Have you ever wondered what you want to do to spice up your boring life? Have you ever thought about going off the grid and want to try something different? Why wait? I encourage you to seize the day. Be a leader, not a follower.
Hai, my name is Chooi Ying Sim but everyone just calls me Sim. I am a chemist and also a certified nurse assistant from Montana, USA but mostly I'm just an ordinary Malaysian Chinese girl who's trying to find her place in the world.
I first met the founder and CEO of BSBCC, Siew Te Wong, back in 2008. He was pursuing his PhD in Wildlife at the University of Montana and I my Bachelor's Degree in Chemistry. I visited Brother Wong in the summer of 2012 and discovered an amazing opportunity to be involved, first hand, in the rescue of the Sun Bear. Well, long story short, here I am and this is my story.
Just a quick side note. I've never been a great writer or possessed a good memory, so I always have my Canon S95 with me to capture all the beautiful moments.
8th of June 2014, my first day as a volunteer. I was greeted by a skinny guy named Thye Lim, 27 years old , and he explained all the rules and regulations I was required to follow. There was one key rule he emphasized the most though, no unauthorized feeding of the bears, as safety is extremely important. Next, he got me my nametag and gumboots and I was put to work right away with a lovely lady from Holland named Jaike.
Below are some pictures I took showing how much food we prepare in one day, as well as the cleaning of the bear cage and drain. While it didn't require a lot of brain cells to complete these tasks it definitely took a lot of muscle! So be prepared to be sore head to toe for the first couple days. I recommend soaking your feet in hot water at night and massaging them. This will help with your tired and swollen feet and give you a good night's rest.
"No worries, you will be a true strong woman." This is what one of the bear keepers, Azzry, told me. He is very funny and I marveled at his dedication to his work. He wasn't kidding either, after a week, I felt stronger and looked fitter. So it's not just chopping fruit, feeding the bear, carrying the fruit, cleaning the cage, collecting leaves, creating enrichment for the bear, etc. It's also a great way to get into shape. But don't worry it's not all work and no play, as you get the routine down, you can start to have more fun and be more creative with the food you prepare.
You would start writing the bear’s name on the food; start to decorate the sweet potatoes with long bean seeds. That was not all yet, you will get to ride on our VIP scooter that could fit up to 5 persons that would take you straight from the office to bear house or you could chose to hike 2km into the jungle and look at the beautiful waterfall.
Speaking of fun, have you ever taken a group picture using a camera trap? I have! We noticed some mud on a tree around Pen B and decided to setup a camera trap to see who it was. We had to test the camera first of course, so, picture time!
And Ladies, you don't have to be afraid to let loose. Don't worry about the messy hair and sweaty shirt. Get into the woods, pick up the dirt and feel the wonder of nature first hand. And since the BSBCC takes care of 33 bears total, trust me, you can just be one of the guys.
In the BSBCC, Sun Bears aren't the only animals we take care of. We also have uninvited guests sometimes, the macaques and orangutans. The leader of the macaques is called Shaman King and he always leads his gang to our outdoor enclosure to steal food from our bears! And then you have the orangutans who always come to the bears house and try to steal the food through the gate. A lot of effort is put into deterring these 'little' rascals with the least amount of harm, because as pesky as they may be we still love them and want them to live pain free.
Sometimes on a hot day we made popsicles for the bears using the fruits we had, usually guava and watermelon. We took the fruit and blended them in water and then froze them. People were not encouraged to eat these popsicles of course!
Your creativity will find a home when you volunteer at the BSBCC. You will learn how to sing with a rake in the street. You will get into a bear cage and pretend to be one of the bears! Sometimes you'll climb into a bear hammock and get poop on your jeans just so you can live like a bear!
What is the best thing about being a volunteer at the BSBCC? It is the connection you get to make with the Sun Bears. The first week you learn how the husbandry works for the bears. Then during the second week you go to the observation platform and learn how to educate the visitors about the Sun Bears. You might encounter some funny questions or may find yourself surrounded by macaques and have to keep calm and make sure the visitors are safe. But don't worry you're not alone, the BSBCC has an amazing group of cheerful and helpful staff members that will be with you every step of the way.
Also, you have the unique opportunity of taking close up shots of the Sun Bears. You can't buy moments this valuable with money.
Or if you want some seafood you can try Sim-Sim and while its not the best it's definitely affordable.
