Photos by Seng Yen Wah & Chiew Lin May
Integration is one of the rehabilitation processes which takes place at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center. Although sun bears are known to be solitary in the woods, in this center however, integration between the bears plays a crucial role in the rehabilitation of the bears. It is debatable whether this process is against the bears' nature or not. But know that the bears here in the center are restricted to a lot of things. One example of this is that space is insufficient. Further, having another bear sharing this space is the best enrichment for a bear. What is the best way to learn how to be a bear if it is not learning from one another? Bears can learn from one another as much as we humans can learn from them. With the limited amount of capacity for the bears, integration grants the idea of letting the bears live together (in the same cage).
Obviously, you cannot simply decide in an instant whether a particular bear can stay with another bear without doing integration between them first. From the word 'integration', it is pretty self-explanatory on how the process would go down. This process can be done in two different stages where the first step, 'cage by cage', is where the bears are placed in cages next to each other. This is to let them familiarize with the others' scent and presence. Second step, 'body contact integration', can only be taken if you are at least 80% sure that the bears will not try to harm each other. This step starts when the bears make contact with each other. They usually start it off by sniffing and carry on with playing which includes pawing, wrestling, showing their canines and even biting. Integration must be done with the presence of a bear keeper.
This time, we integrated two bears who were already the best of friends (Noah and Nano) with other bears who belong to their own groups. Group 1 who use forest enclosure Pen D (Wawa, Mary and Dodop) and Group 2 who use forest enclosure Pen C (Boboi, Kitud and Tan Tan). The criteria which affects the target of integration is that first off, their body sizes are preferably of the same proportion. Secondly, they are of the same age or within a similar range. The main purpose of this integration is to figure out which group Noah and Nano can go out into the enclosure with.
So, let's get to know some of the bears!
Moving on to our bears who roam around forest enclosure Pen C, Boboi, Kitud and Tan Tan (all 2 years old). Boboi is much more playful and bigger compared to his friends in Pen C. Kitud, easily identified with his brownish ears, is quite shy and quiet. Tan Tan is definitely not afraid of heights as she is always climbing trees in Pen C.
For bears in forest enclosure Pen D, Mary, Wawa and Dodop (all female), Mary is the oldest as she is 6 years old, but her body is smaller compared to the other bears of her age. This is due to her unbalanced diet during her days being kept as a pet. However, despite the age difference with Wawa (known as the ‘explorer’) and Dodop (known as the ‘sleepy one’), they have a very good friendship.
So, now you have touched the surface, let's dive deeper! Keep in mind that Nano and Noah have never met any of the other bears mentioned before. In the hope of at least one of the groups would make room for our cute cubs, Nano and Noah, and embrace them into the wilderness, we integrated them.
We started the integration one bear at a time. One bear from any of the groups were placed into a cage next to Nano and Noah (‘cage by cage’). They would start sniffing from between the grill to feed their curiosity! Once we were sure and confident, we slid open the doors between the cages and there you have it, ‘body contact integration’. They would start sniffing the other's sex organs and sometimes their ears. Slowly, they would start to play.
Words alone cannot explain how beautiful and amazing integration works for our bears, so these pictures would definitely tell you a thousand words.
Once they had already been introduced to one bear at a time, then Noah and Nano were integrated with two bears at the same time. We also did the integration between the bears in the training pen, just to observe whether the bears could share their food or not.
Throughout all the days I did my observation, no aggression was found. Hoping that the other bears would welcome our little boys, Noah and Nano with bear hugs. Their gestures would teach and allow these two little bears to learn and understand the idea of how to be a bear in the wild. As Dr. Wong would say, "The best enrichment a bear could have is another bear".