Text By Emily Tan Yu En
Photos By BSBCC & APE Malaysia
Hey everyone! I’m Emily Tan Yu En, 17 from Penang, Malaysia and I just graduated from high school. I am waiting for my SPM results and I have 3 months before entering university. I came across this volunteering programme as my parents got to know about it from Mr Wong. Even though I’m a Malaysian, I’ve never been to Sabah before and I was really excited about this programme. I am no stranger to sun bears as I saw one in a mini zoo in Peninsula Malaysia. There are two sun bears in that enclosure and you can tell from their facial expression that they’re not being treated well in the zoo. Their enclosure is really small and they only get contact with each other. That was the first experience with sun bears.
My volunteering programme starts from 5th of January until 18th of January and there are five more volunteers at that time but I’m the only one who has a two week placement. I’ve experience a lot of first experiences throughout the project. For my two weeks in the bear house, I get to clean the cages, work in the kitchen, do enrichments for the bears and also a lot of funny moments like getting stuck in the mud after collecting banana leaves , falling in the drain because of a flood , a piece of wood fell on my foot and a lot more. I also get to build a swing for the cub with my buddy, Brandon and Ieda. The volunteers from Ape Malaysia are really nice and I really had a great time with them. We played card games every night and we laughed a lot.
After finishing the two weeks volunteering time at BSBCC, I went back to Penang and soon returned to Sabah as a volunteer for as I missed it so much! Unlike January, this time there’s no other volunteer and I will be staying at the staff house ( Bjorn Hala ). I get to work in the kitchen for three weeks and also do some enrichment. I think I consider myself lucky because this time I get to work at the platform and also outreach to Lahad Datu. I get to know more about the hard work that all the staff have done for the bears and the efforts by the keepers in the bear house.
I’m really grateful that I get to work with all the staff and I am able to observe the sun bears at close quarters. They’re really cute and I’m still amazed by their size, behaviour and a lot more. I’m also really pleased that I was able to join the health check of Mamatai and Diana. I enjoyed outside feeding the most as I was able to have a closer look at the bears eating the fruit and I also get so lucky one time that I saw two bears climbing the same time.
I realised how important the staff in the centre are to the bears after working with them for 5 weeks. All the keepers treat the bears sincerely and they taught me a lot about sun bears. I appreciate all the efforts given by the staff and also all the knowledge about the bears. I also want to thank my housemates at Bjorn Hala for taking care of me and taking me everywhere around Sandakan. All the lame jokes from the keepers really help and thanks to all the keepers in the bear house for treating the bears so sincerely. I’ll sure miss the time working with all of the bears and the staff.
Video by Chiew Lin May
Bintang on her first day of arrival vs four years later.. She was rescued from an illegal house pet and was sent to the BSBCC on 15th July 2014.
Today, Bintang grows up learning to be a wild bear. It takes a lot of time and love for Bintang to forget her traumatic past.
We have two things that sun bears do not, which is the voice and freedom. Please use your voice to help them!
Text by Ummu ‘Atiyyah Mohamed Talhah
Photos by Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
My name is Ronnie, and this is my story of my life as a bear at Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
I am one of 45 bear residents at Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. There’s two other Ronnies in the centre, so sometimes they may refer to me as “Ronnie Boy” in order to not get confused. Who’s the other two? Well, one of them is Ronnie girl. She must be cute. The other Ronnie is also a “Ronnie Boy” but he’s actually a well-grown man, not a bear, working in the centre.
Sometimes I see the staff staring at me and observing me. Some say that I’m handsome. Some say that I look like a pit bull. They say that I have beautiful blue eyes that can be seen when the sunlight hits them. What I know is that I’m handsome and I have a muscular body. Calling me cute would definitely offend me.
By now you must be asking yourself, “Why is Ronnie here and not in the forest?”. Well, I was kept in a small concrete floor cage together with a friend, Diana at a resort in Tawau. We were kept to be displayed to the resort’s visitors and the small cage was my “home” for years. Luckily for both of us, Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre rescued us in 2013 and I have been in good hands since then.
