Text and Photos by Emma Hambleton
Hi, my name is Emma Hambleton, I am a third year environmental science student at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia and I was fortunate enough to have my first volunteering experience at BSBCC in January 2015 with fellow USC students Caitlyn Turner and Hayley Beck.
Feeling excited but nervous to be leaving Australia I couldn’t wait for my BSBCC volunteering experience to begin. Arriving in Borneo was a sense of the unknown, where I knew very little about sun bears to begin with and didn’t know what to expect in terms of what Borneo was going to be like. Our first day at BSBCC was on Monday 12th January 2015. We were first introduced to BSBCC founder and CEO, Wong Siew Te, we had a chat with him before being introduced to Nick who gave us a thorough introduction to BSBCC. We then had our first sun bear observing experience – so beautiful!!
Our first two weeks at BSBCC consisted of us working around the visitors by either working at the observation platform with other staff or in the information booth. The first few days at the platform gave us the opportunity to learn about the sun bears by listening to the staff talk to the visitors and, by asking them questions. After a couple of days of listening and learning about sun bears, we then spoke to visitors and answered any questions that they may have had about the bears. This helped us to retain the knowledge we had gained and by passing our knowledge on to visitors, it is hoped that they too would spread the word about sun bear conservation.
Our time in the information booth was spent informing visitors about different devices that are used to track bears, entertain bears (such as enrichment toys), or showing visitors pictures of the behaviour of sun bears who had previously been kept in cages as pets. Talking to the visitors was somewhat nerve-racking at first, given the fact that I didn’t know much at all about sun bears before arriving in Borneo. However, after a while, it became a lot easier as I was continuously learning more about sun bears, which then made me more comfortable answering questions from visitors. I particularly liked working at the observation platform as we got to observe the sun bears and watch them as they played, slept, ate or roamed around in a natural setting.
I was super excited in the third week of our stay, which was when we started working in the bear house! There was never a dull moment. We would begin the day by feeding the bears their porridge which was always fun/interesting watching the bears eagerly await their breakfast. After we cleaned the bears’ trays we began cleaning the cages. Being so close to the sun bears was pretty cool as some tended to watch you as you cleaned the cage beside them. For instance, the very first cage that I cleaned I left my bucket a little too close to Julaini’s cage and Julaini stole the bucket which was a shock at first. After Julaini had the bucket taken off him I could see Julaini’s sharp claws trying to grab my broom through the cage, this happened most days that I cleaned the cage beside him which made me laugh and I could sense Julaini’s playful personality so it’s safe to say Julaini became one of my favourites because of that.
After cage cleaning we got to feed the bears in the indoor enclosures which was always fun and interesting to see that, like humans, most of the sun bears didn’t eat banana peel, the green part of watermelon or the skin on any other fruit. It was cute seeing particular bears eating mannerisms, like the way Sigalung would lay on his back while he ate his fruit. Once the bears in the bear house were fed we would go and feed the bears in the outside enclosures. Fulung was usually the first bear we saw as he walked up the hill alongside us most days and would stand on his two hind legs like a human, waiting for his food – so cute! My favourite days would have to be coconut days. It amazed me to see how these strong little sun bears could open a coconut from the husk to the inside. This just showed how sharp and strong their teeth and claws are.
During the afternoon we usually made enrichment for the bears, which was fun, and good exercise, actually getting the materials we needed. We went for a few separate adventures up the road to collect banana leaves, dry leaves, bamboo, and through the forest to collect termite nests for the sun bears. Within the two weeks working in the bear house we made nest balls, burgers, bamboo enrichment, and we found termite nests for the bears which usually entertained the bears for around 15-30 minutes. I loved giving enrichment to the bears, particularly the bears that are not released into outdoor enclosures every day as it gave them something to pass the time away and it also gave them a sense of the wild by doing activities they would typically do in the wild, such as eating termite nests. This also helped to stop typical sun bear behaviour of pacing or regurgitating for a short time. It was always fun creating the enrichment as it also gave us time to hear Azzry’s (bear keeper) entertaining stories and jokes as we made the enrichment. Our time working with Azzry was always entertaining from riding down the hill on an old trolley with 31 coconuts on board for the bears, to having bamboo sawing competitions, to his casual attitude about leeches. Azzry’s famous quote “it’s onnnlyyy a leech”, are words I’ll never forget.
