HELP US, SUPPORT US
Text and Photos by Jessica Prestage
My name is Jessica Prestage, I'm 18 years old and I am from England. I have just completed a two week volunteering programme at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sandakan. I finished school in May and I will be starting university in September. During this break, I wanted to make the most of my long summer holiday by volunteering somewhere new, that would allow me to learn about a different country and the conservation systems there. I looked at the opportunities available with a travel gap year company called 'Oyster'. They have a lot of varied projects, but working with sun bears stood out as the most interesting. At first, I was unsure whether I would be able to travel to Borneo for this project, as it requires a long journey - in total, over 15 hours on a plane. But I decided that I could not pass up the chance to come out here and spend two weeks working with the team to care for, monitor and learn about sun bears. An opportunity like this may not come round again, so I selected this project and started booking it.
On my first day working at the centre, I was shown around with the other volunteer, Jackie. We were both part of the volunteer programme organised by APE Malaysia. Soon after our tour, we started working; the days followed a schedule, which rotated in order to allow everyone to help with different aspects of the bear house. In the morning, the tasks included husbandry (cleaning the cages), which was separated into bear house one and bear house two, preparing food in the kitchen and fence checks. This also meant that every day we worked with different team members, allowing us to get to know each other and work together. The afternoons consisted of creating enrichment; enrichment is what is used to engage the bears' natural instincts of climbing, foraging and exploring. There were a wide range of materials that we had available to create enrichment, such as old fire hoses, donated by local fire stations, tyres, logs and branches, and bamboo. I enjoyed creating the enrichment, but personally I found the dry cages the most rewarding form of enrichment. Creating a dry cage involves laying a bed of dry leaves, collected the previous day, and adding logs and branches to mimic a forest environment. We also added log feeders, which is simply a log with holes drilled into it, each filled with treats. The normal treats used in enrichment to entice the bears to investigate and engage with it are honey, peanut butter, bananas, dog treats and banana leaves. These have strong smells, added to which the bears enjoy them - consequently the enrichment is regularly destroyed in order to access every crumb of food! The dry cage is my favourite enrichment because as soon as the bears are let back into the cage, they start exploring, digging and ripping open the logs. Dog treats and mealworms are scattered in the leaves to encourage foraging, which is often the first thing they do. It is rewarding when the bears do this as it shows that they still have their instincts and have a high chance of being released back into the wild.
In this photo, Mark and myself are creating a log feeder for the dry cage we created for Wan Wan. The reason for the cameraman also featured in this photo is that for two days we were filmed creating enrichment, for a series called Bornean Rangers. The idea of this is to show the process of rehabilitation at the centre and demonstrate how volunteers can help.
Working as part of the team here was a fantastic experience - as a volunteer, initially I was worried that I would slow the work down and be in the way, but I was quickly just another member of the team. Everyone was very welcoming, and I felt accepted as a team member and a friend. Although I was the only English person on site, everyone was eager to talk to me, asking questions about England and finding out about me. In the first few days, I struggled to adapt to the heat; this meant that I had to have regular breaks and drink a lot of water. Everyone kept an eye on me and checked on me, asking if I was okay, which made me feel comfortable and looked after. I knew that if I did have a problem, I could talk to them. However, I did not have any problems throughout the project - the team are friendly, funny and always up for a laugh. This made my time here more enjoyable, as I was getting to know people and making friends, whilst working with the bears.
This photo was taken after we had created a dry cage for the two cubs in quarantine - the pose is 'bear style'! I love this photo because it shows the funny side of the work, the celebration after an achievement. We laughed a lot whilst working, always finding time to mess around (sensibly) between chores.
This was taken the same day, on our way back down to the main bear house. We had our expert driver in front, Roger, three passengers, (WaWa, Jackie and myself), and the engine was Azzry, pushing us down the slope. This may have been a less sensible idea, as we didn't quite manage to turn successfully at the bottom of the slope
During my two weeks at the conservation centre, I got to know most of the bears. Initially, I memorised the names based on which cages they were in, but as the two weeks progressed I learnt more about each bear. Their chest marks are like our fingerprints; each one is unique and can be used to identify the bear. The size, shape and colour can vary. However, some of the older bears do not climb so much, so they are recognised by their faces and behaviour more than the chest marks. I found it interesting as I got to know more of the bears, as they are all so different. Knowing their personalities made it possible to create enrichment for specific bears to try to engage them for as long as possible. Naturally, I had a favourite; but doesn't everyone? I became fond of Along, as he was always sitting on the hanging log or hammock in his cage, watching what was going on. He's a handsome bear, and as with most of the bears in the centre, I hope that he will be released into the wild in the near future. Some of the older bears cannot be rehabilitated, but I can't imagine a better place for them to live than here at the centre. The staff are incredible and the facilities are brilliant; the bears have all they could ask for and more. I am so lucky to have been able to spend time here with such passionate people, who care so much for the future of these bears and other wildlife that is at risk due to human presence and actions in the natural environments. I have learnt a lot during the project and I hope to return someday to see the progress here and to see my friends again!
I cannot thank the BSBCC enough for giving me this opportunity. It's been an unforgettable experience, with amazing people. Good luck for the future and I hope to see you again soon!
2 weeks in BSBCC
Text and Photos by Jacquelyn Jepiuh
After volunteering at BSBCC for a very short 2 weeks, I've gained so much insight about how a centre like this works. I'm currently go studying Zoology and Conservation biology so I really wanted to gain more experience in the conservation field. I found out about this volunteering program by simply googling 'Animal conservation in Malaysia' and came across an organization called APE Malaysia. I immediately applied for the program they had running during my semester uni break in July and luckily they accepted me! This was also my first time of hearing about BSBCC. After researching into the centre, I was amazed by how much progress they had made since they've started - with the release of Natalie and the upcoming release of Lawa - and why haven't I heard of this place sooner!
