Text by Eva Jane Muir
Photos by Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
Although born wild, freedom does not come naturally to many of the rescued sun bears here at the BSBCC. This is unsurprising however, for these bears have suffered traumatic pasts. Stolen from their mothers when they were young, the feel of the earth beneath their paws is a feeling forgotten for a bear raised in a small, dirty metal cage.
When a rescued sun bear first comes to the BSBCC they are freighted and distrustful, for they are unaware that the people here mean them no harm. However, with time and patience, the bears slowly start to rediscover their freedom. This process has no time limit as each individual bear is unique and pushing too hard may result in more harm than good. Imagine, just how tantalizing yet overwhelming the smell of fresh air must be, to a bear with no recollection of what it is like to live free in the forest. But slowly, each rescued bear will take their first steps into the outside world and begin their journey back to freedom.
A sun bear cub learns many vital survival skills from its mother; however the rescued bears here at the BSBCC have been denied this precious knowledge. Because of this, the BSBCC staff must instead teach these bears everything they need to know in order to survive on their own. This is where enrichment comes in, perhaps the most important stage in the sun bear rehabilitation process.
Enrichment is any object or activity designed to stimulate the sun bears and encourage natural behavior. It comes in many forms and the BSBCC staff must always think of new, creative ideas to keep the bears active and busy. There are four main types of enrichment used here at the BSBCC, these are:
1. Environmental Enrichment: Sun bears are the most arboreal of all bear species, and in the wild they will spend the majority of the day resting and foraging in the tree tops. Although they have spent much of their lives confined in atrocious conditions, many of the rescued sun bears here at the BSBCC still poses that natural desire to climb, a behavior we try to encourage. In addition to providing a large, natural forest enclosure full of perfect climbing trees, all bears are provided with hammocks and climbing frames to allow them to rest off the ground. Although sun bears are very active, the bears can often be spotted snoozing in their hammocks on warm afternoons.
2. Foraging Enrichment: Sun bears are omnivorous; their diets consisting of seasonal fruits and nuts, invertebrates, small animals and their favourite treat of all – honey! Here at the BSBCC we try to think of imaginative ways of providing the bears with their food in order to encourage the natural foraging behaviours they would use in the wild. Commonly used techniques include scattering fruits in the forest enclosure, hiding treats under piles of dry leaves and drilling holes in logs to conceal the food inside. Unless they learn to forage themselves the bears cannot be considered as release candidates, so foraging enrichment is incredibly important for the rescued sun bears.
3. Sensory Enrichment:Sun bears have an extremely sensitive nose and their sense of smell is vital for both finding food and detecting danger in the wild. Sensory enrichment encourages the bears to use their sense of smell by concealing strong smelling treats such as honey or peanut butter in a puzzle or toy. Often, these enrichments are constructed using recycled fire hose or strong plastic as these materials are tough even against the bear’s powerful claws. Alternatively, treats can be hidden in bundles of vegetation held together with vive, creating a very natural enrichment which encourages both sensory and foraging behaviours. All the rescued sun bears at the BSBCC have completely individual personalities, including their own food preferences, so these enrichments can be trailered to specific bears or social groups to get the best bahavioural results.
4. Social Enrichment:Although sun bears are solitary in the wild, we encourage the rescued bears to interact with each other at the BSBCC as we believe the best enrichment of all is another bear. Many of the sun bear form close bonds with one another, and can often be seen playing together or snoozing together in a shared hammock. However, this type of enrichment offers more than simply comfort - it is an important part of the rehabilitation process as it enables the bears to learn survival skills from each other. Additionally, social enrichment is an excellent way of reducing stereotypic behaviors such as pacing and swaying.
Unfortunately, it is simply not possible for all of the rescued sun bears to return to the freedom of the wild. For some, the physical or emotional damage inflicted by humans is just too great. For these bears, enrichment serves a different purpose. It provides comfort, stimulation, interest and a means of displaying all the behaviours which come naturally to them. Although they may never be truly free, the care and enrichment provided to these sun bears by the BSBCC staff allow the bears to live their lives free from pain, fear and suffering, just as they deserve.
