Sun Bear Forest: A Natural Evolution

Times Staff Writer

Billy the bear paws at the fresh grass a short leap away from the spectators. Leo the monkey balances precariously on a branch overhanging a stream.

Rain forests, in retreat worldwide, are making a comeback in San Diego. The Sun Bear Forest, a $3.5-million showcase for rain forest flora and fauna, will open Friday at the San Diego Zoo.

The 1.5-acre exhibit, complete with streams, caves and waterfalls, will feature Malayan sun bears and the monkeys known as lion-tailed macaques. Fifteen species of tropical birds and 5,000 plants will help make the animals feel at home.

Part of Transformation


The rain forest replica is part of the zoo’s transformation into a “bioclimatic zoo” grouped around 10 world climate zones, said zoo spokeswoman Georgeanne Irvine. That revamp may cost $150 million and take 20 years to complete, zoo officials estimate.

“Renewing our entire zoo is an extensive and expensive undertaking,” said Douglas G. Myers, the zoo’s executive director. “Many of the facilities that earned the San Diego Zoo its world renown in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s are beginning to show their age.”

Sun Bear Forest joins the zoo’s Tiger River and African Rock Kopje displays on the cutting edge of the animal exhibition business, Irvine said. While some zoos have developed similarly complex exhibits, none except San Diego plans a total conversion to habitat displays, she said.

Gone are the cages with iron bars, replaced by moats and hidden wires that blend in with the forest landscape. Instead of viewing the animals against a background of metal and cement, visitors can watch them feed on abundant sugar cane or take a dip in a nearby pond.


But the displays also contain the latest in creature comforts, according to designer Hella Brown. Sun Bear Forest, for example, contains heated cave floors and an electronic honey dispenser.

May Get Them in Mood

Officials hope such accommodations will inspire the rare and endangered animals to greater procreative heights.

“The more natural their environment, the more naturally these animals will act and breed,” Irvine said.


The lion-tailed macaque, one of the two mammal species in the exhibit, is on every scientist’s critical list. Only 2,000 of the bright monkeys remain in the wild in India’s Western Ghat Mountains. The sun bear, though not endangered, is considered rare.

Advanced habitat exhibits are becoming the trend among zoologists because they allow people to see the animals in their natural environment, according to Irvine.

“With so much of the rain forest disappearing, we need to show these animals in their context to educate the public,” she said.

Building a miniature rain forest in the middle of San Diego has its problems, however. When the sun bears entered the display Thursday, one managed to leap the water obstacle and just barely missed a branch on the visitor side of the moat, a zoo assistant said.


“With something like this, it’s always trial and error,” said Brown.