Text by Cameron Watson
Photos by Chiew Lin May
When I started my volunteering at BSBCC, I had no idea quite how quickly these 2 weeks would fly in. It has been a great experience in all regards, from the beauty of the animals themselves to the camaraderie of the team and of course how rewarding the actual work is. If anyone is an animal lover or has a concern for conservation and an urge to do something about it, then I couldn’t recommend this program more.
My only real concern before starting was that this would be a bit of a fad and that the volunteers would be given fairly petty cleaning jobs, while the keepers actually got on with the real work. This was far from the case! We were very much in the thick of the work from beginning to end which is exactly how it should be. You will work up a sweat on a daily basis. The day begins with more functional tasks such as preparing food and cleaning the bear house, before the afternoon which brings more creative enrichment work to encourage the bear’s natural behaviours. This is a great day split as you really get a bit of both and the pace is never too slow.
The staff here are all very supportive and great banter. The keeper I was paired with – Danny – was amazing at showing me the ropes but also at explaining the reasoning behind the things they were doing, which was amazing. Being told the thinking behind each activity really highlights how what you are doing is making a difference in a bear’s rehabilitation, whether it be the different meals prepared to fit the individual bear’s diets, or the way the enrichment toys we make parallel what the bears would encounter in the wild.
This brings us on to the focal point and most rewarding thing at BSBCC – the bears themselves! There is no better feeling than watching a bear demolish an enrichment you have just put together and knowing that this is bringing them one step closer to release into the wild. During my time I was lucky enough to see and record Sika – a young 2 year old – taking her first steps out of the bear house and into the outside world. Before being rescued and brought to BSBCC, she had been kept illegally in a cage in a house and watching her take her first step outside is a moment that will stay with me forever. It felt truly special to be a part of. It is moments like these that will make your time at BSBCC truly worthwhile and beautifully emotional. You will leave, like me, with a better awareness and an urge to do more.
I would therefore recommend this program to anyone who’s not afraid to put in good work that will actually make a difference. You will get attached to the bears and learn their names and personalities. Hearing that the centre plans to release 4 bears this year brings a smile to my face and makes all the work worth it. It’s a great program for the volunteer, but a better one for the bears themselves.
Text by Ludwig Gassner
Photos by Ludwig Gassner, APE Malaysia & Chiew Lin May
Hi! This is my short story about my trip and work at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). I am Ludwig Gassner and I´m 18 years old. I live in Sweden and I am currently in my last year of studying to become an animal caretaker. When the opportunity arose that I could have an internship here in Borneo I could not turn it down. This was supposed to be an experience of a lifetime and it really was. We have been through and learnt so much, so I do not even know where to begin.
We are 5 volunteers that came here from Sweden. We are all in the same class at school, so we were good friends even from the beginning. We all flew here together, and the flight was very long because we are from Sweden so it took about 24 hours to get here. I believe that was the longest any of us had ever flown before. But eventually we got here, and we were, as most of the volunteers here, staying at Paganakan dii. Our first day when we got here, we got to rest. It was much needed after the jetlag and the long trip. The next day we got to follow our two volunteer coordinators and they helped us to get a small introduction of the BSBCC and all the staff. They helped us to get settled and went grocery shopping with us. The first week of working you really had a lot to take in. All the routines, names of the bears and staff was a great deal of information to memorize and remember. We all got our own keeper and mine was Adneen. He was the one that was going to keep an extra eye on me and to give me different tasks that we needed to do.
A normal day in the bear house usually looked like this:
In the morning you always prepare the food for the bears and clean their cages. You need to feed the bears 3 times a day and you clean the cages once every morning. In the afternoons we usually feed the bears and make enrichments.
The founder of the centre is Wong Siew Te (Dr. Wong) and lucky for me I got to meet him, and not only that but we had sessions with him every week where we could ask him questions and he told us about the centre, the project and how it all started. He was extremely nice and incredibly down to earth, and it has been a pleasure listening to him talking about his work here. A true inspiration.