Upon arriving the centre, Jess (also another volunteer) and I were warmly greeted by all the staff and briefed on the health and safety issues. The first day of work was the hardest, in my opinion, as the heat really got to me. As a Malaysian myself, I don't think I'll ever get used to how hot and humid it really gets here, I just get used to sweating a lot. However, as the days passed I learnt to really enjoy doing the hard work for the bears. I learnt a lot about their arboreal behavior and also the importance of making enrichment for them. The most interesting days I experienced here would be filming for a show on the discovery channel and as APE volunteers, we got to be a part of it! Even though talking in front of the camera was extremely awkward and there were some technical difficulties, I enjoyed making all the enrichments for the bears and seeing them enjoy the enrichment made it all worth it.
I would like to give a big thanks to Wong and all the staff of BSBCC for being so welcoming, especially to the bear house and maintenance team for being so nice and entertaining - there was not a day I wasn't laughing or smiling. Also, a special thanks to the APE team, Mark and Sumira, for taking such good care of us and teaching us about everything. Everyone I've met here are so dedicated and passionate about their job. I have no regrets and it has been such a great opportunity to spend my break productively with amazing people and animals. I want to wish everyone good luck with their future endeavours and good luck with the release of Lawa, I hope everything runs smoothly!
Lots of love,
My Volunteering Experience
Text and Photos by Viktoria Forstén
My name is Viktoria Forstén, I´m a 19 year old animal lover from Sweden. I got the amazing opportunity to volunteer at the BSBCC through a scholarship from my school. For that I am forever grateful. I travelled across the globe together with my three friends Emelie, Evelina and Kim, and it was the greatest experience of my life.
First of all I want to say how amazing everyone at the center is. That goes for Mr Wong, the bear keepers and everyone working in the office. I feel so blessed to have gotten to meet you all and working alongside you guys.
Unfortunately we live in a world full of destruction, made by us. If we shorten the earths’ lifespan into 24 hours then that means we’ve been here for one day. If we keep looking at it in that perspective, do you know how long it has taken for us to destroy forests and made so many animals go extinct? Three seconds. In three seconds we have done all this, and yet we keep doing it. This isn’t supposed to be a depressing text but it’s true. When I first saw how much rainforest that has been burnt to the ground and been replaced with palm tree plantations it broke my heart. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, which means wise man. But if we are so wise then how could we let this happen? How could we destroy our home that has done nothing but give us life? This earth that we call ours is so beautiful and brings us so much joy. We have the pleasure to explore the deepest of oceans, climb the highest mountains and watch how life begins and how it ends (naturally). We share this earth with amazing creatures and can even create strong bonds with some of them. We have the nerve to claim this earth and everything that comes with it, ours… But we are only guests here. Now you’re probably confused as to how this has anything to do with volunteering at the BSBCC. The point I’m trying to get across is that we have, and are currently ruining not only the sun bears’ home but all the other animals’ home too. By volunteering you are trying to help make a difference to save this species, but how can we save them if their home is being taken away from them in such a raging pace.
In all this chaos there is still a few good people out there, people like the BSBCC crew, who I would call heroes. We need more people like that, to clean up the mess we’ve created. I’m happy centers like this one exist but at the same time I’m sad that we’ve done so much damage that we now need to put a massive amount of money and energy into something the nature once had under control.
What the center does for these bears deserves an award, honestly. Personally I didn’t mind the hard work because I thought it was a lot of fun. My favorite task was getting dead logs from the forest and giving to the bears as enrichment. Since all of the bears can’t go outside due to their traumatic past, enrichment is very important. We used lots of natural materials like logs, leaves, bamboo etc. to give the bears. It was usually made to hide food inside of it, for example we made little nest like balls made out of leaves and grass that we stuffed with fruit and honey. Even fire hoses were greatly appreciated; those were used to put peanut butter inside of them so that the bears got to utilize one of their natural behaviors, which are using their long tongues to get food.
When you volunteer you get to see a totally different side of the bears that you don’t see as a visitor. It is great being on the platform watching them foraging for food, climbing trees and behaving like a bear should behave. Although once in the bear house you get a feel of each and everyone’s different personalities. My favorite bear was Chin because of her playful ways; I could sit and watch her play with her logs all day long, if that was possible.
If you’re coming from a colder country like me, the climate change is going to have an impact on you. I remember how red and sweaty I would get from cleaning the cages in the morning. The key is to drink lots of water. Even walking the daily feeding route made me look like a tomato. Being pale and not being used to the heat made me look all kinds of crazy, the staff probably thought I was going to pass out several times but I was fine, haha! It was fun and that’s all that matters.
Let’s talk about our accommodation! The volunteers live in a big house kind of, with numerous rooms, an outdoors kitchen with an amazing view and a few toilets and showers. It is simple living but I guess that won’t be a problem for anyone coming to Borneo to volunteer. I loved it anyhow! The place is called Paganakan Dii and there’s even a café that belongs to the accommodation that serves drinks and food. An advice from me is to not cook your own dinners. It is way cheaper, faster and easier eating at the café.
I’m not going to lie I was a little nervous about meeting the staff for the first time. I’m somewhat of a shy person and the fact that we had to communicate in English was a bit nerve-racking to me. Once I met everyone there was nothing to worry about at all. They were so nice to us and they made me feel really welcome. The language barrier was not a problem; they were really good at explaining everything in English so that we understood. They told me that I was going to cry on my last day, because apparently that is very common among all volunteers. I did not think they were going to be right, but believe me when I say this, you will cry. Saying goodbye to the bears on our last day felt like someone had died. I was crying rivers, it was kind of bad.
Being there for five weeks was truly the best time of my life. The mixture of the warm weather, the cool insects, the amazing people I met and the bears made the experience awesome. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have gotten that opportunity. For everyone reading this, please consider going there to volunteer, I promise you it will be a time worth remembering.
