Text by Claire Buckingham (Volunteer)
Photos by Chiew Lin May
It sounds cliché to say it, but the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is all about second chances. Chin, now nine years old, came to BSBCC in July 2014 via a wildlife rescue unit, who took her from a primary school’s mini zoo. It’s illegal to keep sun bears as private pets, especially in small cages like she was. She was also not given much in the way of enrichment, which may have some bearing on why she’s been christened “The Curious” at BSBCC. At the centre she finally has the opportunity to explore her surroundings and learn something about life in the forest as a sun bear!
Things cannot be just that simple, of course. When the bears are brought to the centre it is a big adjustment for them simply to become accustomed to life in the dens in the vicinity of other bears, and also the humans who provide their food and tools for enrichment. But even when this just becomes day to day life, the bears still need to learn about life in the forest, and life around other bears.
Sun bears appear to be primarily solitary animals, except when a mother is looking after her cubs. This doesn’t mean they live in the forest alone – they still need to have some idea of how to act with other animals, whether in play, mating, or defence; being that sun bears don’t generally get a lot of their protein from meat, they probably don’t need to practice a lot of attacking, but they do need to know how to stand up for themselves.
At the centre, there are two bear houses, and currently only one is open to the enclosures outside; bear house two will be open shortly to its more recently completed forest enclosures. Several enclosures allow bears to go outside alone, such as those used by Kudat and Manis, but the other enclosures have bears sharing their spaces with one another. Two of these enclosures can be seen from the feeding platform, and anyone who has come to BSBCC will no doubt have fond memories of hungry bears at play amongst the trees.
Bears in the outdoor enclosure cannot be immediately controlled by the keepers – and in some ways, they should not be. Hopefully many of the bears at BSBCC will eventually return to the wild, and there they will need to be able to take care of themselves. This doesn’t mean all care isn’t taken to ensure the bears are familiar with one another – and this is why integration between bear individuals and groups takes place in the bear house before they are allowed to mingle together in the forest enclosures.
Chin’s first chance at returning to a more naturalised surrounding began with her integration into a group of six bears. Tokob was the dominant female, and was most closely associated with Susie and Kuamut. Three more females rounded out the group: Cerah and Jelita, and then Lawa. Given these six females had already comfortably sorted themselves into two groups of three, it would always have proved somewhat of a challenge for Chin to find her place amongst them. However, within the confines of the bear house, it appeared Chin was accepted by the group and happy enough with her place within it.
In January 2015, Chin was released into Pen C with these six bears. It was to prove, unfortunately, a difficult four days for her. The other bears rejected her, and she resorted to hiding under a tree to avoid their attacks. They caused injuries to her hind foot, and to her muzzle. Curious as she was about her new surroundings, she was distracted by the need to be constantly on alert; this can be seen by her behaviour in a favoured spot, where she kept her back to a large tree. Its shape kept her protected on three sides, and gave her a vantage point to watch for the other bears.
In those four days, the other bears did not permit her to share in the food brought to the enclosure. It was definitely a tough few days for Chin, and when she finally came back inside it was decided she would not be placed in this group again.
In February 2015, she was instead introduced to another group, known as the Rungus group. This comprises the females Rungus, Panda, and Ah Lun, and the male Julaini (whose brilliant chest mark adorns a BSBCC t-shirt that became my favourite!). The group tentatively began to play together within the bear house, and then Chin began to show dominance. It appears she learned this from Tokob, and she learned it well.
I personally first met Chin in June 2015, which is when she was first beginning to be encouraged into Pen A. Because of her experiences with Tokob’s group, it was decided she would not be immediately placed in the forest enclosure with the Rungus group in Pen B, even though they appeared to be integrating well within the bear house. Instead, Chin would be given her second chance by being allowed into Pen A on her own.
Chin was one of the first bears I got to know, as she tends to night den in one of the four cages just inside bear house one’s entrance. Given the only other bear in this area is Bermuda – a big, no-nonsense male – she was easy to recognise and to get to know. I spent my first three days primarily in the kitchen, preparing and splitting up the food for the bears depending on where they were. On day three, I came in and immediately noticed a change in the food split – Chin was categorised today in Pen A. Chin was going outside!