He told us all about why he keeps the bears the way he does and how it all works, and this is what I learnt:
The point of the centre is to conserve and increase the Bornean Sun Bear population. There are two subspecies of sun bear and the Bornean sun bear is one of them, and they only exist here in Borneo. That is a big reason why the species is so threatened by extinction and that is a reason why the BSBCC was founded in the first place. The purpose of the centre is to conserve the sun bears by rehabilitating them so they can get reintroduced into the wild. Wild Sun bears live in the rainforests of Borneo and it´s difficult for the bears to survive because of the competition of other animals and all the threats they may face. Bornean Sun bears suffer from poachers, pet keeping, deforestation, gallbladder extraction and other natural predators. The Sun bears that exist at the BSBCC have either suffered from people keeping them as pets or poachers killing their mothers when they were cubs. Sometimes people find these orphaned cubs and keep them as pets, and that´s when the problems start. Most of the bears at the center have been kept in a small cage their whole life so they don´t know about the outside world or the forest. That´s when something called stereotypical behaviours start. They are predators so they naturally have big territories that they patrol. Then when they are locked up in small cages that are not even close to the size they need, they pace. Pacing is a common stereotypical behaviour that the bears do when they cannot express their natural behaviours for example, having large territories. So that´s where the centre comes in. They can´t just put a pet kept bear that has spent it´s whole life in a cage directly into a big rainforest environment. The bear wouldn´t know what to do and it would get extremely stressed and do all kinds of unpredictable behaviours. That’s why the bears get to live in a pretty small cage first and move up to bigger ones once they show signs that they are ready for it. Then after they have shown in the big rainforest enclosure that they have all the right attributes and skills that a bear needs to survive, they can be released into the wild.
And that is what I have learnt during my time here at the BSBCC.
Thanks to all the staff and the people that made this possible. And a special thanks to Dr. Wong for letting us come here and giving us the chance to help his centre. Also, a special thanks to my buddy Adneen and for my second buddy Roger.
Text by Tindra Spennare Jacobssen
Photos by Tindra Spennare Jacobssen & APE Malaysia
Hello! My name is Tindra, I am from Sweden and I am 18 years old.
I study animal care at my school Spånga gymnasium and will graduate in a few months. Four of my classmates and myself got the opportunity to be volunteers at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre thanks to our school. We have now been here for five weeks as a part of our internship.
Before I knew about our school’s internship abroad, I had honestly never heard about Sun bears or even the island Borneo, but I have always been interested in conservation and rehabilitation of wild animals, so I did not want to miss such an experience.
During these five weeks I have weighed hundreds of kilos of fruits and vegetables, cleaned a lot of cages and gotten sweaty like never before. We have been going on trips to find banana leaves where we also got to try fresh coconut juice. We went on a walk into the jungle to find termite nests and got attacked by leeches.
My buddy Jeniur and I worked on a project together with my friend and her buddy. We improved a platform in an outside enclosure as an enrichment for the bears and to make them more visible for the visitors. We carried a lot of logs and it was really heavy, but all that was in my head was “do it for the bears”, and that really pushed me.
I also got to know the keepers and staff at the centre, they have been very friendly and funny since day one. The funniest moment from these weeks was from when we taught each other words in Malay and Swedish.
I have gained so many new memories and I have learnt so much during these weeks that it is hard to know what to include in this blog post, a thousand thoughts are going through my head right now. But if you are reading this and are thinking about volunteering at BSBCC, I really think you should!
I want to say thank you to the staff at BSBCC and APE Malaysia for making this volunteer experience the best possible and I hope to see you again in the future!
Text by Josefin S.
Photos by Sumira Muis & Chiew Lin May
Hi my name is Josefin. I am from Sweden and I am a student at Spånga gymnasium (a Swedish high school). My four classmates and I have been volunteering at BSBCC (Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre) for 5 weeks from 7 January to 7 February. During that time I have learnt and experienced a lot. I have seen a great variety of animals like macaque and different species of bird. I have even been chased by an orangutan. When we came here, we had spent 18 hours in the air and 24 hours travelling with little to no sleep. The temperature went from minus 2 to 30 plus degrees, so on the first day I started to sweat by the thought of moving.
