On north Borneo island, environmentalists are increasing their efforts to save one of the planet's most endangered species, the sun bear.

Years of logging have taken a heavy toll on the habitats of the sun bear in Sabah, Malaysia's easternmost state on Borneo island.

That plus demand for the bear's body parts to be used in Chinese medicines and a local custom that prizes the animals as pets have sharply reduced their numbers in the wild.

New center will focus on public education

To save the animals from extinction, scientists and environmentalists are finalizing plans for the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center, which will focus on public education and returning pet bears to the wild.

After 10 years of studies and fundraising, project coordinator Seiw Te Wong from the University of Montana in the United States, says construction of the center is about to begin.

"I realized there was quite a number of bears being held in captivity as pets and they were locked up in cages and kept in very, very poor condition - indeed very sad," Wong explained. "So for the last several years I have been trying to set up this Sabah conservation center in order to help these captive animals."

Eventually the center will care for more than 40 bears in a least four natural outdoor enclosures.

World's smallest bears

Sun bears are the world's smallest bears - with most weighing less than 60 kilograms. Their fur is dark brown or black, and they have big yellow or white crescent on their chests. The bears once roamed the jungles of much of Southeast Asia.

At the moment, there are so few bears in the wild that Wong says it is impossible to count them.

Sabah state is becoming an important part of global efforts to save endangered species. That is in part due to its success in preserving its remaining tropical jungles in remote areas, such as along the Kinabatangan River.

"Sabah compared to other places has a relatively good chance because there are still a lot of good forests left," Wong said. "In Kinabatangan River, where the wildlife really is the star to attract tourist money to that area, I think the government has also seen that way and definitely this is the way for us to go."

As a result, Wong says he is confident the Borneo sun bear can be rescued from extinction.