And don't forget to check out the Ba Lin rooftop restaurant for some high end cocktails and pastries.
If you're a meat eater though I would recommend you try a stall that's a 10 min drive from the center, there you can get some wild boar meat. You will love it!
Or if you're lucky enough, Brother Wong, who is the best cook I've ever met, will make you a gourmet dinner. I stayed with him during my stint volunteering here and he made some amazing food. Below is one of his noodle dishes.
Of course food is not all you get. You can meet a lot of new friends especially if you stay in one of the nearby resorts. I met these fun gentlemen who were planning to build new facilities in West Malaysia to protect the Sun Bear.
So my friend, how do you feel now after reading my story? Your first thought is probably, "Wow, she wasn't kidding about the taking lots of pictures thing." :-) I want you to know that before coming to the center I was at low point in my life and I am grateful I got to spend time with such an amazing organization.
I may not have the best wildlife or science knowledge or be the strongest in the center but one thing I'm sure of is I'm not alone and I'm learning everyday. "Knowledge becomes wisdom when it becomes personal experience" That is what I got from the BSBCC, and if you volunteered here too, I'm sure you'd agree with me.
Last but not least though, the biggest gift I gained from this experience, is friendship. I hope you decide to share the new adventures of you life with us. If I can do it I believe you can too.
Thank you BSBCC and see you again!
God bless you and KCCO~!
Hi! My name is Jaike. I'm from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and I had the opportunity to work for six weeks as a volunteer at the BSBCC. And I can tell you, they were 6 great weeks! If you are thinking of doing voluntary work with animals, don't hesitate and come along!
For me, the choice of becoming a volunteer 'something with endangered animals and somewhere in a forest ' was very clear for me since a long time. I wanted to help out where help was needed, and at the same time gaining experience working with animals, it just wasn't clear to me where and what exactly. When I read about the BSBCC, I knew instantly that this was the place I was looking for: a group of very dedicated people who not only take care of previously captured sun bears, but also make sure they enquire enough skills to be released into the wild again and 'dehumanise' them. And if that is not enough, they also actively teach local communities about the importance of preserving the natural habitat of sun bears and all the other species that live in primary and secondary forest (and cannot live only in oil palm plantations which are sadly enough covering the biggest part of Borneo). And there is even more! The place is build from scratch and with knowledge gained by doing years of research - both processes still going on as we speak - by Siew Te Wong, a dedicated biologist who has the capacity to pass his enthusiasm and dedication through to his crew.
What does it mean to be a volunteer at the BSBCC?
Of course, the longer you stay, the more you learn, and the more chance you have of experience some great things.
The basic maintenance is a daily routine: chopping 57 kilos of fruit and 16 kilos of vegetables, preparing four huge pots of rice porridge, and feeding the 31 sun bears, indoor and outdoor (there are also two very young sun bears, but only two staff members may take care of them). And there is of course the cleaning of the cages. This fills about the whole morning, the feeding also a part of the afternoon.
The afternoon is mostly used for enrichment: making climbing structures for the indoor cages or devices that make the feeding more exciting for the sun bears, or collecting leaves, broken termite nests or big logs of wood in the forest. Or you will go to the visitors-platform to give information to the tourists while watching the sun bears. But the other volunteers who were here the last two weeks of my stay (Sim and Jodie & Georgie) will probably tell you more about it, so I will tell you about my first four weeks, when I was the only volunteer.
In the second week of my stay, sun bear Natalie wounded herself pretty bad on the sole of her paw. The vet was called, and after an anaesthesia-shot, she was lifted from her nest into the cage into my arms to carry her to the table so the doctor could clean the wound. Can you imagine: 35 kilo of thick black fur with paws and head lying on my shoulders! Sadly enough I don't have a picture to proof it, but since then this beautiful lady stole my heart! And she is not only the most beautiful sun bear, she is also very clever ánd a candidate to be released into the wild. Read her story elsewhere on this website!
In the weeks following, I participated in two completely different big projects.
The first one was making a gigantic hammock for the outside-enclosure for sun bear Kudat. He has a small enclosure for himself because he cannot socialize in a group (which is in fact quite normal, because they are solitary animals). To make this enclosure more exiting, we made this hammock to give him more climbing opportunities and provide some shade on the forest-floor. The making took four of us about a week, and a lot of sweat, bruises and muscle-pain! Not to speak of the hanging of the 90-kilo structure!
