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GREEN: Where bears roam free
New Straits Times, 22nd February 2014
By Evangeline Majawat
he Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre recently opened its doors to the public. Evangeline Majawat was thereON the last tracts of remaining forest at the edge of Sandakan, some of Sabah’s best conservationists gathered to celebrate six years of hard work and congratulate each other on a job well done.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), the fruit of their labour, is finally open to the public. Located next to the famed Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, it serves as a sanctuary and rehabilitation centre for the world’s smallest bears or beruang madu (Helarctos malayanus).
“Getting the centre up and running is a big achievement. But the real work starts now,” said BSBCC founder Wong Siew Te at the soft launch recently. “Now, we have to work even harder.”
The not-for-profit centre is significant, not only because it is the first and only such facility in the country but it is also the first institution which was borne out of the successful collaboration between two State government departments — Sabah Wildlife Department and Sabah Forestry Department — and non-governmental organisation Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP). Before this, conservation projects in Sabah were undertaken by the respective departments.
LITTLE KNOWN BEARS
The hulking figure paced uneasily before it stopped to sniff the air. Its nose twitched furiously as it sauntered to the nearest tree. With surprising speed and dexterity Wan Wan, an 8-year-old sun bear, scaled the tree. Below it, Wan Wan’s loyal companion Mamatai inspected a pile of leaves.
Wan Wan and Mamatai are among the 28 rescued bears that live in BSBCC. Their stories are similar: They were either rescued from poachers or people who kept them as pets. The bears are usually found in dire conditions — malnourished and imprisoned in small cages.
Like the orang utan, sun bears are listed as totally protected species under Sabah’s wildlife laws. Despite a blanket ban on hunting or owning the animal, or any of its parts or products, illegal hunting and poaching are rampant.
Bear bile is popular in traditional medicine and its parts, the paws, especially, are considered a delicacy. Due to its relatively small size, people have attempted to keep these mammals as pets. One bear was found straying in the affluent suburb of Damai, about half an hour’s drive from Kota Kinabalu. The bear named Damai was believed to have escaped from her cage, and was discovered when a resident got up to check on his pet dog that had been barking incessantly. At the centre, the sun bears get a taste of life in the wild in one hectare of tropical rainforests, an area slightly bigger than a football field. The sun bears roam the forest and learn skills that their mothers would have taught them in the wild. There are many trees to climb and dead logs to explore.
BSBCC IS SPECIAL
When Sabah Forestry Department director Datuk Sam Mannan said in his speech that he was “really, really most impressed” by the centre, he echoed the thoughts of those present at the soft launch.
Unlike the standard government building designs that feature tinted windows, endless tiles and air-conditioned rooms, BSBCC’s visitor centre is spacious, naturally lit and well ventilated. Arkitrek, the architecture firm behind the plans, applied passive design theory to keep the building naturally cool at all times. The BSBCC office is the only air-conditioned space.
Arkitrek also recycled timber from the old rhinoceros enclosure which is now the site for the bear houses. The timber posts and planks were turned into counter tops and furnishings in the visitor centre. One particular timber post is a poignant memorial for Gelugob, one of the last 10 Sumatran rhinos in captivity, which died on Jan 11. The post, polished smooth by Gelugob and the other rhinos’ constant rubbing, stands tall by the entrance boardwalk.
Award-winning Singaporean landscape architecture firm Salad Dressing was roped in to beautify and create a welcoming atmosphere.
There are four key pillars to sun bear conservation according to Wong. The first is to get the centre up and running.
“The second is education. Then there is research and rehabilitation of the sun bears.”
He says the BSBCC team will engage schools, corporations and traditional medicine practitioners as well as shop owners this year. “We will reach out to these medicine men one by one, and via their associations. We must convince
them not to sell bear parts or products. We must tell them how bad the situation is,” says Wong. “We want to educate them and the public about sun bears and their role in the jungle. It’s about giving people the big picture about protecting our environment.”
“My bid is to protect the (wildlife) habitat so we don’t need another sun bear conservation centre. It serves a great purpose but it is because somewhere along the lines, we didn’t do better,” says Mannan.
LEAP executive director Cynthia Ong struck a chord when she emphasised that sincerity about conservation efforts is of utmost importance.
“Some of us get lured by being heroes and martyrs and getting funds and fame from the purpose. This is a reminder to myself and to all of us that that is losing the plot,” she says.
“(When) you see the bears in the forest, (you will see) that it is about them, how we’re coexisting together and what has happened to their habitat so that we need this centre. We didn’t need it in the past.”