A huge thank you to the bear keepers and everyone at the center for making our time there better than ever imagined! I miss you and the bears!
Huge hugs/ Viktoria
Fortnight in the Forest
Text & Photos by Nicola Chin
My two weeks at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre could be described in many ways: hard work, eventful, fun, enriching, etc. Ultimately, it was a wholesome experience I have absolutely no regrets about, and I’d like to tell you about what I did there, and why it was worth it.
Full days of work were the norm, with a large range of tasks that went towards maintaining the facilities both indoors and outdoors (cleaning and fence checks), keeping the bears well-fed and occupied (food preparation, feeding and enrichment, more on that later), as well as other projects that would go towards improving the lives of everyone at the centre. Tiring as they were, me and the other volunteers could go away each day knowing that our work there made a difference.
Among my favourite tasks as a volunteer was enrichment, which involves fashioning objects for the sun bears to interact with, be it a bamboo shoot filled with tasty fruit, or a bed of dried leaves to forage through. Enrichment gives the bears things to do, and teaches them to use their senses and bodies like they would in the wild, which was always fun to watch! My other favourite project was getting to decorate the bear house walls, upon the request of Lin May, one of the bear care staff. As someone who loves art, it was wonderful to be given the opportunity to contribute to the centre with my drawing skills. I painted a series of bears engaged in different enrichment activities, and sketched some more bears in the kitchen; these were then painted by Lester, another one of the BSBCC staff.
Sun bear murals
Design by me
Painted by Lester,Sabine and David
Education was another important part of the programme. I learned loads about the sun bears, their troubles at the hands of poachers, and their role in the Malaysian forests, and through an educational booth set up in the centre, us volunteers were able to impart our knowledge to the visitors there. This was difficult, because many of the visitors were simply not interested, but it was rewarding whenever someone adopted a bear, or even just went away knowing one more fact about sun bears.
The bears themselves were an interesting bunch! A handful to take care of, they were a delight nevertheless, and the bears’ individual personalities revealed themselves with time and observation. I found that it was best when I appreciated the bears as animals with wild instincts, for both their benefit and mine. But it’s admittedly hard not to call them cute when you see one lying on its back, licking the piece of peanut butter filled fire hose it has cradled in its paws!
The BSBCC team members were helpful, friendly and dedicated; it was clear that they took their respective roles as sun bear carers seriously, as shown by their attention to detail, and how they made sure that us volunteers knew what we were doing every step of the way. Our programme facilitators from APE (Animal Projects and Environmental Education) were very much the same, and I appreciate the effort they put into taking care of me, and ensuring the programme was well organised.
I joined the volunteer programme as a gap year student looking for a project, and came away glad that as a local Malaysian, I was able to play a part in the BSBCC’s mission. The efforts of the team come from noble hearts, and I would highly encourage other Malaysians to try out this volunteer programme for themselves!
Bamboo building and bears
Text and Photos By Jenny Cantlay
How does a British veterinary surgeon find herself in East Malaysia making enrichment activities from bamboo for the world’s smallest bear species? A very good question and the answer is from her joining the volunteer programme at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, coordinated by Ape Malaysia.
I had the opportunity to live in Kuala Lumpur for almost three years before moving to China in 2014. As a wildlife enthusiast, I travelled to Sabah and visited the BSBCC at Sepilok last year. Although the visitor centre had only been open a few months, I was very impressed with their mission to rehabilitate sun bears rescued from captivity as pets. I had watched these small but agile bears clawing their way into logs to feast on termites and climbing up trees in the forest enclosure from the visitor platform. I became curious to know more about this engaging tropical bear species and its role in the forest ecosystem.
My interest in the rehabilitation and conservation of sun bears is both professional and personal. My veterinary training and postgraduate qualification in wildlife conservation meant that I was keen to understand about the management, health and welfare aspects of caring for these rescued bears. Despite numerous wildlife watching trips throughout Malaysia, I had never seen a sun bear until I visited the BSBCC. My interest in Malaysian wildlife meant I understood that their populations in the wild have dramatically declined in recent decades due to the loss of forest habitat from logging and palm oil plantations, in addition to the poaching of bears for pets and to supply the wild meat trade. Therefore, I wanted to learn more about this unique bear and how I could assist the BSBCC in their conservation efforts.
One year later, I returned to the BSBCC as a volunteer, no longer a tourist. On meeting the enthusiastic Ape Malaysia coordinators, Harith and Vicki, who would assist my involvement in the programme, I knew we would get along very well due to our shared love of Malaysian food and wildlife! My first day was spent being introduced to the centre and its staff, particularly the bear keepers with whom I would be spending the most time. I soon realised that although the sun bears may look cute, they have formidable claws and sharp canine teeth, so close encounters with them would be best avoided!
I was enthusiastic to start my work at the bear house and meet the individual animals for myself. The friendly team of five keepers told me that they could recognise each of them from their unique chest mark and facial characteristics. I hoped eventually I would be able to identify some of the individual bears too. After a few days of observing them in their enclosures I started to notice their particular personalities and habits. I liked watching the bold, energetic male called Fulung play-fighting with his mates and also seeing how Mary’s inquisitive nature made up for her small, underdeveloped stature. One of my favourite bears was one of the largest males called Linggam, who could often be found relaxing upside-down in his nesting basket with his limbs stretched out after his breakfast of rice porridge.
