Photos by: Ng Yen Fern, Marieanne Leong, Amy Scott and Ng Wai Pak.
I have just returned to Australia after spending almost 2 months volunteering at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sepilok, Sabah on the island of Borneo. I arrived at Sandakan airport on July 6th and was met by a smiling Wai Pak the BSBCC project manager and Marieanne and Fern two Sabahan volunteers whom I was to enjoy several weeks living and working with. We then did a few necessary bear centre errands, banking, shopping, a trip to the post office etc before heading back to the centre in Sepilok about 20km away where I met other volunteers, Venda and Roshan, and hard-working bear keepers David and Daniel. It was also my first meeting of the sun bears. I guess the first thing I noticed, that I wasn’t expecting, was how agile the bears were, like monkeys - climbing all over the cages and on the tyre swings and branches including upside down. It was very entertaining to watch! This was just my first day and I didn’t know then what a great experience was ahead of me.
Next the fun commences! – The cleaning of all enclosures in the main bear house: Sweeping up piles of bear poo and old and wet leaves and grass, scrubbing and hosing floors and walls squeegeeing the floors dry and scrubbing of water troughs. New foliage, vines, and branches are then collected from outside for distribution around each newly cleaned enclosure.
The next task for the day is cutting fruit for the morning fruit feeding. A combination of fruits and vegetables (but majority fruits) are given twice a day to the bears and can include apples, oranges, snake fruit, corn, bananas, papaya, corn, cabbage, beans and water melon.
The morning fruit feeding is at about 11:00 and the afternoon feeding about 2:00. Fruit is scattered and spread around enclosures to promote more natural foraging behavior. After the morning feeding, fruit is chopped for the afternoon feeding and put into large bowls in the fridge over lunch. Rice, for the afternoon rice porridge meal, is also put onto cook in two large pots. Then it’s washing of bowls, knives and chopping boards and a general tidy up of work area before lunch.
Following cleaning of the old bear house time is often spent in the afternoon preparing enrichments for the bears and a large part of the volunteer role at the BSBCC involves undertaking tasks that provide environmental ‘enrichment’ for the sun bears while they are in their cages in the bear house.
Enrichment is the process of providing stimulation to an animal in an unnatural situation such as when in captivity that provides a more natural environment and promotes normal behaviors and activities. Enrichment also attempts to reduce repetitive or stereotypical behaviors that can be observed in animals that have been kept in small enclosures for extended periods with no stimulation. Many of the bears that arrive at the BSBCC have been in this situation.
In a wild situation sun bears will spend a lot of their time on the move, foraging for food, digging and climbing. They will interact with the natural environment experiencing different smells and sounds and come into contact with a variety of plant and animal species and different terrains. The BSBCC is the only sun bear center in the world that has natural rainforest habitat for the bears to roam, and seeing the bears digging, foraging and exploring their outdoor environment and just acting like wild sun bears was definitely one of the highlights for me at the center. However due to several reasons including current space limitations as the bear center expands and new bears keep on arriving, not all bears can be outside in the forest enclosures at the same time so providing enrichment to the bears while they are in their cages in the bear house is an important part of the BSBCC program. The main aim of the enrichment process is to provide as many elements as possible of bear’s natural habitat and then provide other sources of stimulation for the bear’s senses that provide extended periods of activity and interest. The longer the enrichment keeps the bears busy and interested the better!
There are various categories of ‘enrichment’ that can be provided and some of the ‘habitat’, ‘physical’ and/or ‘sensory’ enrichments prepared and provided to bears at the BSBCC include:
- Piles of dried leaves and grass for foraging, play and bedding for the nest basket and stimulation of senses particularly touch and smell.
- Foliage, braches and vines including edible and non-edible species that provide both food, shelter, bedding and in general a more natural environment providing different textures, tastes and smells.
- Large logs and tree stumps for climbing, resting on and tearing apart with their claws.
- Water baths for wallowing and playing in - sun bears love water!
- Tyre and wooden swings and hammocks for climbing, play and resting and to provide vertical structure to the enclosure.
- Scatter feeding and hiding of fruits around the enclosure in different structures and at different heights to promote natural foraging behavior and extend feeding periods.
- Filling ‘Kongs’ (strong rubber dog toys) with banana, one of the bear’s favourite foods- Kongs have a hole in the center and the banana is packed in tight. The Kongs are then thrown on the roof of the cage and the bears quickly climb up to take a look. It takes some skill and ingenuity by the bears to pull the Kong through the bars inside where they can then scoop out the banana with their claws which again keeps them busy for a while because the hole is small and their paws are big!
- Large water ice blocks filled with various foods including fruit and/or corn and dry dog food are a favourite of the bears. Being large, solid, frozen and slippery it takes some time for the bears to access the food inside and keeps their interest for ages which is the objective!
- Whole coconuts provide the bears with activity and interest for quite some time, eventually cracking them open with a combination of their powerful teeth and by throwing the coconuts against the walls and floor. Once they have made a hole they drink the juice by holding the coconut between their feet and lying on their backs and then break open the rest of the coconut to eat the flesh- Quite a treat to watch!
- Sections of bamboo or PVC pipe are packed tight with fruit and grass and thrown on top of cages. This provides a two part enrichment one is the difficulty in accessing the food while the pipe is outside the cage which again takes some skill, and the second is ripping apart the empty bamboo case (and sometimes the PVC pipe!) which some bears take great delight in doing!
The second was a small gut passage rate pilot study, which involved mixing seeds (dried beans) with the food of several bears and recording how long seeds took to pass through the gut of the bears. This information could contribute towards learning more about the role of sun bears as seed dispersers in the rain forest and it is hoped may lead to a larger student project in the future.
I also undertook some bear behavioral monitoring over a period of a week in August spending a few days in both the ‘new’ and ‘old’ bear house that involved recording what activity each bear was performing every 5 minutes from various categories of ‘natural’ and ‘stereotypical’ behavior. It is a good technique to determine the rate of natural compared with stereotypical or non-natural repetitive behaviors that bears are performing and help with identifying which bears need more enrichment and how bears are improving over time that they are at the center. I found this to be a very interesting little project learning a lot more about sun bears and their behavior.
The Bornean Eco-Film Festival was on in Sandakan in July. It showcased a number of environmental documentaries many filmed in Sabah and highlighting local environmental issues. It included the Bear Trek film Promo showing the work of bear researchers from around the world and featured Wong undertaking his research on sun bears in Danum Valley which was fantastic to see. Wong also did a presentation on the BSBCC and issues facing the sun bears that was very well received by the audience and hopefully will lead to wider awareness of the plight of the sun bears.
I very much enjoyed my time at the BSBCC and in Sabah and met some great people and gorgeous sun bears which really are the most remarkable animals! At the same time I learnt a lot about sun bears and the threats they are facing now into the future and why they need our help so much. It was a great experience for me and I highly recommend it to anyone! Thanks Wong, Wai Pak, Daniel and David and all the volunteers I worked with for looking after me so well and to the sun bears for making it such a wonderful experience!