Text by Mae Elliessa Shaifubahrim
Photos by Mae Elliessa Shaifubahrim & Chiew Lin May
My first experience volunteering at a conversation centre
Prior to joining the volunteer program at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), I had little affiliation or experience with wildlife or the conservation industry. I signed up to volunteer at BSBCC for two weeks to learn about a species endemic to my homeland. In these two weeks I discovered a lot about the sun bears (Helarctos malayanus euryspilus) but the thick of my takeaway from this experience was becoming aware of the importance of the work they are doing at the centre, not just for the bears but especially for the bigger cause of conservation and ecosystem/world/livelihood balance.
A day in the routine of a bear keeper
Volunteers are gently integrated into the routine of an extensive list of tasks conducted daily to observe the bear house upkeep and care for the bears’ wellbeing- both physical and mental. The keepers do a lot- food prep, cleaning, feeding, enrichment contraptions, building pens etc. to care for forty-three bears is no small feat.
My favourite task would be food prep: preparing a wide (and very very large) assortment of food for the bears’ daily intake. Nothing like a store filled with kilos upon kilos of food washed, cut, weighed, some cooked, and assorted for to-be very happy bears. The next morning we sweep and clean the same weight in poop. There is nothing like it.
I have the utmost admiration and respect for the eight keepers at BSBCC. Seemingly shy and reserved at first, they turned out to be quite a cheeky bunch. The keepers conduct their work with much integrity and were a joy and pleasure to get to know, learn from, and to work with.
Getting to know the bears
In my time at BSBCC I learned to identify a few individual bears by their appearance and behaviour. Each bear have their own particular black spotted-yellow chest mark. I found myself quite drawn to Simone who spends much of her day sitting on top of her water container to observe keepers and passersby as they go about their business. I was often entranced by what her thoughts could be like as I observed her, and she observed me.
Björn Halla // People
For the duration that I was volunteering, I lodged at “Björn Halla” (translated from Swedish to mean “Bear Cave”). A very modest keep that houses some of the staff of BSBCC. It is in this house that I got to know better and was taken by the varied personalities of the people of BSBCC. I witnessed the meticulous care and regard BSBCC in-house vet, Boon takes toward animals. There was one night Dr. Wong (founder of BSBCC) arrived at the house with a nest of two baby squirrels that had been blown away by the night’s heavy rain. I was low-key jumping in my seat at the novelty of the situation while everyone else seemed to behave as if it were absolutely normal. So chill.
I sat with Pradeep at the dining table for enlightening conversations in regards to conservation, wildlife, and even his house cats. The rest of the house are a varied collection of lovely personalities and goofs Yen Wah, Rebecca, Andy, Mizuno, and Jeniur. With housemates like these I hardly had a dull moment in the house. I highly recommend staying with at the staff house if it is available- it is one of the facets of this trip that enriched my experience here even more so.
Video by Chiew Lin May
Three years ago when we look at Nano, it is hard to believe what he has suffered in his life...
He was rescued with the intention to end up his unfortunate life as a house pet by keeping him in a small chicken mesh cage. He was found underweight and dehydrated. It took a lot of courage and time for him to get recover from the trauma.
Today, Nano is doing very well at his new home. He is easily identifiable as "sitting up straight with the tiny yellow chest mark" and distinctively longer face shape. Nano was seen having a fun day out in the sun. Nothing can stop him from being a wild bear!
Catch a glimpse of his beautiful journey here!
A sanctuary and refuge for rescued orphans to grow up wild, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre has big hopes for the world’s smallest bear.
ONE SUNNY DAY
In a tropical rainforest in Borneo, bear keeper Jeniur “Boboy” Justin is standing on a watching platform 20m above the dense forest floor. He is observing Logan, a young male sun bear who’s busy trying to crack open a coconut. Logan’s claws and powerful jaw make short work of the tough shell, and after a refreshing drink, Logan lays on his back for an afternoon siesta.
“Logan loves to eat, he will steal other bears’ food. He has become chubby, ” says Boboy with a laugh.
Logan and his keeper, Boboy are in the forested area of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sandakan, a district in Sabah, East Malaysia. The only centre in the world solely dedicated to the conservation of the sun bear. This has been a refuge for Logan since he was rescued in 2018 as a young cub.
“When Logan first arrived, I could see that he was scared. We found that his left paw had a problem. It got injured in a poacher’s snare,” says Boboy.
Being a young cub without his mother, and with an injured paw, Logan was in need of critical care, and it was Boboy who took on the responsibility of looking after him.
“It’s not easy being a surrogate to Logan,” Boboy reflects. “There are a lot of things we need to know, like how bears, especially babies, can survive in the jungle, how we should teach them to be wild.”
It took months of dedicated care from Boboy for Logan to become confident and capable of fending for himself.
A DARK CLOUD
Logan’s plight is far from an isolated incident. Since BSBCC was set up in 2008, the centre has worked with the state wildlife department, to rescue over 60 bears.
“On average, we have five to six bears being sent to our centre every year; half of them are adults and half of them are cubs. All of these animals are all orphaned, because their mums were killed by poachers,” laments Dr Wong Siew Te (who goes by Wong), founder of the BSBCC.