After her earlier experience with the forest enclosures, Chin was naturally somewhat recalcitrant about the very idea of it. Most of the dens have four entrances – two side doors for transfers between dens, one main entrance, and the back guillotine door that leads to the enclosures. The guillotine door usually opens to either a climbing frame or a ramp, and Chin would make good use of her ramp. Indeed, when Lin May came to tell me about Chin’s release to the forest plan, she showed me how Chin was going about it – and I peeked into the den to see little more than two bear feet hanging over the lip of the door.
Chin’s naturally curious, and likes to play – certainly I often found her attempting to use her water bowl like a bath, despite the fact it was barely large enough to take only her backside. So Chin couldn’t quite resist the lure of the outdoors, though she was also nervous of it. More than once I saw her seated sideways in the guillotine door, one front paw appearing to prop the door up, a faraway look in her eyes as she surveyed the forest beyond her den. Other times, she’d stay inside, but displayed a frank fascination with the door structures. She would pick at the tracks with those massive claws, and then get irritated and yank the back door right down, as if to say, “I said I wasn’t going out today!”
But Lin May would come open it right up again, and Chin would go back to her dreamy watchful state. Sometimes, if a little food was scattered, she’d go back to lying belly-down on the ramp like a little kid about to take their first slide all the way from the top.
It was also interesting to watch some of the indoor integration she continues to have with the Rungus group. I watched her “talking” with Panda one day; the bears were in separate dens, but the grate that locked the side entrance gives the bears a way to watch one another. At first Chin just pulled her lips back over her teeth, moving her muzzle in a silent roar; Panda echoed the motion. Then Chin appeared to pull back, front paws straight out before her and her backside raised, head ducked down low. I thought this was a submissive position and, confused, asked Thye Lim about it as I had been told that Chin was acting dominant amongst the Rungus group. He explained to me that this is, for Chin, a dominant posture; much like elephants tuck their ears back before they charge, this is Chin getting down into a charge position. Being that they were in separate dens it wasn’t going to happen, but I did notice that Panda backed away and left the grate between them when Chin did this.
I also watched her with the others, split between two dens with an open grate; Chin spent a lot of her time at the grate, appearing to act as both a watchman and a gatekeeper. She particularly seemed determined to stop Julaini from coming over to “her” side. Later, she had to be bribed with honey to come back to den 13, where she would have access to the forest. Instead of going out, she played with the now closed and locked side gate. She even managed to lift it just a little, only to be disappointed to find the only way out was to the forest!
Of course the only time Chin went fully outside was on one of my days off – though she only managed ten minutes before she decided it was time to come back in again! Since my last day at BSBCC she has continued on these little jaunts outside, and Lin May told me the next step is to close the guillotine door and see what happens next.
This is all a part of Chin’s second chance – both at getting back into the forest enclosure, and then just in her general life. She’s had a cruel start to things, but at BSBCC she has a chance to learn what it is to be a regular sun bear. It’s not going to be easy, but they don’t call her Chin the Curious for nothing. I think she’s going to be all right.
Text by Maria Nikas (Volunteer)
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Integration is utilized to accustom bears to other bears in preparation for release into enclosures on site at BSBCC. The integration process is vital as Sun Bears are usually solitary animals and each step is very important to ensure the bears are compatible and don’t potentially pose a risk to each other.
The bears must be of a similar size, age and weight to assist in a successful integration, it also helps as bears learn different skills from each other. Having all arrived at BSBCC from different circumstances and backgrounds they will have differing strengths and weaknesses, this can be used to help other bears develop.
Integration is a long process, with the bears health and safety one of the most important aspects of the overall process. It takes many months to have a successful integration. The process starts with the most dominant bear in the group and then works down to each bear on a one on one level. Then the bears are put in small groups to see how the group dynamics work. Each integration session is closely monitored and recorded and every variable is tested to ensure the potential new group of bears are all a good match for each other. Depending on the situation and the group they may be released as a group into the wild.
Integration of Phin and Wan Wan on July, 1st 2015
This was a segregated integration. Phin and Wan Wan were in cages next to each other. I observed them for half an hour. There was no physical interaction beyond between the cage. Phin showed considerable interest as soon as Wan Wan entered the cage next door. He sat and sniffed at the door between the cages, also standing at the door sniffing the air. Wan Wan paced the perimeter opposite the door and indicated no interest in Phin.