In my first week I spent three days in the kitchen chopping up and weighing different vegetables and fruits. Every bear gets approximately 4.5 kilograms of food each day. As of now the centre is keeping and rehabilitating 43 bears, so you can imagine the amount of food we prepared in one day. During my time here I have improved on a lot of skills. One being cutting up large quantities of fruits with a big knife. I have also learnt how to use different power tools like a drill machine. To engage the bears and encourage their natural behaviour we built enrichments. For example, making a platform that will make it easier and help them learn to climb, because in the wild they spend a lot of time in the trees, sleeping and hiding from predators. Building the enrichment often involved cutting, sawing, drilling, and some sweat and tears. I can assure you that if you volunteer here, at the end of the day you will feel exhausted but very fulfilled. My buddy and I managed to make two different types of enrichment. The first was a piece of wood about 25cm long that we drilled holes into. In the holes we put dog biscuits, mealworms, honey or peanut butter. In total we made 40 pieces, one for each bear. I was so glad when Om (one of the bears) ripped his piece of wood into a million pieces trying to get to the food, it was exactly what I was hoping for
One thing that surprised me and made me really happy was that the founder Dr. Wong, sat down with the volunteers once a week (if he had the time) and answered any questions that they might have about the bears, the centre, him or any other questions about wildlife conservation. It was really sweet, and you would get some great answers. When I look back at my five weeks here, I smile. I have done and learnt so much. One day we went to get banana leaves and the keepers found coconuts. They cut an opening at the top so we could drink the coconut milk and later they opened it so we could eat the “meat” inside. It was delicious.
In conclusion: if I once more were given the chance to volunteer here, I would pack my bags in a heartbeat and jump on the nearest aeroplane. I highly recommend volunteering here as it will be a life experience you won't forget. You will meet amazing people, learn, see and do stuff you never done before, and most importantly you will see and work with the cutest bear. There is nothing like seeing them lie on their back with their feet up in the air eating a sugarcane or drinking the coconut milk. It just takes your breath away.
Text by Eva Wiktoria Wikström
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Hello! My name is Wictoria, and I am 19 years old. I come from Sweden, and I have been volunteering here at BSBCC for 5 weeks with 4 of my classmates as a part of our internship in school, where we are studying to become animal caretakers. During these weeks, on the other side of the world, I have learned so much about so many things, and I am very glad that I got the chance to experience this.
When we got out from the airport in Sandakan, after our almost 24 hour long journey, we were hit by the gazing sun, and I quickly realized that the upcoming weeks weren’t going to be easy. Working in 30oC when you are used to the Swedish winter with 0oC is very hard, and the first week was very rough. Everything was so new, and the hot weather in combination with the jet lag and the language barrier (I really struggled with my English at first), made everything more difficult, but everything got easier as time went on. I quickly got into the routines, and I got to know the keepers fast, which made everything better. We have been laughing and joking a lot, and they are all very easy to talk to.
Except for the daily routines such as preparing food, cleaning the cages and feeding all the bears etc., we all got one project each to work on with our buddy keeper. I got to help with the integration training with the three bears Phin, Wan-Wan and Mamatai, so that they could share cages (without fighting) instead of staying alone. I helped to observe the bears, and every minute for half an hour, I wrote down each bear’s behaviour. We did this almost every day for a few weeks, and it was very fun and unique – especially to see Wan-Wan and Mamatai spend the days together during my last week here. You really get to see the bear’s different personalities while working so close to them.
I also really enjoyed making enrichments for the bears. Spending just one hour making small, simple enrichments using fire hoses, leaves, dog toys and things like that, can keep the bears entertained for double the time. In this case, you can really say that even the smallest things can make a big difference.
Thank you to everyone at BSBCC, both the staff and bears, for making this possible. This is an experience I will never forget, and I am very happy that I got the chance to do this. I will bring so many memories back home to Sweden. Volunteering is a good and simple way to help endangered species, and since not many people have heard about the Sun bears and their conditions, I now feel like I have a responsibility to spread the word about them and make people more aware of these amazing bears.
Text by Mayuko Takeda
Phots by Chiew Lin May & Sumira Muis@APE Malaysia
Hello, I’m Mayuko. I’m 20 years old and from Japan! I’m studying biology in Japan. I wanted to be a volunteer in animal related projects and then my professor told me about BSBCC when I consulted him. This is why I came here.
My daily tasks in BSBCC are preparing food, husbandry work and making enrichment for the bears. My typical day started from weighing the amount of the fruit first and then bear house cleaning. Sun bears eat vegetables. So the smell of their feces was not as bad as I thought. However, my teammate and I had to clean the walls and doors too. It made me tired. If we didn’t clean the night dens carefully, they’ll get sick. So, I did my best!!