I was diagnosed with heart problem by the vet during my medical checkup. The centre has been taking extra care of my diet to ensure a healthy and balanced is provided to me. My favourite fruit is definitely bananas! During fruiting season they would provide us with local fruits, which I love! However, I don’t really enjoy pumpkin. I would leave it and only eat them when I’m really hungry later on. One time, one of them gave me a pill millipede, which I guess is a food source for us sun bears? It smelled funny. I squashed it, left it and don’t even bother to eat it since it doesn’t look tasty like a banana.
How do I spend my time? I love hanging around especially in my basket, like in the first picture. Unlike other bears that sleep in the basket, I would sit at the edge of the basket and balance myself by holding on to the wall with my long claws. I love chilling there and just enjoy watching the keepers. I would also watch them when they’re cleaning the cages next to mine, and sometimes I would follow the brush that’s cleaning the wall next to me. They smell funny.
Sometimes they would make special toys for me to play with during my free time. I am usually very focused on only one toy at a time. If I’m not done with an enrichment, I won’t be bothered by another enrichment. However, I will surely move on to the next enrichment when I’m done.
One time, I was given an Aussie dog ball. I love that toy! The ball was filled with my meal, porridge. I tried pouring the porridge like how I would do when drinking coconut water but I got startled when the porridge dripped on my body. Silly me! I tried many ways to get my porridge and finally found the best way for me which was to roll the ball, lick the porridge that poured out, roll, lick, and repeat until the ball was empty. Yummy!
Another enrichment they always give me is the nest ball. It’s a ball that looks like a nest made of weeds with a sweet surprise inside. Usually I’ll get bananas and some honey. Yum!
One day, I was given another Aussie dog ball. Inside, I saw a nest ball. Hmm this is tricky. I must get this! But wait, did my neighbour , Bermuda get the same thing? I climbed up my cage to peek at him and saw him totally focused on a similar ball like the one I got. I must get my treats before he does! Bermuda always thinks he’s a more macho guy than me.
I immediately went back to my ball and clawed my way into the hole of the ball to get the weeds out. By the first minute, a small nest ball came out. Turns out, the nest ball is three times smaller than the normal ones but there’s more inside the aussie dog ball. The next one was a little harder but by the fourth minute I managed to get it out and already devoured the second piece of banana. The last mini nest ball was out after five minutes and a half since I started. This enrichment was harder than usual which usually took less than a minute but good things don’t come easy!
I love almost all of the enrichments they give me because enrichment means more treats for me! However, I don’t really enjoy the termite mounds they give me. They kind of bore me. I got excited at first, scratched it a bit then leave it. I only really destroy it during the night when I got bored.
The toys they give me really help to get rid of my boredom. The toys give me something to focus on so I won’t get easily stressed out.
By now you must have another question, “Why hasn’t Ronnie been released back to the forest?”. Well, there are a few criteria in order to be a good release candidate but for now, I haven’t fully met the criteria. I am still thankful to everyone in the centre that made sure me and my friends (Bermuda included) are in the best possible environment for now. In my dreams, I am running and climbing all the tress with yummy fruits high up in the tree.
Thank you everyone who is reading my story about my journey and thank you for contributing in any small way you can, to ensure a happy life for my friends and I in the centre.
Video by Chiew Lin May
"Who does not love ice-cream?!"
During the hot day, one way to keep the sun bear stay cool is with the tasty fruits ice block treats!
A perfect gift to rescued sun bear will support the ongoing care, treatment and tasty fruits. Check out on our website at www.bsbcc.org.my
Text and Photos by Chiew Lin May
On the 2nd of March 2017, a sun bear cub was handed over to the Sabah Wildlife Department named BJ. He was found after being purchased in Sonsogon village, Pitas, and was sold for the price of RM 300 and then was kept as a pet. He arrived at BSBCC on the 22nd of November, 2018. He is a two year old, sub adult male bear weighing 32.20kg.
After living alone in a cage, BJ was finally free from trauma and now has made some friends for the first time in his life. On the 14th of December 2018, BJ was integrated into a larger social group of female bears – Kina, Sika, Soo and Diana, who would help him adjust to his new life and learn how to be a bear again!