Phin climbed the cage and was focusing on Wan Wan, watching her constantly as she moved about. Wan Wan sniffed the dry leaf enrichment and the logs that were in the cage as enrichment. When Wan Wan climbed the cage so she was directly opposite Phin she clawed at Phin through the cage, mouthed a lot and then chewed and pulled at the enrichment hammock, shaking it vigorously. It was like an indication of frustration. Phin remained quite calm thoroughout, not reacting adversely to Wan Wan. Phin clawed and mouthed a little.
They both climbed down and paced – Wan Wan the whole cage, Phin just the front. Phin climbed the cage again and once again looking at Wan Wan, this time vocalizing. Wan Wan continued to pace and showed little interest in Phin. Eventually Wan Wan climbed the cage – repeating the behavior from before – mouthing, clawing, shaking and chewing the hammock and some saliva was present as well. This time Phin turned his back on Wan Wan whilst still opposite each other on the mesh.
Overall, from this integration observation I felt Phin displayed an interest in Wan Wan, like a curiousity, wanting to meet Wan Wan. Wan Wan appeared more aggressive and agitated by Phins’ presence. Wan Wan paced a lot more than Phin, spent a considerable amount of time on the opposite side of the cage and less interest overall. This integration will be continue until both of the bears get along.
Text and Photos by Joanna Buckingham
My journey to BSBCC is probably longer than most. Most of my friends, family and work colleagues have known me as a sun bear fanatic and I can pinpoint the exact moment in 2009 that I fell in love with these ridiculously small and cute bears. Always a bear lover, one day up popped two odd stocky short black bears on a tv ad for a New Zealand program on a zoo in Wellington. What are those?! I exclaimed and sun bears came into my life.
Google then brought the plight of the Bornean sun bears and Wong's work to set up the centre which I have followed since 2010 from small beginnings and Facebook fundraisers to the opening of the visitors centre and the arrival of favourite Kudat. I always said I'd come to volunteer and finally with encouragement from my sister whose done several volunteer programs we had skype interviews in December 2014 with APE Malaysia, were accepted and booked flights for June 2015.
Excited and nervous with my bags, several vaccinations and a fear of the sun and humidity (as an extremely pale, freckled, blue eyed ginger from NZ) I boarded a flight from London to meet my sister in Kuala Lumpur where she arrived from NZ for our flight to Sandakan and our first day.
We headed out to the centre at 9am and I was buzzing with elation after five years to be finally able to see all the bears I had been following so closely. When we first arrived Wong walked out of the office and honestly it felt a bit like meeting a celebrity! Then we were straight out to the observation platform and for the first time I got to witness a sun bear in his natural habitat with Fulung sliding down a tree. That moment I knew that my two weeks were going to be something very special.
The bear house is very organised and all about routine with amazing friendly funny staff, after all the place is home to 35 super cute but very hungry bears. A few of my favourite memories and events were :
Bear cage cleaning
What could be viewed as a mundane sweat inducing task was one of my favourite from the start. Day 1 I cut my teeth on bear house 2 (BH2) by accidentally picking a cage wedged between two inquisitive bears eager to tease the newbie. One kept tapping on the door and the other would climb up the side of the cage and tower over me as I cleaned. It was a bit unnerving and I checked the lock a hundred times to ensure there would be no face to face (or more likely claw to face) meeting. Across one of the bears I was sure was mimicking me by splashing water everywhere.
Day 4 after an early kitchen finish I helped out in bear house 1. Julaini and Panda were having an epic bear wrestle that reminded me of all the childhood play fights with my twin brother. Distracting me from the task at hand, the two rolled and bit each other and padded around with abundant energy. At one point when Panda grew bored and turned her back, Julaini mischievously ankle tapped Panda's back leg causing her to tumble down. Julaini became a quick favourite from that day, after all the tumbles he came to rest at the sliding door separating us by a grill and rested his head as if he was my supervisor watching my every move. It was hard not to spend minutes lost in his cute face. With the hose in hand for a cage rinse out he rose to a seated postion, claws hooked above his head showing me his belly and armed with an expectant look that perhaps there would be a rogue spraydown but I resisted his charms.