I like to make enrichment for sun bears. For example, we put some apples and honey in the Aussie Dog balls which has a hole in there. To make the enrichment harder, we also put leaves and egg cartons in the Aussie Dog balls so it is harder for the bears to get apples and honey. So they can enjoy getting the treats while playing with it
Collecting termites from jungle is also part of the enrichment for the bears. We can see how they use their long tongue to forage. All of the bears are individuals with different personalities. In the case of food, some likes sweet potatoes while others like cucumbers. How could I understand that?? When I cleaned the night dens, I checked what is left. On the other hand, one thing I was worried about was that I was afraid I couldn’t remember every bear’s characteristics within just 2 weeks.
Actually, I have one more reason why I wanted to come here. The reason is that I wanted to know what I desire. To tell the truth, I’ve lost my way. Of course my passion towards animals is undoubted but should I get a job or should I go to university to get a master degree? When I said to Mr. Wong, he advised me that I should choose what I think makes me happy. One day after collecting banana leafs on the way going back to the center and blown by the wind, I thought suddenly this is what I always wanted to do. I want to learn about wildlife and I want to do anything for their well-being. This 2 week volunteering experience would be a chance to reflect on myself again.
Finally, Thank you to all of the people I met here!! Sometime it makes me really happy when they talked to me in Japanese. They are kind and funny. Also they taught me Malay - “saya mau makan”. Actually I felt nervous on the first day because I’m not a English native speaker, but it was groundless apprehensions. I was so excited to volunteer at the BSBCC from the second day.
I had a fulfilling and unforgettable time when volunteering at BCBCC. This is an irreplaceable experience. I swear I’ll come back!!!
Text by Oona Lily Mcginty
Photos by Chiew Lin May & Sumira Muis (APE Malaysia)
My name is Oona and I am a University student volunteer from Bristol in the UK. Initially I chose to come and work with the bears here because my dream is of eventually working as an anti-poaching ranger, to protect endangered animals from poaching, habitat destruction and the illegal wildlife trade in countries all over the world.
Getting the opportunity to experience working in-situ in the jungle for the first time was fantastic, and it was incredibly useful to get to try out working as a keeper in this environment, as I already have at a number of sanctuaries and wildlife rescues at home in England. Learning how the role differs from country to country and having to quickly adapt to the differences in local wildlife and climate was a very valuable skill for me.
Doing quite a lot of art in my spare time was certainly put to good use here as well, as a few days into my work I noticed that there were some partially finished murals that had been started by a previous volunteer on some of the walls between bear houses one and two. With our volunteer co-ordinator’s permission, it was hugely satisfying to be able to then sit for a while in the afternoons to finish them off, refreshing that area of the centre for the bears and workers to enjoy throughout their time there.
Learning first-hand about the specific husbandry of the kinds of animals that I will later strive to protect, as well as the uses of different kinds of enrichment for their care and what the bears gain from interacting with each one was very interesting. Getting the chance to go out into different areas of the jungle with the other keepers to do things like gather natural greenery for their enclosures, as well as learning about their diet and collecting different types of native fruits for the bears to eat was absolutely a highlight of my trip. It was nice as well to see that because of the daily effort put into these keeper activities, living in this environment prior to re-release was not so restricting to the bears’ natural diet, or their instinctive interactions with the sorts of surroundings that they might otherwise encounter in the wild.
More than anything however, I think that having the chance to venture out on my days off from work and witness first-hand some of the deforestation and destruction of the land outside of Sepilok and Sandakan has been the biggest eye opener for me.
It has made me even more determined in committing life to working towards alleviating the necessity of housing rescued animals in protected areas such as these, and further served to ignite my passion for protecting these amazing creatures and all others like them.
So I would like to say thank you to the BSBCC for this incredible opportunity, and as long as you are needed in the world, please never stop doing the wonderful work that you do here for these beautiful animals.
Oona Mcginty, Vounteer. - 2019
Text by Anna Martinsen
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Hello BSBCC Bear Talk Blog!
