Text and Photos by Ema Arzairima binti Ariffin
It’s the 11th of January 2015, I am in Kuala Lumpur International Airport waiting for my flight that will depart at 10.30 am. I’m sitting, waiting, thinking and imagining what Sandakan looks like. How is the environment at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC)? Are there any cubs? Can I touch them? What will our house look like? Am I going to stay near town? Oh, I am so excited! I looked through the internet, browsing and searching for more information about Sandakan and BSBCC. Then I put my mobile phone into airplane mode when suddenly I heard the call for boarding. This is it. Goodbye KL. Hello Sandakan!
Touch down in Sandakan Airport! I can see that the airport is not as busy as KLIA as it is obviously more hectic and there is much more happening KLIA with hundreds or thousands of people rushing to catch their flight, but this is what I expected and for some reason, I felt so calm and relaxed since there were not that many people around. Driving on the road for the first time in Sandakan, I could see many roundabouts. The best part was that there were statues on some of the roundabouts that I could see. For example the crocodile, orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, and also the green turtle. I was told that this is a funny yet unique way of promoting its tourist spots.
On the 12th January 2015, I started my first day of working as an intern student or volunteer at BSBCC with two of my friends which are also my classmates. I was going to work at the Bear House! In my mind, I had already imagined myself surrounded by the Bornean Sun Bear or holding a cub, taking pictures and posting it on Instagram! How cool is this? It’s a sun bear that I’m talking about. Not a cat. Not a dog. However, here comes the part that makes me feel a little upset. Why? Because my friends and I were told by our supervisor that we were not allowed to touch, try to bond with them or even have any close contact with those fluffy bears. Not only that, we also couldn’t go into the Quarantine Area to see the cubs. My heart was broken into pieces. I was crying on the inside. But hey, everything happens for a reason. After listening to the briefing and explanation, I finally got the answers as to why there are so many rules of what to do and what not to do.
Well, obviously BSBCC is not a petting zoo. It is a conservation centre that conserves the population of Bornean Sun bears in relation to the forest itself; as they play many roles in order to conserve the forest too. If the sun bears get attached to people, then how will they survive in the forest on their own in future? Slowly, I digested all the inputs and understood that those bears that are currently kept in BSBCC have a different history, background, and story. Some of them were rescued by the Wildlife Rescue Unit or surrendered by their owners who kept them in a small cages, and so much more. The bears need to be cared for before being released back into nature. Their habitat. Their home. Which is in the forest; without having to rely on humans; without cages and without being treated as pets or sold to the black markets.
Everyday working at BSBCC, I spent most of my time in the bear house, which was divided into two: Bear House 1 and Bear House 2. Even though every morning I did the same routine, which was cleaning the cages, feeding the bears and going to the outdoor pens, I didn’t get bored. In fact, things become even more fun as the days passed by. I finally remembered almost all the bear’s names, which cages they were in and in which groups they were. The best part was when my friends and I went to the pens and tried to recognize each bear just by looking at their physical appearance, chest marking or behaviour. Somehow, it made me smile to see them playing with each other, sleeping on the tree, opening their coconut and corns during feeding time and many more. Deep down, I prayed that one day, they will finally be released back into the forest to where they belong, and live their lives just like the other wild Bornean Sun bears that know how to find food, how to survive, how to mate, have more cubs and become independent
The most exciting activity that I did every day was the enrichment program! I always got excited preparing different types of enrichment for the bears to keep them active even though they were not going to be released into the outdoor pens (enclosure enrichment). Some of the enrichment that I did was the bamboo feeder, the fruit in ice blocks, the termite nest, dried leaves, ginger leaves, dead wood and many more which effectively worked to reduce their stress, pacing, and kept their attention on something that was more adventurous and that would at least make them feel like they were living in the wild. Not only that, some enrichment also indirectly provided them with protein, such as eating termites from the termite nest and also ants from the dead wood. Another example of enrichment that I observed on my first day here was the PVC food pipe, which acted as a tube that was filled with fruits and leaves, then tied onto the tree to encourage the bear to climb up a tree in order to get the food.
Despite having fun watching the bears enjoying the enrichment that I had made, I have to admit that the process of preparing and finding the material for the enrichment purposes requires countless effort, time, commitment, ideas and positive thinking. I was always scared, had goose bumps or worse, had panic attacks facing insects in the forest, especially the leeches. I’ve been latched twice before I came for this internship, and it was totally freaking me out! And until that very moment I still couldn’t control myself from having a panic attack caused by the leech. Do I have bdellophobia (fear of leechs)? Yes, maybe. Do I want to live in a state of fear towards leeches for my whole life? Of course not! Walking in the forest and loving the nature is who I am. The only thing that stopped me was those leeches that wanted to feed on my blood. How they stand up on one end, and probe the air with the other end, push themselves forward, stand up and continue probing really makes my nerves tingle. I couldn’t even lift my hands up to remove it from my boots or my pants. Having this kind of fear was making me sick, upset, disappointed and frustrated at the same time. I do love the forest, the trees and the nature. But sometimes you just simply cannot explain why you are petrified of some things and why you are not. I just hope that one day I can overcome my fear. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But who knows.
Throughout the 9 days of volunteering in BSBCC, I was surrounded by lovely people who were willing to teach me, guide me, share knowledge and experiences, help me out during my panic attack, and treat me like one of their BSBCC family members. There was no pressure working in that environment. We did the job together in the bear house and we helped each other out. The Founder and CEO of BSBCC, Mr Siew Te Wong is a great leader. He dedicated his life for the love of conserving Bornean Sun bear together with the forest. He is always in his office, and sometimes I saw him go to the platform and talk to the visitors. He even came to the bear house to monitor us working. He also told my friends and I that if we had any problems or were feeling uncomfortable about doing something, we could let him know. Not only that, he also held a short meeting with all the BSBCC staff every Tuesday to discuss if there were any problems or suggestions. Together with the staff, they would think and solve the problems together. As someone who is sitting on the highest rank in BSBCC, I have to say that he is one great leader.
With great leadership, comes a great team. Working under the supervision of Mr Tee Thye Lim, he shared lots of new knowledge and even his experiences to my friends and I. This made me realize that studying from books by theory alone is never enough and not so effective without experiencing it ourselves or having a conversation with a person who has more experience in that particular field. Ms Chiew Lin May also shared a lot of her experience working in this field and always told me about different stories and backgrounds of different bears. She also helped to explain to us all about how BSBCC is functioning in order to meet their mission which is to promote sun bear conservation in Borneo through animal welfare, conservation, rehabilitation, education and research. Our daily routine also required us to work with the animal keeper and general worker to clean the cages, prepare the food for the bears and also for the enrichment activities. They taught us with patience even though we always asked so many things and kept on forgetting which bear is which, they did not get mad when I had a panic attack and so much more.
I had so much fun working in this happening and positive environment. I really hope that one day I can come here again, and together with this team we could make the mission of BSBCC a success! Thank you. :)