Hot days and bear baths
Day 3 around 9am the gauge told us it was 30 degrees and 99% humidity. Chin climbed in and out of her water bowl. Sticking her bum in and reclining back on the cage with her head lolling about. She would then do a 360, other foot dipped and reclining. Kudat opposite would lie in a splayed "trophy bear rug" position with his front paws out the end of his cage and Azzry would occasionally throw down buckets of water that would flow into his cage that he could lie in.
In the afternoon during porridge in BH2, Matatai was happy with an overflowing water bowl that mimicked a shower. She is stocky like a wombat and would walk around to it, finishing with her bum in it and sinking to her tummy panting like a dog. She would then shake like a dog or rub her fur against the cage. Sigalung scooped all the water with his paws into his porridge and got it everywhere. He kept putting more water in like he was making a soup. Phin would use his big front paws as a scoop, throwing water on his chest and to the ground. He would then sink into a position that looked like he would meditate then use his rear leg as a flipper to force the puddle he made onto his lower body. It was comforting to know even the bears of Borneo were finding the heat and humidity tough!
Hammocks and Health Checks
Enrichment was a major task everyday to provide entertainment ranging from hollowing out half a watermelon and making a special ice lolly for Ronnie to lobbing bamboo feeders onto cages for afternoon play or handing out banana leaves to well behaved bears. But a favourite and an important contribution was testing out the hammock we made for Diana. Having not been able to provide a lot of input (tools are not my friend at the best of times) in it's construction, climbing into the mounted cage and having a swing felt like I was doing something to improve Dianas life. I was fun for me seeing the perspective of a bear in hammock and I hope she grows in confidence in using it.
We were extremely lucky to be in the centre during the time they were doing the bears annual health check. Lin May told me I was the first volunteer to get to assist and suddenly I was putting on gloves and a face mask with instructions regarding bear measurements! I definitely hadn't expected to get this intimate with sun bears! Before long Thye Lim came rushing down with Mary and first measurement was recorded... 21.4kg. Mary is so cute with her small body and big head with her red tinged ears (apparently from other bears suckling them for comfort!). I got to test my art skills by looking at her front and rear paws and marking out injuries from her outdoor adventures. It was a great opportunity to see her powerful claws so close and also see how coordinated and talented all the staff are. It was a seamless exercise and before long Mary was back to her cage for recovery and with the team knowing a lot more to ensure her further health and growth.
I went into this experience with Kudat as a firm favourite and our first meeting didn't disappoint. Being quite large for his age I adored his big head and feeding him banana leaves after porridge and watching how his ears moved up and down with every chew. But the great thing was honestly getting to fall in love with a new bear everyday. From Linggam relaxing in his basket with his handsome face occasionally peeking at me as I cleaned a cage opposite and catching an occasional wink. To Julaini trying to help with cage cleaning with claws popping through the grill to grab the squeegee. Ronnie was a charmer with his blue eyes and Om and his karate moves with a broken bamboo feeder. Even Manis who I met late in the two weeks with her golden eyebrows and the way she sat with her elbows on the cage and paws crossed under her head for support. In the end, Panda probably stuck in my heart the most even when she was a bit grumpy the last few days after her health check. I was lucky to watch some of her integration into an outdoor bear group as an introduction then I would pop down to see her every so often. She is also big for her size but doesn't act like it and her way of sitting in an almost cat like pose on the ground waiting for something or someone was unbearably cute. Filling her water dish felt like a treat as she was always so close I could feel her breathing. She couldn't contain her excitement and impatiently would go to toss the water down where she would splay herself in the puddle and rock her bottom half back and forth with an absolute look of glee on her face.
Favourites of course aren't just tied to the bears and the staff all had their moments. David trying to deal with my sister and my hopeless construction skills was endlessly amusing even and I admired his endless patience even when we serenaded him with Kenny Rogers "The Gambler". Roger with all his travel tips from his former life as a travel guide. Azzry and his knack for coming up with totally appropriate English phrases delivered with hilarious timing. Lin May always seemingly armed with a camera willing to share all her incredible knowledge and sometimes getting lucky enough to spot her walking wee Kala in the forest. Mizuno showing us all how it was done when erecting poles. Then finally Thye Lim with all his very serious but hilariously animated health and safety warnings with a great talent of imitating bears.