Here we can see how the introduction went:
As soon as BJ saw his new friends, he stood up on his hind legs, began sniffing and pawing them to start play fighting! They showed their strong canines and sharp claws!
He was such a handsome and kind bear towards the group. It is good to know that he is welcomed by them and they also rely on each other for comfort, protection and love. Although sun bears are by nature solitary animals in the wild, the bond between a mother and her cub is strong during the time they are together. During the integration, sun bears can learn from each other as they communicate and play together.
BJ has proven himself to be a friendly bear. He also smiles which shows a few wrinkles on his face.
It is great that BJ has accepted this wonderful new friendship. Kina and Sika are BJ’s bear play friends.
Sometimes, BJ wants to play with Soo and Diana, but both of the female bears seem to ignore him. Once BJ started sharing the large dens with the other female bears, he immediately began exploring. He has found the simple pleasure of good friends. He is a happy go lucky bear who loves running around the dens and convinces the others to play with him by sniffing or pulling them. He is always filled with curiosity and enjoys exploring the enrichment around the dens.
They spend their days wandering around the dens, digging up the dead wood, climbing on the structural enrichment and sharing their toys. They are doing things together and seem to enjoy each other’s company.
For the rest of their first week together, there was no aggression found and they were accepting of each other as it did not take too long for them to become social. Now he has four lovely female bears to keep him company. It was a delight to see him grow into a healthy and loving bear where he could truly be himself.
Text by Amanda Wilson
Photos by Amanda Wilson, Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
Heyyo everyone! I’m Amanda Wilson, 22, and I’m here to talk about my experience volunteering at BSBCC. I’ll be entering my final year in University of Malaysia Sarawak under the programme Animal Resource Science and Management or better known as Zoology. For a period of 10 weeks, I experienced more adventures than I ever expected whilst interning at BSBCC. When asked about how I got to know about the centre, I am actually a local from the nature city of Sandakan. I was born in Kota Kinabalu and raised in Sandakan since a very young age. So, I’ve visited more than a couple of times and heard a lot about the wonderful things the people here are doing for the world’s smallest bears. I’ve always wanted to volunteer at the centre and be part of the work they are undergoing. That’s how I decided to volunteer at BSBCC as part of my Industrial Training.
Before I started volunteering, I was way too nervous about working, but from day 1, the staff at BSBCC were nothing but warm, kind, friendly and welcoming. I felt like I had another family here at BSBCC. It was so heart-warming to work with like-minded people, people who have big hearts for animals. I am touched by how much the Bear Care Team are so passionate, loving and caring towards these bears.
The centre stands on 4 main goals which are Education, Welfare, Rehabilitation and Research. Throughout my volunteer days, I am grateful to have been able to balance time working within the Bear House and also with the Education Team. On a daily basis, our work comprises mainly of husbandry works, from cleaning cages to feeding the bears, fence checks, pool cleaning and maintanence works. The fun part would be going jungle trekking into the forest to look for termite nests, collecting banana leaves and making various enrichments for the bears. From food-based enrichments, making dry cages, sensory and also structural enrichments. It didn’t take me long to adapt to the tasks at the Bear House as everything was properly managed and scheduled on time.
I also love feeding the bears in the outdoor enclosures as I love seeing them enjoy their time in the forest. That would be another attraction at the centre as visitors could see the bears in their natural environment. When the staff challenged us volunteers to recognize all the bears, I thought it was impossible but now I could say I can almost successfully tell them all apart from each other. Since working at the bear house, I learnt a lot about the sun bear’s behaviours and the different traits as well as personalities each bear has. I personally think sun bears are such precious creatures and wish more people would learn about these forgotten bears.
I feel so lucky to have been able to care for them, work so closely with them and even looking at them, as it made me so happy, especially when they’re enjoying the life that the people here at BSBCC is working so passionately to provide for these precious bears. The work that these people are doing here is incredible. No matter how tough the work is, they do it all so wholeheartedly.