The two main highlights of my BSBCC experience were working in the bear house where we were able to get close to the bears, but not too close, by feeding them, cleaning their cages, and giving them enrichment. Working in the bear house was also the best way to learn each of the sun bears’ different, cute and loveable personalities such as; pretty girl Manis who would stand at the front of her cage with her head resting on her hands after she had finished her food, how Kudat would lie sprawled out with his paws hanging out under the bottom of his cage, how big boy Lingam rested his head on his hands while he watched people walk past from his hammock, how Natalie would watch your every move as you walked past her with food in hand or try and grab banana leaves out of your hand if you weren’t quick enough putting/placing them in her cage, or even the cutest little Mary who would cling to the cage while patiently waiting for her banana leaves in the afternoon – so cute! I could go on forever they are all so adorable and cute!
Although they are so adorable and cute I had to remind myself on several occasions not to get too attached to the bears as they are in there to be rehabilitated and hopefully released back into the wild, so it is a bittersweet feeling knowing that when I do go back next time some of the bears would have been released.
The second highlight was working with the staff at BSBCC, they are all the nicest, funniest, kindest, most knowledgeable, helpful, patient and friendliest people you will ever meet. Everyone at the centre was so welcoming. It was awesome to see how dedicated Wong and his staff at BSBCC are in rehabilitating the sun bears for their release back into the wild.
It is safe to say that my time volunteering at BSBCC will definitely not be forgotten and I feel so lucky to have been able to do this as part of my university degree thanks to BSBCC and USC. I had so much fun working with the BSBCC staff and fellow volunteers Amanda, Caitlyn, Fatin and Hayley. It is a rewarding feeling knowing that we’ve played a slight role in helping these beautiful animals get back out into the wild, or by at least informing others of the current sun bear situation and creating awareness. I would encourage anybody thinking about volunteering at BSBCC to start filling out their application now, it will be an experience you will never forget! I learnt so much in the month that I was at BSBCC and had the time of my life working with everyone at the centre and working so closely to the bears. It was hard saying goodbye to each and every one of the sun bears and staff at BSBCC. Thanks to Wong and all the staff at BSBCC for giving me such an amazing BSBCC experience!
Text and Photos by Caitlyn Turner
My name is Caitlyn Turner and I am a 4th year Environmental Science student from the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. My sun bear experience was shared with two other Environmental students from my university called Hayley and Emma. Our work placement at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) lasted a total of 4 weeks. Before applying for this work placement I had no idea what the situation with the sun bears was like. After spending a month working with the centre staff and the bears, I have learnt a great amount about the species and their importance in the world.
Our journey to Borneo first began on the plane trip over where we had no idea what to expect. I remember feeling nervous, anxious, and extremely excited. When we reached Sandakan it was like we had gone to an entirely different world. Going from living so close to the beach to entirely jungle was going to be a new experience. After leaving the airport we were driven to our accommodation by a taxi driver whom spoke little to no English. This was the second sign that we were no longer in a country like our own and it would be a good time to learn some Malay. When we reached our accommodation at the Sepilok Jungle Resort we were kindly welcomed by the resort staff and were checked-in to our resort room. Our room was simple, but it was perfect for the 3 of us.
The day after arriving we were into our induction at the BSBCC. We had no idea what we would be doing whilst there so we were all very curious and excited to begin. For our first day we were welcomed by the founder and CEO of the centre, Wong. He then left us in the capable hands of another staff member called Nick who kindly guided us through the centre and the bear houses. He explained everything to us and even treated us to a trip to the Orang utan Rehabilitation Centre in the afternoon. Our day at the centre finished with another staff member called Thye Lim giving a presentation which taught us a great deal about the sun bears. It was great being able to learn so much that early in the experience.
The next two weeks of our placement was spent helping out in the visitor centre. We spent our time here and not working in the bear houses as there were 3 interns also volunteering at the centre at this time. Even though we were keen to work with the sun bears it was a good chance for us to learn as much as possible about the bears before getting to experience them close up. Working on the observation platform and talking to visitors at the education booth was definitely a benefit as it allowed us to not only learn more about the bears but we got to teach others about them also. It felt great being able to educate people about the sun bears and to encourage them to support such an amazing conservation project. I think by spending the first 2 weeks doing these jobs I started to become truly passionate about the need for sun bear conservation and it made me determined to inform people about them as much as I could. My time in the centre also allowed me to make a number of wonderful friends with the visitor centre staff and most importantly it was the beginning to the 3 of us feeling like we were part of the team.
My favourite part of each day for the first two weeks was working on the platform. I never knew what I would see or end up learning each day. I remember meeting the cheeky macaques for the first time and at first I thought they were cute but I was soon to learn they are mischievous and dangerous. Lester, one of the centre’s staff, was generally called when there was a monkey problem and it always made me laugh to watch him chase them away. One of the days when coconuts were being given to the bears’ for their afternoon food, there was a macaque which climbed up a tree with one of the large coconuts. It was quite amusing as the coconut could not be opened so he got bored very quickly and dropped it back to the ground. Speaking of coconuts, another favourite of mine was coconut day as the bears are absolutely amazing at tearing the shell apart. Each bear is different with its coconut opening method, for example, some throw the coconut on the ground, others try to tap a hole into it, and others (i.e. Mary) patiently wait for another bear to open it and steal it from them.