And finally a favourite daily task had to be the outside feeding. Seeing the bears in all three outside pens enjoying bear life was heartening and something you will only get to see here. Also it was good to try and perfect my throwing skills over the two weeks which meant not accidentally hitting a bear head with a sweet potato or disintegrating a piece of watermelon on their back. It was great seeing Fulung there to greet us and taking us up to his girls. I could have spent hours observing them especially on coconut day and even ended up on the observation platform on my day off watching them.
We also had the major task of making as I coined it with inspiration from Paddington Bear "retirement home for bears" for oldies Gutuk and Amaco to eventually enjoy the outdoors. We had two other volunteers from Australia with us Warren and Marie who were proper hardcore with wood and tools as well as keepers Mizuno and David with their brunt strength and humour to get us through the hot afternoons. I dabbled in some gardening and fetching of wood while the platform for the hammock was built. On our last day with minutes to spare we hoisted up the hammock and all had a triumphant photo.
On the last afternoon staring at the bears not wanting to say goodbye we were also lucky enough to be part of a farewell dinner for Nick and experience one of Wong's many other talents: cooking! It was perfect way to say goodbye and hilarious that we used so many things from the bear house and joked about eating all the bears food. We even had an orangutan gatecrasher.
A few final tips for those thinking of volunteering or helping these wee guys:
* Challenge your comfort zone. The idea of coming to Borneo was honestly terrifying even fueled by my five years of bear adoration. But that is what made it even more rewarding. Sure I occasionally got a mozzie bite or two that drove me wild or had to batter a gecko out of the toilet but it was nowhere as scary as I imagined. At the newly built volunteer house, there are hot showers and proper toilets and fans in the rooms. And you can buy food and refreshing lime juice at the cafe when you are too exhausted to move.
* It will be hot. But you will get used to it (sort of!). I scoffed in the first few days with sweat waterfalls off my face and soaked through when the staff told me this. But few days later the sweat was more like streams and only during the really physical tasks or really humid mornings. I was more likely to be soaked through because I got attacked by a hose. Also really there is no such thing as drinking too much water when the humidity is pushing over 80% most days.
* Tell anyone and everyone. It really makes a difference. On leaving my work I managed to tell all my colleagues and clients about these unknown bears. Everyone asked for updates and photos. The more people who know the more people they will tell and the more visitors will come and education will spread. I have sun bears on everything - - desktop and mobile phone screens, my facebook header, badge on my bag - - and I'm always ready to launch into conversation about them. Even something as little as seeking out sustainable palm oil and requesting your favourite brands use it will help from afar.
* If you're thinking about bringing vegemite, do it. You will regret not bringing it. And be prepared for rice. Loads and loads of rice.
I leave the bears with a big feeling of loss with saying goodbye to all my new pint size friends (and the fully grown staff too!) but I can't wait to come back again soon and for much longer next time! It will be exciting to see BH2 fully in action and more of the bears getting to experience an outdoor life that has been cruelly taken from them at young ages. Please support BSBCC in any way that you can as it will all make a huge difference.
Text by Warren Timms (Volunteer)
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Part of the volunteering program at BSBCC includes enrichment projects for the sun bears. These projects involve the volunteers and staff participating in basic tasks like making mixed fruit ice blocks and bamboo tubes packed with bear treats along with more challenging construction projects like making and installing bear hammocks and designing and building climbing structures for the bears. These were done between afternoon food preparation and feeding. The staff at BSBCC are very helpful and always consider the safety of the bears and the volunteers a priority as can be witnessed in one of Thye Lim's animated briefings. Enrichment is an important and essential part of the conservation work at BSBCC so each day there will be some form of enrichment for the bears. It is really quite satisfying to watch as the bears try out a new hammock for the first time or try to get at some tasty fruit stuffed inside a Kong.
Enrichment projects at BSBCC are always carried out with minimal environmental impact. There is always a preference to use or re-use sustainably sourced materials where practicable and to reduce waste. This helps to reduce operating costs which will benefit the bears in the long term.