My involvement in the daily routine of preparing food, feeding the bears and cleaning out the indoor enclosures meant that I had plenty of opportunity to watch their activities and they seemed to be interested to see what I was doing too. Their long curved claws and strong forelimbs enabled them to easily scale up the bars to reach the fruit we had thrown on top of the enclosure. Despite their physical strength, they showed surprising dexterity when unpeeling rambutans or bananas to eat the fruit inside. They also greatly enjoyed their twice-daily rice porridge feeding and usually slurped it down in a couple of minutes. The daily dietary intake of each bear was carefully calculated based upon his or her weight and age, with some individuals having specific dietary requirements related to their health status, which was often due to their malnourishment whilst kept as pets. In the wild, sun bears consume a great variety of fruits depending upon the particular fruiting season and also eat huge quantities of insects, such as termites, ants, beetles and larvae. The keepers collected termite nests and logs from the forest and brought them into the indoor enclosures to stimulate their foraging behaviour. I particularly enjoyed walking to the forest enclosures to scatter fruit over the fence for the bears to find amongst the vegetation. After foraging, they would often climb up the trees to digest their food whilst lying in the branches. Giving the bears freedom to explore the forest in the safety of the enclosures teaches them the skills necessary for survival, since their release back into the wild is the ultimate goal for many of them. It was fantastic to see how the lives of these captive bears had been dramatically improved by the efforts of BSBCC.
Another important aspect of the volunteer programme was making enrichment activities to stimulate the sun bears in their captive environment. A personal highlight for me was designing and making a hanging bamboo puzzle feeder, which encouraged the bear to climb up and explore the sections of bamboo, filled with forest vegetation and chopped banana. We placed one into Panda’s enclosure and within ten minutes she had gone up to grab some plants to eat and then spent the next twenty-four hours emptying it all out. Afterwards, I wrote an enrichment record about the activity so that its design and effectiveness could be assessed. This enabled Rodger the keeper to construct two more, but he modified the hanging method for Ronnie and Sigalung who then delighted in swinging on the bamboo before breaking it apart to eat the contents. It was highly satisfying as a volunteer to know that I had contributed to improving the welfare of the bears.
During my second week, our construction abilities were truly tested in the creation of a wooden resting platform for Montom and Susie 2. I certainly lacked the practical skills of using saw, drill and spanner, much to the amusement of the keepers who knew exactly what to do. Thankfully the expertise of the team meant it was built and installed within four days. Would the bears be impressed with our efforts? Once it was in the enclosure, Montom immediately went in to sniff the new object out, as it smelt of all the humans who had sweated over its construction. Its stability and strength were tested when he climbed on top of it and walked around. Within a short time, he started chewing at the wood, even pulling some chunks off, since sun bears also like to investigate things with their mouths. When the keepers checked up on the platform the following morning, one plank had already been completely ripped off. We concluded that some modifications in platform design would be necessary to increase its durability and this event gave me further respect for the strength of these bears.
It is impossible for me to write about all the highlights of my volunteering experience, as there were so many. The busy daily routine meant that my two weeks passed by far too quickly. Overall, I was very impressed with the knowledge, dedication and commitment of the BSBCC staff who welcomed me in to their team. The Ape Malaysia facilitators also helped me to understand more about developing enrichment activities and encouraged me to think like a bear when making them. Who knows when my creative use of bamboo may be needed again!
I am certain that this well-organised rehabilitation process will enable many of these sun bears the opportunity of returning to the wild. The conservation work of BSBCC offers hope for the future of sun bears in Malaysia. So why not volunteer to make your own contribution to their work.
Terima kasih BSBCC and Ape Malaysia!
Text and Photos by Claire Buckingham
“Welcome to Sandakan!”
That was one of the first greetings we heard when we first came to Borneo. But we didn’t hear it just that one time. We heard it quite regularly, because every time the power went out people would just roll their eyes to the ceiling and laugh. “Welcome to Sandakan!” they’d say, and well, after a while, we all started saying the same thing.
But there was another greeting we heard a few times. We were four volunteers: me, Jo, Marie, and Warren, and on our first day we were taken to the centre for a look around. Up on the feeding platform, we watched the dirty half-dozen (Bongkud, Ah Bui, Debbie, Mary, Damai, and Fulung) forage about in Pen D. Within about five minutes a cry broke through the jungle. Low, trumpeting – just a hint of irritation to give it a bit of a bite. That’s the quality that makes your spine stiffen and your eyes swivel, trying to catch sight of a lurking predator.
“Um…what was that?”
Just a flash of a smile. “Welcome to Jurassic Park!”
My name’s Claire, and I came to Borneo with my sister, Jo, to volunteer at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. I’ve done a couple of other wildlife-oriented volunteer projects before, but Jo’s been following Wong’s work with the bears for years. So I suggested a while back we should go together, and finally it happened this year. Though at that particular moment we started to wonder what we werereally in for, standing up on a platform watching bears and listening to dinosaurs.
Of course, they were only (only!) orphaned pygmy elephants. Which makes an awful lot of sense when you consider that the T. Rex from Jurassic Park had a roar that was compiled from various extant animals, mainly baby elephants. But it did emphasise that we were moving into a different world entirely, where we would wander on walkways that reminded you of velociraptor pens (AND THE GATES WERE OPEN), with their PETANG ELEKTRIK signs every few feet. And the ever watchful macaques and orang-utans kept you on your toes, never quite knowing if they might take offense to the way you walked or the fact you were carrying a big colourful tub filled with papaya and bananas. (Pro tip: don’t wear your sunglasses on feeding walks. You will regret it.)
The BSBCC compound neighbours that of the Sepilok Orangutan Centre, but it really is a little world all of its own, and one easy to get lost in. Every day we would gather up the food prepared for the bears in the outdoor pens and wander along wooden walkways around the older pens, thanking God for the little teenage volunteers who were building new steps (it’s an art form, walking up and down steep hills when carrying twelve pieces of corn and a pile of cooked sweet potato). From there we would toss the food over and watch the bears come running.