Text by Woo Chee Yoong
Photos by Woo Chee Yoong, Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
Everyone is familiar with the phrase, “time flies”, especially in the happy moments which make us wish we could stay a bit longer. However, reality always stands in the way. It is time for me to bid farewell to The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC).
I am an undergraduate student, studying the Animal Resource Science and Management Programme, at the University Malaysia Sarawak, UNIMAS. I came to the BSBCC for industry training for a period of 10 weeks. I found out about the BSBCC when I searched for an institution or research centre that focuses on large mammals in Malaysia. When I found out about the existence of sun bears, my interest in such charismatic mammal grew stronger. Moreover, the sun bear is the smallest bear species in the world, and Malaysia provides these bears with an important home. So, I decided to apply for my industry training placement with the BSBCC. I first flew to Sandakan to meet Dr(Hon) Wong Siew Te, the founder of the BSBCC, to seek advice and guidance about my wish to continue my career as a biologist working closely with animals. I was truly impressed with Dr(Hon) Wong’s achievements, but it was his commitment and dedication, despite all the hardship he has encountered in saving sun bears, that inspired me to continue with what I was pursuing.
When I first arrived, I was introduced to my home in Sandakan where the intern students and volunteers are placed, Bjorn Hala. A simple home, but filled with warmth and laughter, with five other members of the BSBCC staff. Furthermore, other colleagues sometimes joined us in the house for special occasions, “Bjorn Hala is a family”. I started my first working day by being introduced to my buddy, Azzry. Here, I must express my gratitude to my buddy. He guided me a lot through the husbandry jobs of a sun bear keeper. He is fun to work with and always tried to entertain us all with his jokes.
Basically, every day, we washed the cages every morning to ensure the bears have a comfortable space to sleep. We prepared porridge with green bean and pumpkin, fruits like banana, papaya, watermelon, honeydew and snakefruit, and vegetables like sweet potato, corn, sugar cane and coconut. We fed the bears inside the cages and outside in forest enclosure, in order to encourage their forest instincts. We created many different kinds of enrichment for the bears, such as collecting banana leaves, dry leaves and termite nests. Examples of food enrichments include the Stick Paradox, Hamburger, Firehose Pocket, Aussie Ball and others. The Olivier Tower, which we built for Chin, was very hard work for me, Azzry, and a bunch of our other teammates. However, the best enrichment of all is another bear. This is why we try to integrate the bears with each other, and so they can learn survival skills from each other. Also, I am glad that the BSBCC gave me the opportunity to be involved with the medical check-up for the bears.
I not only had the chance to work in Bear House, but to also experience the outreach programme. The programme aims to educate communities about sun bears, especially younger communities. Thus, both programmes that I participated in were held at primary schools. We hope the conservation efforts to help the sun bear will inspire the younger generation.
At the BSBCC, the most important thing I learnt was that every bear has its own attitude, just like a human. Some are easy to deal with, but some are not. In fact, this became the most amazing thing I experienced in these 10 weeks. The emotion shared between me and the bear’s was priceless, and words cannot describe this feeling and the relationship. You have to come and experience it yourselves.
Sadly, a lot of people abuse this special relationship and exploit Sun Bear in a horrible way. Hereby, I urge you all, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE - Sun bears deserve a better life and should be treated just like a human. They belong to the forest, not inside a small cage where they are forced to follow their owner’s instruction. They need freedom, just like we do. Spread the word, spread the love. Return the sun bear to the wild and stop poaching.
Nonetheless, I wish to say a huge thank you to the BSBCC for this unforgettable journey. I have wished that the spirit of Bear Care Team will always remain. You have all done a big favour to the sun bears. Stay strong to all the bears. Au revoir.