When the 3rd week came around we were beyond prepared to work in the bear house. On our first day we were introduced to a new set of rules which were explained by Thye Lim. Then once the basics were understood we were into the hard work. The physical work inside and outside the bear house was explained by a staff member called Azzry. He guided us through everything we would be doing and even helped by making jokes about tasks so we weren’t as nervous. The daily routine was usually an outdoor pen check, clean the enclosures, morning feed out, prepare porridge, afternoon feed out, prepare enrichment and the disperse it to the bears, and finally the evening feed out with porridge and banana leaves. Even though the routine sounds like it would be repetitive, it really wasn’t. Each day I was excited as to what we were going to prepare for enrichment or what we would be giving the bears to eat. I can honestly say there was never a boring day at the bear house.
From our very first day to our last day we were treated with the utter-most kindness and it was like we were part of the BSBCC team. When we were leaving the centre to return to Australia I knew with certainty that I would be coming back to volunteer in the future. This experience has been incredible and I’d like to thank the entire BSBCC team for making the 3 of us feel very welcome and for making our time at the centre one we will never forget. All the staff at the centre were extremely friendly and I couldn’t think of a greater team of people to work with. Thank you.
Test and Photos by Hayley Beck
Upon arriving in Sepilok, I had no idea what to expect of the centre or the sort of activities I was to participate in. Caitlyn, Emma and myself heard about this amazing opportunity through our university, the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia; and all three of us jumped at the idea of being able to work so closely with a species we all knew so little about.
On our first day at the centre, we met Wong (CEO and Founder of BSBCC), who gave us a little introduction to the centre before passing us over to Nick, who showed us around the centre and got us familiar with the sun bears, the staff, the activities we would be involved in and the rules associated with these activities.
Working up on the observation platform, it was amazing to see these beautiful sun bears up close! I was able to learn so much about the sun bears through talking to the staff at the centre, and hearing them talk to the visitors about the sun bears. Once I had learnt a lot about the bears, I was then able to relay the information to other visitors. It was a very rewarding feeling, knowing that by informing others about the sun bears, I was helping to encourage more people to do their best to help out with the conservation and preservation of this amazing species
Whilst working in the bear house (not accessible to public), there was a strict rule that no one was allowed to touch the sun bears. Seeing them close up, it was very obvious why that rule had been implemented! These sun bears were wild animals, with exceptionally large claws and teeth. The more human contact the bears had, the less chance they had to survive independently back out in the wild (which is the ultimate goal at BSBCC). So even though they looked so cute and cuddly, we restrained ourselves from giving them a pat!
Each day, we would clean the sun bear’s cages, cook them porridge, cut them up some fruit and vegetables, and feed the bears in the bear house as well as the bears out in the forest enclosures. In the afternoons, we would spend time forging for banana leaves, bamboo, termite nests, or anything else that the bears would be able to use as an enrichment toy to keep their minds mentally stimulated. One of my favourite enrichment activities to prepare was the bamboo feeder, in which we chopped up some bamboo trunks (not as easy as it sounds!) and placed some bananas and leaves in the middle of them for the bears to rip out. This activity was able to preoccupy the bears for about 15-30min.
The only obstacle I faced throughout my stay was the leeches! Before arriving at the centre, I never imagined there would be so many leeches. Fortunately the staffs were more than experienced at getting rid of leeches, and were more than happy to help me with any leeches I had; although Azzry did try to make me overcome my fear of leeches by walking through as much forest area as possible – thanks buddy.
One of my favourite activities working in the bear house each day was placing banana leaves all around the bear’s cages for them to find. After the sun bears eat their porridge, many of them tend to regurgitate their food back up to then eat it again. Often, the sun bear will regurgitate on their own body (arms, legs, stomach etc.) and lick it off themselves. Regurgitation is a stereotypical behaviour of the sun bears when they feel either bored or stressed out. Doing this each day results in bald spots along the bears body. So by placing the banana leaves around the cages, the sun bears then have an activity to preoccupy themselves with, and hopefully wear them out quicker – resulting in no (or less) regurgitation time. It was amazing to see how capable the bears are in climbing around their cages searching for the leaves – some would even happily hang off the roof!