The second project was the observing of young sun bear Damai. She had to do an integration training to socialize her with a group of five other females and one male of the same age (two to four years old, Damai being the youngest) ánd a fence training. Since both trainings were successfully completed, she can go outside to a big outside enclosure with the six others to climb in trees, play around, and learn new skills to eventually use in the wild. The result of the observing can be read on Damai's blog elsewhere on this website, which I had to write.
Another fun day was the day a filmcrew came to make a documentary about the BSBCC. Sabah’s 2011 beauty queen presented herself as a volunteer-for-a-day, doing all the daily maintenance we (and maybe you?) have to do. With a tiny role for me being interviewed, broadcasting on national TV in August 2014.
What else can you expect?
By working 'backstage' and staying in the resort, you definitely have the chance of seeing a lot of Sabah's wildlife. Orang utans, macaques, squirrels, hornbills and kingfishers, beautiful butterflies, cobras and vipers, water monitor lizards an small lizards, weird looking insects and colourful birds (the owner of the resort, mr. Johnny, can tell you all about them!), and I was lucky to see and be sniffed at by two baby-pygmies elephants who were in quarantine at the next door Orang utan center.
Now this is a view of sun bears you only get to see as you work in the BSBCC, and not as a visitor
By going into the jungle with some of the staff members you learn about the spirit of the forest, about iron trees and the fruiting of dipterocarp trees, about the sound a black cobra makes, about the traces bearded pigs leave and how a gibbon sounds and many things more, and learn some Malaysian along the way.
By eating dinner made by Wong you will have the best meal of your whole Asia trip, wow, that man can cook! Ask for the recipe of his fish in babana leaves! And going with some crewmembers to, for instance, a Chinese or an Indian restaurant, or to the night market in Sandakan makes you feel less a tourist but more in union with the place.
But every upside has its downside. Yes there are musquitos and leeches. Yes, it's very hot and humid. And yes, the meals at the resort are very western orientated without any chilies in the rice or noodles (or beans in tomato-sauce for breakfast, yuk!). What meals are concerned, the opinions differ though, I didn't like it much, but others loved it. Sometimes Mr. Johnny or his wife or mother gave me something of their Chinese meals though, which were much better. And after 9.00 p.m. there is nothing to do anymore, so without company it can be a little bit boring in the evening. But there are pretty much always other guests, and some of the staff of the resort likes to chat or have a drink with you.
For me, this amazing experience has ended. I will start a journey through Borneo in a few days. I made many new friends, and want to especially thank Lin May, Thye Lim, Azzrye, Mizuno, Tommy, David, Rizan, Gloria and Inna and last but not least Wong to make this an experience I will never forget! (But with this remark I don't mean that many others of the crew weren't remembering able, everybody was great, so also thanks to all of you!) Tarima kasi!
Text and Photo Chiew Lin May
Look who is moving on up! In June this year, something exciting happened in the forest. Damai, a beautiful two-years-old sub adult female sun bear with black eyes full of curiosity and energy is finally stepped onto the forest floor on last week 3rd June 2014.
Currently, Damai shares her enclosure with six other sun bears, namely Mary, Debbie, Koko, Ah Bui, Fulung and Bongkud. It was observed that once Damai was out in the forest enclosure, she tried to avoid the other bear friends. She ran, stood on her hind legs and kept growling, this might be due to her fearfulness and insecurity in the new environment. The other bears were curious and puzzled, they seemed like “What happening to Damai?” All of them, especially Koko tried to approach and sniff her. It took sometimes for Damai to feel more relaxed and began to explore the surroundings. The door of bear house will be kept open for one week so that Damai could go in and out as she wishes until she gains back her confidence and sense of security.
Damai is independent in nature. She knows what she wants and tries to take care of her own needs all by herself. She seldom interacts with the other female playmates except for Fulung, the sub adult male bear. When the other female bears try to approach her, she will start growling, try not to have anything to do with them and walks off alone into the forest. It seems that the other five female bears have to be gentle with little Damai.
When it comes to feeding time, the staffs scatter the food, Damai would usually be the last in line, while the other bears help themselves with the fruits first. Nevertheless, Damai is an excellent forager in the wild. Even with her small size, she would enthusiastically searching for insects and fruits in the forest enclosure.
