a half years ago.

Just three months old, her mother had been poached and she was alone.

Medical checks are carried out prior to Natalie's release

Medical checks are carried out prior to Natalie’s release

But over the past four years, the BSBCC has given her key survival skills to help her cope in the wild, and she has now been released into the forests of Lahad Datu in the northern state of Sabah.

Wong Siew Te, founder of BSBCC in Borneo’s Sabah state, says, ‘Natalie was a skinny sun bear cub weighing about 3kg when she first came into BSBCC.

‘She was malnourished but remained active. She was extremely playful, and enjoyed exploring the forest very much. What we noticed at that time was that she was a good tree climber.’

But he is now confident that she has the right skills to cope in the wild, describing her release as a ‘bittersweet joy’.

‘I cared for her like a daughter. I had brought her for walks in the forest, fed her, taught her what food to identify and played with her,’ Wong told the Malay Mail Online.

‘It was sad to let her go but I know she belongs in the forest.’

Since she arrived at BSBCC, Natalie’s progress has been tracked by a satellite collar.

Natlaie is removed from the helicopter ready for release

Natlaie is removed from the helicopter ready for release

In order to prepare her for a life back in the wild, she has had to develop crucial survival skills like foraging, climbing, nest building and socialising.

‘Natalie grew up in natural forest enclosures in BSBCC with tall trees, dense vegetation and significant amounts of natural food items such as termites, earthworms, insects and honey from beehives,’ says Wong.

He adds that Natalie escaped last year and managed to fend for herself for 37 days.

The freed sun bear starts her new life back in the forest

The freed sun bear starts her new life back in the forest

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global sun bear population may have declined by up to 30 per cent in the past 30 years – the equivalent of three bear generations.

And they are no less under threat in Borneo, where estimates suggest there are less than 11,000 in Sabah state.

Many are, like Natalie’s mum, poached for traditional Asian medicine, or fall victim to the effects of deforestation. Hopefully Natalie’s story will have a happier ending.