…or not come running. Occasionally we were lobbing food into what appeared to be empty enclosures, praying that the bears would find it before the monkeys did. With that said, you could never really forget they weren’t empty. Manis, more than once, surprised me with how well she camouflaged herself (from me; David always knew exactly where the old girl was). And on my last day or thereabouts, Roger armed me with a machete (!) and off we went on excursions into Pens F, E, and D to do the daily fence check. Even though I had just seen the bears firmly in their dens, I still kept a sweaty hand tight on that machete. Not that I’d have hit a bear with it. I’d have been more likely to scream my way through hacking a hole in the fence…
I also was never sure if Roger was pulling my leg about the alleged bee’s nest in Pen E. I kind of figured if there was one, we ought to pick it up as a treat for the bears, but then again…I wasn’t volunteering. I wouldn’t even carry back the pill millipede, which Warren ended up giving to Bermuda. He chomped down on that with great gusto. Bermuda, never change. Although I do wonder who stole the hose on Warren’s first day – I will never forget him racing into the kitchen to interrupt our corn and sugar cane duty. “I need honey! One of the bears has my hose!” Because if you ever want something back from a sun bear: get the honey. Trust me on this one.
Our days had a pretty common pattern: mornings would be in the kitchen or in the dens, and then afternoons were spent first at a feeding, and then organising enrichment for the bears. On our first day, we got split in two; Marie and Warren went into the forest in search of dry leaves, while Jo and I sat out in the driveway with David and Mizuno, building bamboo feeders. And I am ashamed to say we got that detail because I was terrified of the forest. It wasn’t so much the macaques or the orang-utans, but more the leeches. Ah, the leeches. Thye Lim and Lin May even brought (somewhat accidentally, I assume) a leech to the dinner table on our first night. I never encountered one on my skin. For that, I touch wood.
At the end of our first day, we were asked who our favourite bear so far was. Without hesitation I said “Amaco!” And got a few odd looks for it. I suppose it’s fair enough; there are some very gregarious bears who can’t help but attract a lot of attention (yes, Fulung, I’m looking at you), but Amaco…just interested me. He was a big male bear, and I discovered he was twenty-two years old. But what intrigued me about Amaco was that when I helped to distribute his food about the den, at first he was not at all interested. Due to the unnatural conditions he was kept in for eighteen years, Amaco displays stereotypical behaviours that break my heart. He was too busy running his nose along the bottom of the den door to want to eat, until I accidentally dropped some papaya on his head. Then he perked up and became curious.
Maybe that’s why I found myself often gravitating towards Amaco: because he was so clearly an example of what humans can do so wrong by these bears, and how even when circumstances change they can’t necessarily get “better,” at least not without hard work. I liked to take Amaco’s food to him, attracting his attention before scattering the bananas and melon and papaya about the den. I loved watching him disembowel his bananas, or climb to the top of the cage looking for the corn lodged up in the ceiling. It gave him something else to do, something that’s not the coping mechanisms he was forced to find as a cub, and I really liked that. The little building project that we volunteers got involved in was all about building some outdoor enrichment for Amaco and Gutuk, which we nicknamed “the retirement village.” I really hope both of them like getting out of the bear house and into something a step closer to their natural environment.
I did have to remember that Amaco is a big bear, though! I liked to watch him while he was eating, but I only spent time cleaning in bear house two on my last day. I was wandering over to check on him late in the morning and he was curled up near the door. How cute! I thought, and grinned as I watched him sleep. He soon woke up, saw me standing there, and barked. A sun bear bark cuts right through you. But as much as it gave me a little fright, it made me smile more. Because it’s good to know that Amaco knows how to look after himself, despite everything.
In the end Amaco was still a favourite, but I then developed soft spots for Gutuk and Om, because I gave them their porridge most days I was there. I also found Chin fascinating, and you can’t help but notice Bermuda and get to know him. I remember watching Bongkud and Fulung mock-fighting inside one morning, and then they had a repeat performance out in the enclosure during morning feeding. It’s not a bad thing: it’s all a part of learning about being a bear out in the wild. It’s all an aid to their reintegration.
Natalie is the only bear so far released back to the wild, and I spoke to Wong about her a few times. She’s deep in the forest, now, and can only be monitored by a GPS collar that only transmits when the cloud or tree cover don’t mask the signal. She’d been off the grid for a few days when we arrived, but soon came back online. Wong’s busy as anything, but when I inquired about Natalie’s status one morning, Wong was gracious enough to take me into his office (packed to the rafters with textbooks and photographs) to show me data of her wanderings. It was so easy to see how glad he was that after weeks exploring, she seems to have chosen a home range at last. I loved seeing exactly what everyone has been working towards, and despite the amount of work he has to do Wong was always happy to chat about the bears and their progress. You can really see the care he has for their welfare in all that he does.
Because I spent my first three days in the kitchen washing and chopping endless bowls of bananas, I didn’t really get to know the bears until I started cleaning in bear house one. I was nervous to begin with, because even though I have been around large predator-type animals in their enclosures before (and in the wild too; I have some stories about lions and leopards!), I’ve never been around them for such extended periods. The bears are pretty chill about having humans in their usual spaces, but I checked the locks on the doors about five times before I went in, and then would check them again at random intervals. In particular, the thought of the back guillotine door opening to reveal a startled bear on her way back in made me formulate idiot escape plans that really wouldn’t have done anyone any good. But the fact was, BSBCC has stringent and well-followed regulations in place and I never felt in any genuine danger the entire time I was there.
This isn’t to say the bears are of the cuddly variety. They are individuals, and they are wild creatures – you have to be constantly aware of your surroundings and the bears’ personalities. But that just made me happier, to know that some of them will one day follow Natalie out into release. Because sure, they’re cute where they are now. Manis has this ridiculously adorable habit of sitting up and resting her front paws on the cage and then her chin on her paws, watching you like a little old lady judging your life choices. If you clean the den next to Julaini, be ready to defend your boots and your broom because as far as he’s concerned, they are his. Bermuda takes great offense to having people’s backs presented to him, and will throw a tantrum to prove it. Om scared me silly one day by living up to his “karate kid” nickname as he played with remnants of a bamboo feeder I didn’t realise he had. Fulung is Fulung (AKA “the cutest little bear that ever did cute and he knows it”).