To be honest, the work here is very physical. Nevertheless, I have never felt discouraged as a girl but more encouraged by the staff around me, who are always there to urge me on and guide me through. From sawing ironwood, working with hand drills to carrying sacks full of coconut husks, I’ve done everything with ease. Thanks to the time I’ve spent here, I got the chance to build my stamina and train my strength. Not only did I learn to work with hardware tools, I surprised myself everyday by my own capabilities. I’ve learnt underestimated myself too much before this, working here has made me braver and eager to look forward to new task everyday. Although the work here is heavy duty, I never felt drained as the Bear House is always filled with happiness and laughter thanks to the people around me.
As a local, I feel disappointed and devastated that not many of our local people know of the existence of the world’s smallest bears. Though I am hopeful that the efforts done through all the outreach programmes will someday be fruitful. During my time at the centre, I got to participate in 3 various outreach programmes and events. I was lucky to be able to participate in events held in Sandakan and also go for outreach programmes held at schools outside of the district.
As volunteers, each of us were assigned to a buddy keeper. Here’s a shoutout to the best big brother and my partner in crime, Mizuno Merek Men and Susantie Saliman (UNIMAS coursemate). Theres nothing my buddy keeper couldn’t do and I am ever so thankful for he has always been so caring and motivating towards us. He pushed us to be better and put his trust in us to carry out bigger tasks which gave us confidence.
Also to all the staffs especially the ones in the Bear Care Team, without them, my days would be dull. I saw the sincerity and passion they have for these bears. I felt the love and joy they have for what they are doing. I am happy to begin venturing into conservation work through volunteering here at BSBCC. Working with the Bear Care Team will always be one of my most cherished moments in life. They showed me passion, determination, professionalism, dedication, hardwork and team work. Conservation work is not always easy but with the right team, no matter how small, no task will ever be big enough.
Big thanks to Dr Wong Siew Te, for always making time for our weekly volunteer meeting session despite his busy schedule. I’ve learnt a lot through sharing his own experiences and knowledge not only about sun bears and the centre, but practically about everything we could talk about. Also to the Education Team, thank you for guiding me and encouraging me throughout my participation in various outreach programmes. Talking to visitors on the platform has also helped me overcome my fear of talking to people. It was amazing to be able to engage with the public and educate not only other people but my ownself about sun bears, wildlife conservation and just nature in general.
Thank you so much ! You all are beyond amazing <3
I will cherish every memories and will surely come back in future. Cheerio!
Text by Seng Yen Wah
Photos by Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
Bintang was originally known as Ronnie, named after her previous owner who surrendered the bear to the BSBCC on July 15, 2014. Bintang was just a five months old female sun bear cub and weighed 7.9kg when she arrived in BSBCC. Her history is unknown. Owners who find Sun bear cubs will attempt to reason for holding them captive, but no explanation is suitable for the holding of a wild animal. Keeping a wild animal as a pet, such as the Sun bear, is illegal. In 2017, this bear was renamed to “Bintang” when Albert Teo Chin Kion and Borneo Eco Tour Sdn Bhd, both passionate enthusiasts into changing a sun bear’s life, adopted Bintang. Another reason for changing the name to “Bintang” is because her chest mark appears as a sun-shape, sprinkled with light black dots. “Bintang” is a beautiful name which incorporates the Malaysian meaning of “star” to represent her unique chest pattern.
Rescued at such a young age, Bintang spent little time of her cub life alongside her Mother; sun bear cub should remain with their Mother until two/three years old, when living in their natural habitat. The individuals who separated Bintang from her Mother, weakened her chances for survival as she was unable to learn valuable life skills from a young age. Therefore, BSBCC needs to take good care of her and teach her how to be a real bear again. She has been offered lots of fruits such as durian, mangosteen, tarap, rambutan and many more. Other than that, in order to encourage her natural bear behaviour, lots of enrichments are made and given to her. She shows her improvement day by day.
Sunbearo, Loki and Bintang are integrated in quarantine. She met her bear brother, Sunbearo and her bear sister, Loki within this time and all were getting along extremely well. They spend time playing fighting, suckling for comfort seeking, resting and sleeping together. Bintang’s suckling style is different to others; her paw will be placed on one of the friend, whilst suckling.