The staff at BSBCC and the volunteer program facilitator are always on hand to help out and to provide guidance with the enrichment projects. It’s great when everyone is working together to make something that the bears can enjoy.
Text and Photos by Chiew Lin May
Kala is an 8 month old female sun bear cub who was rescued by the Sabah Wildlife Department on January 2015. At the time of her rescue, Kala showed signs of being emaciated, dehydrated and malnourished.
Thanks to the Sabah Wildlife Department, Kala was saved and brought to a new home at BSBCC. Six months later, she has progressed well and developed new skills during her rehabilitation. Kala’s appetite has come roaring back as well. Her balanced diet consists of a combination of dog milk replacer, fruits, vegetables and porridge. She now weighs 15.95 kg. She is growing bigger and stronger. Kala has a full set of adult teeth. “Sun bear cubs have a period where they grow very fast, typically when they are 5 to 10 months where they can gain 3 to 4 kg each month” - Wong Siew Te
Chart below shows the growth curve of Kala cub (Updated 17th July 2015). Showing she is healthy and keeps growing gracefully!
The sun bear cub will be offered different types of enrichment to stimulate and prepare her for life back in the wild. Inside Kala’s den, we provide enrichment such as Kong, Aussie Dog Ball, natural habitat enrichment (logs, dead wood, branches, dry leaves, fresh plant and etc.) and manipulation based treats. She’s making full use of the structural enrichments in the den. The big basket with the hammock is her favourite!
On February 26th, 2015 Kala caught her first glimpse of the world outside the forest. She has been exploring every patch of the forest and she is already picking out some favourite spots. Sun bears are opportunistic omnivores. Kala enjoys searching for termites, earthworms, beetle larvae and eating soil. Sun bear’s jaws provide a powerful bite and tear force. Kala will use her teeth to tear into trees to get insects beneath the bark. She is a pro at all speeds and directions of sun bear locomotion! She explores by herself and loves to run or roll about on the forest floor.
Sun bears are very adapt climbers, and cubs especially spend time climbing trees. She shows tremendous improvement in climbing skills, using her well-muscled little body with sharp claws that help her to grip trees during climbing. She can be cheeky when climbing trees. She will try to show us how great it is – a true home for her! Little Kala explores the tree canopy, and then finds a comfy liana or log to rest. Though all the challenges with skills, she keeps up her adventurous and playful behavior.
Here are the photos show Kala in different age and grow. Let look what Kala doing and spending at rainforest.
- 3 months old - (First arrival at BSBCC)
- 4 months old -
- 5 months old -
- 6 months old -
- 7 months old -
- 8 months old -
As a sun bear cub Kala is learning the skills and strength she needs to survive in the wild. Her forest skills continue to improve. Sun bears are magnificent and beautiful creatures in their natural habitat but because of habitat destruction, pet trade and poaching they have been led to decline by at least 30 per cent in the last three decades, they need our help! Please show your support and help the smallest bear species by adopting Kala and her friends! Your support enables us to care for these orphaned sun bears.
Text and Photos by Marie Nikas
My name is Marie, from Australia. I have just completed 2 weeks of volunteering at BSBCC with my partner Warren. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center is located near Sepilok, about 20 km from Sandakan.
My 2 weeks there was really worthwhile, educational and I made a contribution by helping the staff at BSBCC in their amazing work in rehabilitating the wonderful bears in their care. Our work consisted of food preparation, feeding, cleaning bear enclosures, observation of integration and providing enrichment activities. The work is well paced and if you need help or are unsure of anything the staff are always willing to help and answer questions. Staff take the health and safety of both bears and volunteers very seriously so you are always well prepared and briefed before any activity.
The team, led by Wong, are wonderful. Their dedication, knowledge and expertise is clear to see and this is combined with great love for the bears and their desire to rehabilitate and eventually release them.
I enjoyed all the activities I was involved in and really enjoyed the chance to work closely with the bears, by the end of the 2 weeks I was beginning to understand a little bit about some of their personalities - which I really found interesting. Watching them on 'coconut days' is priceless.
I would definitely recommend volunteering at BSBCC to anyone who is interested in learning more about Sun Bears, the challenges they face and what we can do to help them. Thank you to everyone at BSBCC for allowing me the opportunity to witness and be part of your ongoing work, it was a