Four University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) students and their lecturer have just returned home from Malaysia after successfully launching an adoption program of Borneo bears at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Malaysia. The students launched the Borneo Sun Bears adoption program as part of their Public Relations studies and raised $1200 for the project last month before they headed to Malaysia.
University lecturer Sarah Pye said hands-on learning is an important part of the USC Public Relations degree.
“This project had been a year in the making and I could not have been happier with the way the students performed, not only have the students gained valuable experience but they have made a difference to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre,” she said.
Sun bears battle deforestation, exploitation, and illegal poaching. These threats have caused wild populations to plummet 30 per cent in the past 30 years and earn a “vulnerable” status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Student Nerilyn Vetter said she now feels more confident with her PR skills after having the opportunity to put theory into practice with the Borneo Sun Bear adoption program.
“We helped launch the new adoption program at BSBCC and people can continue to support the project by going online and adopting a bear or buying bear gifts like honey for a sun bear, medicine or food,” Nerilyn said.
You can support the Bornean Sun Bear adoption program by visiting http://www.bsbcc.org.my/adopt-a-bear.html where you can adopt a bear or purchase a gift for the bears.
Text by Tanja Andersen
Photos by BSBCC & Tanja Andersen
Here you can read what takes place during a work day at a nice and quiet day at the bear house. The days can feel a bit monotonous sometimes, but something can quickly happen and change that around on a daily basis. What can make work monotonous are the cleaning duties for various assignments. Two important things you have to remember is that you work with wild animals and that cleaning is important as it minimizes chances for sickness and illness; so, no, the days really are not the same at all.
The work day for a bear keeper / volunteer at BSBCC
Work is from 8:30AM to 5PM. The work order is divided into two groups. The first group, comprised of one to two persons, takes care of the food. The second group, two to four persons, takes care of the cleaning. The work order is determined mainly on among the regular staff is at work and who many volunteer workers there are as well.
A plan is usually set and expected to be followed through on, but one can know the right time for the different assignments that occur daily, as they can happen before or after the scheduled time. One has to observe from day to day at what times the different things take place to truly see what a workday here can contain.
· The bears are fed 4 times, every day.
Two weeks with fruit, two weeks with vegetables; that is the routine. If the bears get fruit from the start of the day every week, they will not touch the vegetables, because the bears prefer fruit over vegetables.
As a bear keeper, one must respect the cleaning process, as a large part of the job consists of cleaning. Cleaning is extremely important, because unwanted bacteria spread quickly. After the fruits have been cut, everything is made clean. The surfaces, tiles, the floor, everything you have used is cleaned. If one is sick one day, one is to remain home as one can spread bacteria onto the bears and that is not a smart thing as a health situation can escalate to the point of calling in the veterinarian. The enclosures, where the bears sleep during the night, are cleaned an extra time, every other day. There are days when one cleans a few enclosures and really clean those few ones, but there is not a whole lot of time, as we have to have everyone out of the enclosures before we start the feeding between 11AM and 1130 AM with fruit or vegetables. There are a number rules one must adhere to when operating within the enclosures; one of them being the important rule of looking around for any irregularities, in such things as the bears’ excrement, as it reveals a deal about the well-being of the animals.
Week to week can be very different, as it always depends on what there is time for and what is available. The bears usually get their regiments or enrichments when have gotten their fruits/vegetables around 3PM. On some days, they can get them at different times, but that depends entirely on what is happening on those particular days. One tries to as much as possible to make it different every time, because if the bears get the same things too often, they get used to it, know what to expect and in the end grow tired and bored; so one is only to give the bears the same regiment once or twice a week, if there are no other possibilities present.
There are days when we go into the jungle in order to find termite dens and trees, as they give off enriching nourishment
is not something one uses in a zoo, because one uses so little time as possible in front of the bears, as they are to be set free to where they belong in the future. One important thing to keep in mind is that they are wild animals and there is a reason why they are here. The only training/workout they do is in their training enclosure where the bears learn what electrical fencing is and learn it on their own, nonetheless. They need to learn this before they come out to a pen, because in the future, when they are released into the jungle, electrical fences are to be found everywhere as they have been set up to prevent animal intrusion on some of palm oil plantations for example.
The difference between a bear keeper and a volunteer
The volunteers are the bear keepers’ right hand and help them whenever help is needed. So, everything that pertains to bears is the bear keepers’ jobs as well as the workouts in the training pen. Volunteers are not allowed to get close to the bears at any point.
Photos from the jungle
* Go and try it if you like bears. You will not regret it. *
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