My name is Anna, I’m 20 years old and have just spend 30 days working as a volunteer at the Bornean Sun bear conservation center. I’m from Denmark, so getting here took a lot of time! In Denmark, I just finished a 1-year dance education and now I’ll be having a gap-year, where I will be working, travelling, dancing, living. I found out about this place because I went here (Sabah) with my mom two years ago, and on the way made a very good friend. Just before I finished my dance education, I found the flyer for the BSBCC volunteer program and decided to just do it..
First week working at the center offered a lot of work in the kitchen! These bears, I tell you, they eat a lot. Chopping up 36 kg of sweet potato or pumpkin, not even to mention the bananas… so many bananas every day. The work in the kitchen is fun when everything is flowing, one person is cutting, another is rinsing, a third is weighing. One time, while I was weighing bananas, a big spider jumped out and onto my shirt. Something you get used to while working here.
Some of the male bears also get porridge with animal proteins, such as cooked chicken, egg, etc. They also get a fair amount of beans, because like human children, they have to eat their greens. They get so excited when they see you with the tray, and even though it is so tempting, you really cannot touch those sweet, furry creatures.
Later on during the first week, we had a presentation from one of the interns, Nathalie and later from Lin May about the sun bears and why we’re doing this work. It was literally heartbreaking to see how people treat these animals. Sun bears are small animals, the size of a big dog, so some locals catch them and keep them as pets. This is bad for several reasons such as:
1) Diet - local people don’t know what a sun bear eats and they feed it like a pet or, if the family is poor, then they’ll feed it with whatever, even with Milo. You can ask about Montoms story.
2) People don’t realize they are wild animals and that they grow bigger and stronger as they become adults.
3) The last thing people might do is poach wild sun bears, is if they believe in traditional medicine and kill it to get the gallbladder, paws, teeth and fur for a variety of uses.
The second week was a bit more “active”. We started a lot of different projects and had a lot of fun. Starting out, the bear house needs to be cleaned daily. This is not as hard or smelly as people make it out to be, but then again I have some experience from working at my aunts farm. First you have to clean out poop, which there’s a lot of, and in a lot of different colors (from their diet). Then we washed out the cage with a lot of water and scrub everything, and finished off with drying the floor.
It’s not just work, work, work. The staff in the bear house are so friendly and fun, so everything becomes more fun. Some of the cages have leaves, logs, enrichment all made/brought in from the staff.
We made a lot of enrichment during 1st and 2nd week. Enrichment is a tool we use to stimulate natural behaviours, like using sense of smell to find delicious food, rip cotton bags apart to get food. A lot of it has to do with using either paws or mouth to get to food in some ways.
While making the enrichment, you’ll get a great opportunity to chat with the keepers (the staff). You talk a lot about what’s different from back home, ask questions about their cultures, things to try, and of course, you learn a bit of Malay. Enrichment can also be sticks or branches, banana leaves and we even went trekking in the jungle for termite nests.
This week and the 3rd also offered bigger projects! In one of the pens they needed to build a platform for the bears to cool down under, play on and use for enrichment. With blood, sweat and tears, we finished the big platform within 1 1\2 weeks! The bears absolutely love the platform now, and they’re often seen sunbathing or playing on it.
During the 2nd and a part of the 3rd week I got to train and observe one of the bears, Sigalung. He is a bear with fear of heights, so we tried to lure him out with food on the platform and then on the steps down to the ground. It was a slow process, but he made some progess. After some observation, Sumira and I decided that the stairs were too steep, and that’s why he is not going down. We talked to my Buddy Keeper (You get “assigned” to a keeper when you start working), Mizuno, and we made some sketches for a ramp that wold make the ground seem less terrifying. We measuared, found supplies and got to work, but just three days after we mounted to skeleton for the ramp, some of the other keepers saw Sigalung on the ground. In his pen. Looking for food. That little jokester played a prank on us, but we still managed to finish the ramp.
During the 3rd and 4th week we still did the usual duties, cleaning, prepping food, building a ramp for Sigalung, but we also got something extra! I got to join some health checks. First one was on a big male, Bermuda, second one was little Chin, third was Mary and fourth was Wan-wan. While doing the check up, as a volunteer, you monitor pulse, respiration and temperature. You also carry the bear from the bear house to the truck and vice versa.
Another memorable health check was Wan-Wan. Wan-wan is 12 years old and has a lot of dental problems, so while doing her dental check, they found out that 7 teeth needed to be extracted otherwise she’d be in too much pain to eat. 7 teeth! Crazy.