Remember that when come to walking in the forest with the bear staffs, Damai behaves the same way as when she was first brought to walk in the forest at the age of five months. It is amazing to watch Damai getting back her freedom, foraging for food, roaming around the forest and in tune with the new surroundings. She never hesitates to climb trees as high as she could go and keep perfecting her arboreal skills. Damai likes to gaze up into the trees and into the sky. It stole our heart to know that she is still a wild sun bear. This is such an exciting moment!
After spending hours in the forest observing Damai’s behaviour, we hope that after a few months, Damai will adapt herself with the life in the forest enclosure and with the other new bears. We are certain that one day Damai will be happy and live freely as a wild sun bear in the forest.
Text by Jaike Bijleveld
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Damai is a shy and sweet little girl of 2 years old who loves splashing herself with water. Besides the two sun bear cubs Loki and Sunbearo, she is the youngest sun bear in the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC).
When Damai was only 5 months old, she was found wandering at a car park before she was brought to the BSBCC.
In the first seven months or so, one of the bear care staffs showed her the jungle around the Sepilok Jungle, to get her familiar with the surroundings. To surprise of everybody, she started making a nest in a tree without a mother to show her how!
When she was about 1 year old, it became too dangerous for a human to walk with her in the jungle, so she moved to the indoor bear house. Usually this is also the age that people, who keep sun bear as a pet, start to realize that sun bears are wild animals and their huge canines and claws can and will be very dangerous. Next stop for a captured sun bear is often a tragic one: the cooking pot, the traditional medicine store or the black market.
In the wild, baby sun bears will stay with their mother until they are 2 to 4 years old, before they take off to live a solitary life. They learn all kinds of practical things to survive. Damai lost her mother too young, so she needs to learn these things from other sun bears, although she already proved that some skills depend on nature rather than nurture!
TIME TO MEET SOME OTHER BEARS
Now she reached the age that she is not so vulnerable anymore, so it was time to start an integration process with six other bears of her age: the females Mary, Debbie, Koko, Ah Bui and Bongkud, and the male Fulung. They all share four adjacent indoor cages, connected by sliding doors, but until two weeks ago the sliding door of Damai's cage was kept closed until the six others went to the outdoor enclosure at day time.
Because it would be too overwhelming for Damai to meet all six sun bears at the same time, one by one introduction was started for the first five days. Except Mary and Ah Bui, all of them where curious, started sniffing at her and wanted to play with Damai, but only Fulung succeeded. Not because Damai wanted to play with Fulung, but simply because it was not possible to escape strong and playful Fulung!
The playing of sun bears looks a lot like a wrestling match, with a lot of neck biting and clawing, but as long as there is no growling, you know it's just playing. Later, in the wild, the fighting skills they learn while playing are very useful when they get attacked by, for instance, a python or clouded leopard or other competitive sun bears.
In the following days, the number of bears integrating with Damai slowly increased, until after about 8 days the complete group could be with Damai at the same time. In the days that passed, it became clear that Damai is a girl that likes to be alone. Bongkud and Debbie manage to play fight with her for a few minutes, and Fulung still is record holder playing with Damai. The rest of the group is simply ignored or ignores Damai. But there is no aggression either, so the integration sessions can be called successful. After all, being alone is their nature.
NEXT STEP: GET READY TO LEAVE THE BEAR HOUSE
Before any sun bear can leave the indoor bear house to the outside forest enclosure, there is training required: fence training. Each forest enclosure has a fence with electrical wire (hot wire). This is necessary to make sure that non-integrated groups won't climb to each other's enclosure, or that any of the sun bears won't climb outside the enclosure where humans walk and dangers for the sun bear lure.
In the indoor bear house, next to the cages where Damai had her integration sessions, is a large training pen. With honey, porridge and fruit Damai was encouraged to come near the hot wire, with a very low voltage in the beginning. The first day, the same day of her first integration session, Damai touched the hot wire while licking the honey. It scared her so much that she immediately ran back to her own cage! The next day the same thing happened, and the three following days she had just enough courage to walk into the training pen before hurrying back to her own safe cage. It took a whole week and four more 'zappings' before Damai understood how to get the food without touching the hot wire and walk confident around in the training pen. At that point the integration area could be extended to the training pen.
This week she will be allowed to go to the outside enclosure together with the rest of her group to reach the final stage of her training: get her ready to release her back in the wild!