On 22 November 2015, Sunbearo, Loki and Bintang integrated with Montom and Susie2 and then Damai. On 24 December 2015, they were released to the forest enclosure. They were foraging together and found some bugs, ants and termites but they didn’t seem too interested in climbing. Loki was the first to climb. After being anxious on the first day, Bintang and Sunbearo both started to climb across the following few days, which made them fall in love with climbing. In 2016, the bears integrated with Kala, Mary, Boboi, Kitud, and Tan Tan, as well as Dodop and Wawa. There was no signs of aggression between them. Bintang is very friendly to all the bears, but Damai is her best bear friend ever! Bintang loves to spend time with her bear friend, to play fight, rest and just hang out together in the forest enclosure.
Bintang is a very kind-natured and gentle sun bear. She does not mind being dirty an actually loves digging and tearing up the dead wood across the forest enclosure. She enjoys her nap time and snoozing on her favourite tree. Bintang is an excellent ground nest builder. She tries to grab as many big leaves from the trees and arranges it nicely on the ground. She will continue to build even if her friends try to interrupt her, with a lot of determination to have a nice comfy nest to rest on afterwards.
Bintang is showing excellent survival skills in the forest every day. We hope that soon she will be one of the next candidates for releasing back into the wild. She deserves to stay in the wild and be a WILD bear once again!
Text by Chung Chyi Wei
Photos by Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
Hello, I’m Chyi Wei, a postgraduate student in sensor technology at Cambridge University; hence, the two weeks I spent volunteering at BSBCC was very different to my usual discipline and offered an interesting insight into animal conservation. Moreover, as a Sabahan living abroad, it was a nice reintroduction to the unique local culture and people.
Working in the bear house makes apparent the care, effort and planning that go into the centre—the meticulousness and intricacy of which are definitely overlooked from a visitor’s experience alone. It was fascinating to listen to the team describe each bear in anthropomorphic traits (my particular favourite is the severity of forehead wrinkles to tell between Julaini, Rungus and Ah Lun), and to learn of the harrowing stories of their past. Daily work consists of feeding the bears (four times a day), cleaning cages, preparing food and enrichment activities; morning tasks are allocated on a rota basis, so there is something different to look forward to each day. There is constant emphasis on the importance of enrichment for the stimulation and well-being of the bears; I like the creative and innovative ways the team employ in using recycled or organic materials to create food-based and structural enrichments—each of these has a deceitfully complex name, like Stick Paradox (basically a bouquet of twigs hiding peanut butter, for which sunbears have an insatiable appetite, in the middle). I was also fortunate enough to participate in a health check for Soo (where I learned of the many biological, genetic topics yet unknown and unstudied about sunbears, e.g. blood type), and an integration observation for Chin (to determine if this very solitary bear—even by Sun Bear standards—was ready to join an established sub-adult group of eight).
Lastly, my volunteering experience wouldn’t have been half as enjoyable if not for the friendly and welcoming team at BSBCC and APE Malaysia. Many, many, many (this is probably still insufficient) thanks to Sumira (for her expert insight into the field, tales of her interesting career and nuanced discussions on Asian-Western cultural differences); as well as to Azzry, Brandon, Fianilee, Lin May, Mizuno, Roger, Susan, Thye Lim and Wah Wah (for sharing their stories and knowledge, and not screaming at me once). Thanks!
Text by Tara Sofia Jadwani-Bungar
Photos by Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
Bermuda, Mizuno tells me, is the biggest bear the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). Yet he barely comes up to my nose when he stands on his hind legs. Across from him is Wan-Wan, a female with the loveliest pink nose. She eats bananas delicately, removing the peel with her claws before sliding the banana fruit into her mouth. They are the first two bears I meet at the BSBCC.
I’m Tara, a 19 year-old university student from Melbourne, Australia and my stint at the BSBCC was my first time in Borneo. I’m studying to be a vet and would like to someday work in “conservation medicine”. Volunteering at the BSBCC introduced me to working in that sector.