My favourite activity was porridge feeding, which happened twice a day. We were each assigned bears in bear house two for the duration of our stay; I was looking after Om, our karate expert from earlier, and Gutuk, an older bear with hearing and vision deficiencies. I was rather fond of him, and not particularly nervous about feeding him. Om, on the other hand, was a big and boisterous younger bear. I’ve fed large carnivores before, but this was a little nerve-wracking; you had to get in position, open the feeding trough, and push the food in before a hungry bear got a mind to snatch it from you.
With that said, it was easy to get used to the procedure. I loved watching them snuffle up their porridge, and besides: if you ever wanted to feed Sir Linggam, you had to learn to put his food in with careful and slow respect. Or else he’d get into a snit and not eat his specially prepared meal. Oh, Linggam. In the end, it was taking the porridge trays back that proved trickier. Ronnie, in particular, loved to slap a paw into the tray as his daily act of rebellion.
In the end, as a pharmacist, my favourite moment was the bears’ health checks. We weren’t sure at first that they would happen during our tenure, but after a couple days off we came back to see the bear house set up to receive guests in the form of a veterinary team. I was allowed to help out with Panda, and given she was the fourth and last of the morning, I was going to be super late to lunch. But as hungry as bear den cleaning made me, I didn’t much care. I was going to help with a bear’s health check!
Panda is a big girl. And she’s not a panda; as it turns out, she got the name because she was touted as a “black panda” by her previous (presumably somewhat zoologically challenged) owners. She was also regularly fed chicken in those bad old days, hence her rather large size. But I was always amazed by how much excess skin the bears had, which you never noticed until they were picked up. It’s a defence mechanism, and a damned efficient one at that, but their skins seemed to fit fine otherwise.
As the note taker, I could not touch the bear, but I was that close to her it didn’t feel like it mattered. The darting process is always slightly traumatic for the bears – there’s no easy way to do it with potentially dangerous animals like these – and she seemed restless in her anaesthesia. Being a pharmacist, I had to check out what she’d been given, and ended up reading somewhat extensively on it. The bear’s eyes also remain open during the procedure, so they’re given antibiotic eyedrops to keep them moist and free of infection, and the bear is masked to help keep them calm and still.
Panda was weighed first, and then transferred to the table where measurements and general health observations were made. I loved seeing her teeth up close, and also the remarkable claws the bears have evolved for their arboreal life. Their ears are ridiculously small and cute. I’m not sure why we measure them, specifically, but I didn’t care. I just liked seeing cute ears up close and personal. And their tails!
With swift efficiency the team took blood and hair samples, and I helped Azzry and Roger get imprints of her paws. Then Panda was transferred back to the den for a slow and quiet awakening. Most of the bears seemed a bit cranky after their checks, but no worse for wear.
Mamatai, however, became an interest for me because her health check revealed a small infected wound, which might have been taken a few days earlier during integration with Wan-Wan. She proved most recalcitrant about her meals and enrichment in the days that followed. I must have annoyed Thye Lim those days, I think.
But I really I just loved to watch her being given medication, both oral and topical, and when I could I would try to unobtrusively watch her eating and then report back when she didn’t. (Spiking her porridge with honey always went down well!) She was on the mend when I left, and I hope she’s much better now. Mamatai would have fascinated me anyway, given her distinctively short legs, caused by her early captive life: yet another reminder of how important a place like this really is in the lives of these bears.
Days at BSBCC were always quick-moving and interesting – and hard work. I left home covered in snow and came to thirty plus degrees centigrade heat and humidity that went to 100%. I drank a lot of water and yet it never seemed enough. I was often hungry but found I couldn’t eat a lot. It’s also hard to sleep when it never gets cold! But Paganakan Dii, despite being simple accommodation, was still more luxurious than other places I’ve stayed during volunteer work. Barring the “Welcome to Sandakan!” incidents, there was always power, for starters! And at the end of a long day, a tall glass of iced lime juice in the common area was heaven. Although, let’s be honest: given how quickly we went through t-shirts and trousers in that heat, our favourite appliance there was the washing machine. And we gave it a workout, that’s for sure.
Speaking of water and washing, on our last day, we all lingered around the bear house, taking our time saying goodbye. Chin was doing her usual sadface act, climbing into her waterbowl and dunking her feet. It was empty, so I kind of eyeballed her a little and said: “This is for drinking, right?” And filled her up as a weird kind of going away present. Except, of course, the first thing that went in wasn’t her tongue. It was her butt.
Panda then looked sadly at me from her own den, and I couldn’t resist one last go round of my favourite thing: making a little puddle on the floor so she could starfish in it. You have to be careful with the water – too much, and it damages their paws – but the bears love puddling in it. And I could never be sure if or when they might overheat, though Wong assured me they pant like dogs to cool themselves down. Still, as I wandered down the corridor, I saw Linggam thumping his paws in his empty waterdish, and had to fill his too. Two seconds later? Empty water dish, and water all over me and the bear. He seemed happy enough. I just had to laugh.
Volunteering is always worth it. I found – not at all to my surprise – that I wasn’t much use when it came to building things (I am certain David spent a lot of time laughing himself sick at my ineptitude with a hammer, ironwood or not), but I was surprised by how soothing it is to clean out bear dens every morning. Walking around the compound was always made interesting by passing the elephants on their own daily walks, or looking out for the monitor lizard that was (supposedly) stalking my sister. Our last day ended with a barbecue attended by a rogue egg-loving orang-utan. These are experiences you can’t imagine, and that you won’t forget.
I just think it’s a good lesson, though, in thinking about what it means to be here. Especially with the medical checks, there was always that urge to touch. Just once. Just a little. And there was always that justification that I may very well never see these animals again. But then, the bears are here because Wong didn’t think they deserved to never see their natural habitats again, to never be bears again. They’re not here for us. We’re here for them. And I am so grateful to have been allowed to come to BSBCC and learn that for myself.
