Text by Eva Muir
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Having just graduated with a degree in animal behaviour and wildlife conservation, I decided to take a gap year in order to gain practical experience working with wildlife before continuing on to postgraduate education. For me, the decision to volunteer at The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre was an easy one. Simply put, I am crazy about bears, and I believe there is something incredibly special about the Bornean sun bear. My love of bears began in 2016 when I spent 3 months working with American black bears in Minnesota. I learnt so much about black bear behaviour, ecology and conservation during my time in America, and I was sure this experience had left me well prepared for my time with the sun bears. How wrong I was!
By the end of my first morning at The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre I realised that black bears and sun bears could not be more different. Although they are small, sun bears have a much bigger attitude than black bears, and are not afraid to let you know when they want something! I quickly learnt that each of the 44 rescued bears at the BSBCC have completely individual personalities, and for me, the best part of my volunteering experience was getting to know each bear. I spent a total of 2 months with the bears, allowing me to gain the trust of many as I provided care for them on a daily basis. However not all of the bears reacted well to me, and some would bark at me as I passed their enclosures. For me, this was an important reminder that when you work with wildlife you must respect each animal as an individual, each with their own likes, dislikes and emotions.
I settled into the daily routine at the BSBCC incredibly quickly. Everybody was so friendly and welcoming, and I immediately felt able to ask any questions I had, or ask for help when I needed it. The atmosphere in the bear house was fantastic; although the work was often difficult and dirty, everybody was always smiling, and the days passed by too quickly. The BSBCC team was made up of people of all ages and backgrounds, but we were all bought together by a shared love of bears and passion for wildlife conservation, and everybody worked well together. By far the most important part of the job was creating enrichments for the bears. Enrichments can be anything designed to stimulate the bears, provide a challenge and add interest into their everyday lives. Popular daily enrichments included nest balls, which were tightly tied bundles of vegetation with tasty snacks in the middle, stick paradox, which involved smearing sticks which strong smelling treats such as peanut butter and honey, and ice blocks, excellent for cooling down a hot bear in the heat of the afternoon.
In addition to the smaller enrichments which we would make on a daily basis, I also got the opportunity to be involved in a larger enrichment project during my time at the BSBCC. Together with bear keepers Roger and Brandon, I helped build a new hammock-style bed for the bears, entirely from scratch. I had never done any construction work before so I learnt many new skills during this process, and was surprised to find myself thoroughly enjoying the hard work. Moreover, there is no feeling more rewarding than watching a bear enjoy an enrichment which you worked hard to make.
In addition to my day to day duties in the bear house, I also got the amazing opportunity to assist with two bear health checks and be directly involved in the fence training process for Phin, one of the rescued sun bears. Each bear gets a full medical check once a year to ensure they are in good health, and my role during the checks was to record the bear’s measurements and take a print of each of the bear’s paws. This was a big responsibility, and I felt honoured to be trusted with these tasks. Likewise, it was an honour to be able to assist with Phin’s fence training, a vital stage of the rehabilitation process as each bear must pass the training before they can safely enter the forest enclosure. Each day Phin would make a little bit more progress in his journey into the outside world, although he was very nervous and would often retreat to the safety of his inside area. Sadly I did not get to see Phin make into the forest enclosure during my time in Borneo, but I have since heard that he has made tremendous improvements and has gone down to the bottom of his ramp, and I am so proud of him.
To anyone considering volunteering at the BSBCC, I cannot recommend it enough. Travelling to Borneo was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and my only regret is that I did not stay longer! It is amazing how quickly you become attached to the sun bears, they are truly incredible animals full of fun and mischief. Similarly, the BSBCC team are also incredible, and I know I have been lucky enough to make many friends for life during my stay in Borneo. This is a vital time, not just for sun bears, but for all wildlife. The time to act is now. Raise awareness, donate, volunteer – please do what you can to help save the sun bear while we still can!