This week we also had fun going rambutan picking! It’s like apple picking but with rambutans (like lychees). You get to see the nature, talk with your co-workers and eat rambutans, #perfect. While collecting rambutans, a bird’s nest fell from the tree. A bit later we found the egg and Natalie and I decided to try and rescue the nest, so mama bird could find it.
Before finishing up my rambling about this dreamy work here, I want to mention the people. The people working here all have a heart of gold and are so friendly. We went out to dinners, events, they care about your well-being. If you ever even thought of volunteering, you should do it because of the people!
Biggest, warmest, most loving thanks and bear hugs to everyone here from Anna Banana! I will definitely come back!
Thank you, you’re welcome, goodbye.
Text by Jens Söderlund
Photos by Jens Söderlund & Chiew Lin May
My name is Jens Söderlund! I was really fortunate to be born in Sweden. I can afford almost anything I want and because of that I think it’s my obligation to be helping less fortunate. I have been volunteering at an orphanage in Ghana, that was in 2015. After that I decided to volunteer with some kind of animal next. I talked to Anna Shrotti at a photo/adventure convention. My first thought was that I would be going to Borneo to help the orangutans. She then told me of the sun bears, so I decided to combine the two things. First two weeks I was here at the sun bear center , then I’m going to Sukau to help at the reforestation project.
On the first evening I met Sumira and the rest of the volunteers. We had dinner and Sumira was informing us about the project. The next day this was followed with an induction at the Bear center and we got to meet our buddy keeper that who was going to be the “team leader”. We went on a tour to see the facilities and the surroundings. There is one building separated in two sections, Bear house 1 and 2. Bearhouse 1 is for bears that have not come as far in their training as the bears in bear house 2. When the bears have passed their training they are able to venture outside their cages into the pens. The pens are located in parts of the rainforest so they can adjust to their natural habitat. If the bear learns all the needed skill to survive in the wild, it can be released into the jungle.
The third day was the first day that we worked for real. I started in the kitchen (with three other peeple) preparing the food for the bears. We were cutting vegetables and fruit, and then we portioned it in different buckets. The buckets were tagged so we would know where food would go. The bears are fed 4 times a day, and the volunteers often get to assist the keepers. The feeding is done in the bear house and in the pens. There are two platforms connected by a walk way. These platforms allow visitors to watch the bears in their natural habitat. We also give the bears enrichments which we create, so they learn how to search for food.
Cleaning the cages from food leftovers and faeces from the day before is done every morning. You have do sweep, flush everything, scrub, flus again and finally refill their bin with fresh water and squeeze the water from the floor.
I also helped build a new platform in pen D, slightly raised from the ground. It was build because in there are not a lot of trees in pen D and the bears can’t hide anywhere during the hot parts of the day. The platform is made of ironwood. We started digging holes so we could place 4 big logs of ironwood as posts and then poured concrete to steady them. After that we bevelled two beams in the logs and put three beams on top of them to hold the floor. The second level was build the same way.
I have really liked these two weeks of working and helping the bears, although I know a lot more has to be done. But I think that many small things can build up to a greater good.
On my days off, I got to do my hobby, wildlife photography. I have seen and capture a lot of new and cool animals on this trip.
Text By Chen Mu-Xuan
Photos By Chiew Lin May
Hello, I’m Chen Mu-Xuan from Taiwan. I’m studying forestry and natural resources at National Ilan University.
I volunteered at the BSBCC at part of my studies about forestry in the tropical rain forest. When I saw the lovely sun bears, I decided to come back to learn more about them.
If you love a specific type of animal, you want to understand them. At the beginning of the placement. we had to listen to a short presentation by staff who explained what BSBCC is doing. We can ask any questions and then that we started work.
The main purpose of our job is to maintain the environment to make the bears live comfortably and create some enrichment to help them learn survival skills. We clean the cages, prepare bear food and feed the bears every day. Sometimes those jobs will make you tired, but when you think about how important this work is for conservation, everything is worth it. I also learned so much about the bear’s behavior and animal management.
The journey here is just amazing and I will never forget it. I regret now that I only stayed here for 2 weeks. When I am back in Taiwan, I’ll miss everyone and everything here so much.