Five Years and Thirty-five Bears
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.
Helping a Species in Need
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.
Helping the little bears of Borneo
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
Text and Photos by Rica Marcus
My partner Tom and I spent the last two years saving for our trip of a lifetime. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do more than just travel. Passionate about wildlife and keen to try something new, we started to look for volunteering opportunities in Borneo. We discovered the BSBCC website and knew we had found something special.
Working with the sun bears appealed to me immediately. It promised to be something completely different to the day job. I hoped to learn something new and to play a small part in BSBCC’s effort to protect the little known and terribly endangered sun bear.
We decided to apply for the one month sun bear assistant volunteer programme. We had already started travelling and submitted our application from Vietnam in January 2015. The volunteer programme is a joint venture between BSBCC and APE Malaysia. APE Malaysia processed our application and managed our Skype interview. The interview helped APE ensure we were suitable candidates for BSBCC and it confirmed to us that it was a position we wanted with an organisation that approached animal welfare and rehabilitation in a very responsible way. After our interviews we waited nervously for confirmation from APE and received the good news that we had been accepted a few days later.
In the following months APE provided us with lots of useful pre-arrival information and were very helpful in answering our questions. Finally, on 05 March 2015 it was time to start our adventure as sun bear assistants.
‘A tropical retreat’ or ‘the dilemma of the bunk bed’
We arrived at our accommodation in Sepilok early afternoon, where we were met by Harith, our APE programme coordinator, and Mark, one of APE’s local representatives. We were given time to rest and settle into our new accommodation.
Our accommodation at Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat was much more luxurious than we had expected. Paganakan Dii is recommended by many of the travel guides – and rightly so. The chalets and dorms are tastefully built in peaceful surroundings. Our accommodation block was at the far end of the retreat and had been purposely built for BSBCC volunteers. The accommodation block consists of eight rooms with twin bunk beds, comfortable mattresses, lockable cupboards and a desk. We chose the room next to the kitchen. The tricky part was choosing which bunk to go for: from the top bunk you got the full benefit of the fan, but on the bottom bunk you didn’t have to first check for gecko poo before getting in. I chose the top bunk.
As well as our bedroom, we had full and exclusive use of the veranda kitchen, kitted out with fridge/ freezer, cooker and microwave. The toilet and showers were brand new and the latter had hot water. There is a TV room next to the Paganakan Dii café and the café itself, was to prove a great place for us to go when we were too tired to cook.
‘Sun bear assistant pioneers’ or ‘the start of a beautiful friendship’
Once we had moved into our new home, we were keen to get started and were soon chatting with Harith. We were surprised to learn that not only were we the only two participants on the programme- we were also the first! This was particularly unexpected, as we had read blogs of previous volunteers. Harith explained: indeed BSBCC had had many volunteers, but we were the first on the new, official sun bear assistant volunteer programme created, designed and delivered in partnership by BSBCC and APE Malaysia.
Harith and Mark gave us a thorough induction to the programme. It was evident that the volunteer programme had been thoughtfully designed and I hope that we are the first of many volunteers to participate in this unique and rewarding programme.
With the initial induction finished, we tucked into a welcome dinner and got to know each other better. Harith and Mark have dedicated their lives to animal welfare and conservation. They are incredibly knowledgeable in these areas and in the weeks that followed we learnt a great deal from talking with them about issues ranging from palm oil to zoo keeping. They also gave us greater insight into Malaysian culture, from steam boat restaurants to the spirit world, from biker gangs to local tribal communities.
We went to bed that night full of anticipation…..
‘BSBCC’ or ‘A good start’
The driver at Paganakan Dii gave us a lift to BSBCC on our first morning and every morning after that. BSBCC is a ten minute drive away from Paganakan Dii and located right next to the Orangutan centre. BSBCC is set in beautiful green forest and their office is attached to the visitor centre.
Harith took us into the office and introduced us to some of the team. Everyone was welcoming and friendly. Ina gave us a presentation about sun bears, the centre and their work. We watched some of the educational videos running in the visitor centre and then it was time to meet the bears. Ina took us out onto the viewing platform in the forest. We were in luck; there were three or four bears right in front of us on the ground and another one relaxing in a tree. It was wonderful to watch them getting on with life in the forest- foraging through leaves, eating pieces of fruit and playing with other bears. We saw David, one of the keepers walking along the outside of the forest enclosure, feeding the bears by throwing fruits over the fence to them – a job that we would soon be doing!
After our morning at the centre, Harith took us to the local supermarket to stock up on groceries. The food shop was quite challenging as we didn’t recognise any of the packaging so took a long time finding what we wanted. We eventually came out with plenty of supplies including cereal, milk, Milo drinking chocolate, pasta, pasta sauce, frozen mixed veggies, rice and instant noodles. The supermarket didn’t have any fresh fruit of vegetables, so we stocked up on these at the market in Sandakan on our first day off. With our fridge fully stocked, we were now ready to start our new jobs in earnest….
‘The bear house’ or ‘getting soaked’
The next morning, was our first in the bear house. Thye Lim, the centre coordinator showed us the facilities; kitchen, store room, tool cupboard and the bears’ night dens. He walked us around the boundary of the outdoor forest enclosures and showed us how to clean the indoor night pens - our first job that day. I was with animal keeper Mizuno in bear house 2, while Tom and Harith were with David in bear house 1.
I learnt quickly that getting completely soaked is unavoidable when cleaning the night dens. The effort of scrubbing walls and floors had me dripping with sweat and I tended to get splashed when using hose or buckets of water to wash everything down. To begin with the cleaning was exhausting, but over time I became fitter and established a routine. By the end of our stay, cleaning the night dens had become one of my favourite jobs. I enjoyed the physical exertion and had time to follow my own thoughts. It felt very peaceful working alongside the bears in neighbouring dens. Their presence soothed and delighted me and I was happy that my company did not bother them. I loved watching the bears snoozing in their baskets, climbing around or splashing themselves with water from their drinking bowl.