After four weeks at BSBCC, I was able to learn so much! Not just about the sun bears as a species, but also about each individual sun bear. Every bear at the centre has its own diverse personality and background. It was amazing knowing more about them, and knowing that volunteering at the centre each day meant that I was helping out just that little bit extra towards their rehabilitation. I intend to spread the word about BSBCC to all my friends and family; it was really one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I have no doubt that I will be back again in the near future to continue volunteering. A HUGE thank you to Wong and all the staff at BSBCC for making us all feel so welcome, and allowing us to enjoy the opportunity of a life time! You all made my time in Sepilok absolutely unforgettable!
Text and Photos by Amanda Shia
Hi, my name is Amanda Shia and I am from Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia. I am currently an undergraduate Zoology student in University Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS). About two years ago, I had my first volunteer experience in Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) before entering university and I decided to participate in volunteering here again during my semester break.
Two years had passed; I could definitely see how much this centre has progressed and still continues to develop. For one, the bear house has expanded into two indoors space. This gives more space for more bears to be placed in. Previously, the centre had 27 rescued sun bears. Currently, it has 37 sun bears included three that just arrived recently. The rise of rescued sun bears can be a concerning issue as well as a good insight. It is an alarming issue that the illegal poaching activities as well as keeping these wild animals as pets are truly happening here in our state of Sabah. Albeit so, it shed a light on the fact that the more bears there are taken in to be cared and conserved, the better their future is sustained in wildlife.
Most importantly, it is officially opened to public since last year! That one little office I once remembered has now been renovated into a bigger building; scaffolding a counter/gift shop entrance, office and quarantine facility area. Stretched from entrance of the door lays a platform which gives opportunities for the visitors to observe the sun bears in the forest enclosure. To coincide to that, more bears are released at the forest enclosures. Visitors are able to see sun bears being just the way they naturally are; foraging for food, integrate with one another, being agile climbers, digging and clawing. I was moved when visitors coming from all sorts of countries and locals were awed at the existence of the small bears right in front of their eyes. I am forever in awe of how the bears are still the same as they were back then with their unique personalities. Mary being the usual Mary when she sits up uses two of her paws to hold up the feed to eat. Damai who I once remember used to be a small cub now have grown big and likes to rest on top of trees. Yet, it has come to a concern that locals are not aware that the land of Borneo has sun bears that has been classified as endangered and protected species, let alone knowing it existed in first place. In long run, I believed this centre will able to change that with the constant education and endless supply of information to the public; this includes the schools.
With more sun bears, comes with more responsibility. Aside from the rise of more staffs to take on to jobs and organizing the flow of company, the tasks on working around the sun bears gets more handy as well. The daily routine of cleaning the cages, preparing food in the kitchen, feeding the bears and making enrichments got amplified! Making enrichments is fun and to be looked forward on because that is when we get handy and basically get everything we can get our hands on to create something for the bears. We went deep into the forest to find termite nests, raked dried leaves on the roadside, collected banana leaves and also chopping bamboo trees. It was an adventure just to get them all! The staffs ensure that all the bears get the welfare they needed. I liked how systematically we are all assigned to different tasks day to day, in order to experience all of them. I am pretty much appalled if one man is able to do it all.
Working with the staffs that are ever-ready, committed, friendly and passionate made volunteering a thing I don’t mind to do relentlessly. Therefore, I would like to personally thank each and every staffs of BSBCC for your kindness and warmth; being such a sport to us. Besides, I get to work alongside with other volunteers and an intern. I had a grand time knowing Emma, Caitlyn, Hayley and Fatin. It was a joy to work together as well as the fun of going through forest trails on some days and got ‘hitchhiked’ by leeches along the way. For two weeks I have been there was made worthwhile with them.
My perceptions on managing a conservation centre have expanded. It is not an easy task; as I can see how much the centre is still need time for more improvements. But the centre is lucky to have dedicated and passionate staffs that will continue to improve as well as expanding the facilities best suit for the sun bears, welcoming more sun bears that are rescued from being served neither as a pet nor as a meal on a dining table. The centre is doing the best they can to reintroducing the sun bears to their natural life style, by being in the wild. From the bears behaviour and ease of adapting in the forest enclosure, I can see the bears will have a chance of experiencing a bright future.
It was unfortunate I am not going to be around when the time comes for them to release one of the bears into the wild, but my greatest wishes goes out to all of them. I urge animal lovers out there to take a step of doing something to help the bears! It does not have to be in money form, it can be in your participation as a volunteer – to see how they work on taking care of the bears and learn that they prepare variety of enrichments for the bears so they can utilise their habitual skills. If you have the time, keen to learn and help, up for strenuous challenges – this place is for you.