The first day at BSBCC was slightly overwhelming (in a good way) because everything we were doing was new. Myself and two other overseas volunteers, Sienna and Imogen, went through a series of inductions that ensured we knew all the safety precautions and rules for the Bearhouses. You’d think this would be boring but simply being at the centre is so novel that everything seems exciting and interesting.
I learned so much about the bears – from their diet to their behaviour and their relationships – that my head was practically bursting with sun bear facts for two weeks. Some of this information came from a two-hour Q&A session the interns and volunteers had with Wong, the founder of the BSBCC. The most exciting part of this session was learning about the future of the BSBCC (can’t spoil it for the rest of you, though). The bearkeepers themselves are pretty incredible people and they showed me the everyday work that goes into running the centre and keeping up with the bears. They can get pretty creative when thinking up new enrichment for the bears.
The volunteer programme was really well-run, too. There was a great balance between routine and variation. Our days would start at 8:00am with feeding the bears breakfast (rice porridge). This would be followed up with cleaning the indoor enclosure or kitchen duty (chopping up fruit and vegetables for the bears and cleaning the kitchen area). Then we’d head out to feed the bears in their outdoor enclosures. By then, it was usually lunch time (12:00-1:30pm) which was spent in a lovely air-conditioned room. Afterwards, we’d take care of afternoon feeding. This was a bit more of an adventure as we’d often be followed by a very bold troupe of macaques. They’d regularly try and swipe the bears’ food. Back at the Bearhouse, we’d build enrichment activities before feeding the bears dinner and tidying up. Home time was 5:00pm on the dot.
Building enrichment was my favourite part of the day. Partly because it was really interesting to see what we could come up with to entertain/stimulate the bears. It was also when I got to talk to the keepers and the other interns and learn more about the bears and Borneo. Brandon, one of the keepers, and his buddies were building a firehose spider web for Along’s indoor enclosure. Imogen, Sumira and I made balls out of firehoses for the cubs in quarantine. Boboy spent quite a few days on a platform for the newest bear cub, Romolina. One afternoon, a group of us led by Mizuno walked in the surrounding rainforest searching for termite nests for the bears. I’m happy to say I did not get a single leech bite during my stay.
On some days, we’d head out in the ute (pick-up truck) to collect banana leaves, weeds and vines for enrichment. This was one of my favourite activities because I got to see more of the outskirts of Sandakan. Also, Mizuno’s driving was great. On two occasions, Imogen and I manned the education desk in the souvenir shop and I spent some time on the observation decks talking to visitors. Watching the bears from those viewing platforms was quite different from seeing them in the bearhouse. Funnily enough, I only realised how cute they were when I saw them from the visitors’ perspective. They had seemed cute before but I’d also learned to see them as individuals and hadn’t had the time to really coo over them.
Another memorable experience was assisting the vet and bearkeepers during a health check. Linggam was sedated and brought out to the examination table to have a wound on his leg checked. I helped take his measurements and his pawprints (inked and stamped just like ours).
My fortnight at the BSBCC was one of the happiest I’ve had. Despite it being a centre for bears, it was the people at the BSBCC who made my trip. Everyone, from the bear keepers to the local interns to the education staff, was kind, welcoming and open to questions. Most of all, their love and respect for the bears was clear in all their work. Thank you, in particular, to Sumira, our project coordinator, for being not only a teacher and guide but a wonderful friend.
My time at the BSBCC also showed me how difficult conservation and rehabilitation is. How do we know when a bear is ready to be released? How can we teach a bear that has never been in the wild and has never had mother how to be a bear? How can we release bears when there’s hardly any habitat to release them into? All these questions hang over the BSBCC and every other conservation effort. I don’t think there’ll ever be a perfect, full proof answer for any them. We can only do our best to heal the damage we’ve done. Some would say that that is very pessimistic but it’s quite the opposite. The people at the BSBCC are realistic but also hopeful and very dedicated. They’re problem solvers and they believe that they will find a way. They have to if they’re going to save Sun Bears.
Video By Chiew Lin May
Day 36: Friendship Goals
The best enrichment for the bear cub is another bear. Romolina and Logan spend more time learning how to be in a beautiful friendship, and to be happy, agile sun bears after all that they have been through in the past.