By the end of that first day, Tom and I were both completely exhausted and asleep by about 8pm! It did get easier though. Over the coming days we became more familiar with the work and were able to get fully stuck in. Our daily routine looked something like this……
‘A day in the life of a sun bear assistant’
07:50 arrive at work and change into wellington boots
08:00 indoor morning feed (typically rice porridge) before most of the bears go outside to forest
08:30 – 11:00 in the bear house on kitchen duty or cleaning night dens. Kitchen duty involves washing and chopping lots of fruit and vegetables for the mid-morning and mid-afternoon feed. The portions of bananas, papaya, sugar cane, sweet potato and melon were weighed out for the bears in the different outdoor enclosures and for those remaining inside. The rice porridge for the late afternoon feed was normally prepared last and then the kitchen had to be thoroughly cleaned. I enjoyed working in the kitchen, because it involved careful timing of the different tasks so that everything would be ready when needed.
11:00 – 12:00 mid-morning indoor and outdoor feeds (fruit, vegetables, or coconuts). A great opportunity to observe the sun bears.
12:00 – 13:30 a much needed lunch break, usually spent at the Sepilok Kafeteria.
13:30 – 14:00 mid-afternoon indoor and outdoor feeds (fruit, vegetables, or coconuts)
14:00- 16:00 enrichment projects or collecting stock for the bear house (dry leaves, logs, banana leaves)
16:00 – 17:00 with all (or at least most) of the bears back inside it is time for the final feed of the day (typically rice porridge followed by banana leaves.)
17:30 pick up back to Paganakan Dii.
18:00 onwards time to shower, eat, rest and sleep!
This may sound liked a strict routine, but every day in the bear house was unique……
The one with Natalie’s collaring
Natalie is the first sun bear that BSBCC plan to release back into the wild. If successful, it will be the first ever release of its kind, so we were very privileged to find ourselves involved in an important part of the process – putting the electronic collar around Natalie’s neck so that she can be tracked once she is released back into the wild. The morning of the collaring, the atmosphere in the bear house was electric. Everyone was nervous, but excited. The team performing the collaring was led by Wong and included staff from BSBCC and from the wildlife department. Once Natalie had been sedated, she was weighed and laid on a table to undergo a series of medical checks. It was fascinating to watch the team at work and I felt truly privileged to be there. I was even asked to help weigh Natalie and Tom was put in charge of filming the event! The collar was placed around Natalie’s neck and carefully tested for size and fit. When the team was satisfied, Natalie was returned to her night den where she slowly came round. In the following days she was closely observed as she stepped out into her private enclosure to continue her journey back to the wild. I hope with all my heart that she makes it and is able to thrive in the environment she was born to live in.
The one with the pit viper
One afternoon we went into the forest behind the bear house to collect logs for the night pens. Before we started, Harith reminded us to be careful and watch out for snakes- particularly the highly poisonous pit viper that is often found in the trees. As he finished his instructions, something caused him to look up at the tree he was leaning against and there, less than a meter above his head was a huge pit viper curled up on one of the branches! Harith quickly took a few steps back, while the rest of us came closer to take a look. The snake was beautiful, but it was a very real reminder that we were in the Bornean forest and had to be alert at all times! We began collecting our logs at a safe distance….
The one with the swing
One of our enrichment projects was to build a climbing structure for the five bear cubs in quarantine. Tom and I led the design. We decided on a structure based around a long, sturdy log, with two tires and two swings. This would give the bears practice at climbing, equipping them with a skill needed in the forest. The centre piece of the structure imitated a tree trunk, the swings the movement of swaying branches and the top tire a tree top where the bears could rest.
Azzry and Lin May gave their input about the suitability of the structure, including safety and height- the structure should be challenging, but not impossible for the bears to climb and play on. Harith, Mark and many of the workers in the bear house helped us to build the climbing structure and it proved a great bonding experience. It took us several afternoons to put it together. On the day we had anticipated to finish, we encountered a serious hitch: the hole we had drilled was too small to fit through it the rope that was needed to secure the structure to the roof of the quarantine area. As we were working with iron wood, which is as hard as the name suggests, we could not use the existing drill to simply widen the hole we had made. After hours of trying various means of threading the rope through the hole, we eventually admitted defeat. There was only one solution: we needed to purchase a larger drill bit. We returned to the project a few days later, a larger drill bit in hand. What we had failed to achieve after hours of effort a few days earlier, was completed in a matter of minutes. At last, our structure was ready. We installed the structure late afternoon and the young bears were introduced to it the following morning. As we were not allowed into the quarantine area with the bears, Lin May took pictures and videos for us. Seeing the footage of the bears using our climbing structure was simply wonderful.
‘Time accelerated’ or ‘parting thoughts’
As the days went by I started to feel completely at home in the bear house. I got to know the team, I was familiar with the routine and I knew all the bears’ names (even if I couldn’t always put the right name to the right bear!) But of course, the more I enjoyed each day, the faster they went by and before I knew it, it was our last week and then our last day. We stretched our last day out for as long as possible, but in the end it was time to say goodbye to the bears and to the team.
Volunteering at BSBCC has truly been the experience of a life time. I have learnt much more than I ever would have expected. I have learnt about animal behaviour, welfare and rehabilitation. I have learnt about the challenges of conservation, and most of all I have learnt about the commitment of the people who have dedicated their lives to facing these challenges. It is the passion of the people I have worked with that has made the deepest impression on me. I will never forget my time spent working alongside you all. Thank you.
Write to us at our
PPM 219, Elopura,
90000 Sandakan, Sabah,