Sun bears, which are the world’s smallest bear and found all across Southeast Asia, are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Though the exact numbers of sun bears remains unverified, studies have shown that their population has fallen by over 30 per cent in the last three decades.
Habitat loss has been a major factor in this, but the biggest threat that the bears currently face is from poaching for industries like the pet trade and food. Despite being a legally protected species in Malaysia, poaching activities still persist.
One of the biggest current threats, comes from their use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). For centuries, bear bile and gall bladders have been sought after for treating a variety of ailments. A recent report by TRAFFIC, stated that almost 70 per cent of all TCM shops in Malaysia were found with some form of bear products. Up from 2012, when it was at 48 per cent.
But while the use of bear products in TCM has increased, so has knowledge of TCM over the years. There is now a realisation that there are viable and healthy alternatives to using wildlife products. The Federation of Chinese Physicians and Medicine Dealers Association of Malaysia, is advocating for the use of medical herbs instead.
“We can completely use medicinal herbs to replace animals” states Ng Kean Hwa, a second-generation TCM practitioner. “With a clear diagnosis, and when used appropriately, it can directly help achieve the curative effect and is a good form of protection towards the natural environment.”
The value of looking after sun bears and not exploiting them isn’t just for the benefit of the bears. Sun bears provide a very tangible benefit to the welfare of people as well.
Sun bears help maintain a healthy diversity of trees by keeping termite populations in check, and dispersing seeds. These trees are essential resources that people use for medicine, building infrastructure, and other needs that are important to the well-being of society.
“For us as humans, we need a healthy forest ecosystem to provide us with clean air, clean water, stable climate, genetic resources like medicine. All of these matter to us,” says Wong.
To help educate the public on the need to conserve sun bears, Wong has opened the centre for the public to view the bears in a forested enclosure, and to raise public awareness about their plight through education and eco-tourism.
Here, the bears are fed their natural diet and have regular medical and dental check-ups. Rehabilitation is a critical component of BSBCC’s work, and when the bears are suitable for release, they are returned to the wild. To date, BSBCC has successfully released seven sun bears into protected forests.
“My hope for all sun bears is that they can survive for a long, long time in Southeast Asia,” declares Wong. “I really hope that the sun bears can live forever in this world.”
RAYS OF HOPE
Back at the platform, Logan has woken from his nap and is climbing a tree in search of something else to eat. Boboy smiles as any proud parent would, and shares a story of when he had to teach Logan the art of tree-climbing.
“There was one time I climbed a small tree, and the tree wasn’t able to support me, and the branch almost broke. What I was most afraid of was that Logan was just below me, and I feared I would be crushed along with Logan,” he shares with a laugh.
“Logan’s hand was weak when it came to climbing trees, but he still challenged himself and refused to give up. That’s why I like Logan. I have spent all this time working with him and our relationship is so close.”
Today, Logan is a master tree climber, despite having a deformed paw. But Boboy has bigger hopes for his "adopted" bear. “In time, we will try our best to fix Logan’s paw… so he can be like other bears, and be released into the wild.”
The desire for the sun bears to see a new dawn, is one that Boboy wishes all Malaysians will come to embrace. “I hope that everyone can work together to protect and care for the wild animals we have. I hope that one day, my children will have the opportunity to see the sun bear in the wild.”
Before he returns to look after the rest of the bears under his care, Boboy has one last story to share. “We gave him the name Logan because of his left paw. It looks like the comic superhero Wolverine’s claw,” says Boboy with a smile.
High up in the trees, Logan has found a comfortable spot, and like a true hero, has fallen asleep once again.
LET’S TALK ABOUT IT:
How can we get more involved in sun bear conservation and spread awareness?
ABOUT BORNEAN SUN BEAR CONSERVATION CENTREEstablished in 2008 by wildlife biologist Dr Wong Siew Te, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is the world’s only conservation and research centre solely dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of the Malayan sun bear. A sanctuary for bears to recuperate and relearn natural behaviour for release back into the wild, the centre also aims to spread public awareness through eco-tourism and education.
CONTRIBUTORSDirector & Editor
Producer & Writer
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 Eileen Nyeow @ Yau Yee Ling
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Hello… my name is Eileen Nyeow. I am 42 years old and currently residing in Peninsular Malaysia. Participating in Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) Volunteer Programme was part of my mission, during my sabbatical, towards doing my little bit to help save animals. The main reason I chose BSBCC was because of the Founder, Dr. Wong Siew Te. I have read about his passion and relentless effort towards helping and preserving the Sun Bears; and was inspired to come see and experience for myself what BSBCC is all about.
This was the first volunteer programme where I had to be interviewed (before being accepted) & to obtain a full health check before flying over. Upon arriving, I went through an induction session where I was briefed with more rules of conduct. I realized and understood the need for that measure after. BSBCC is situated right smack in the middle of the rain forest in Sepilok; surrounded by other wild animals (i.e. orang utans, elephants, snakes, squirrels). Health check was necessary so that we do not pass on any diseases to the animals. Volunteering here involves much physical work so one has to be somewhat prepared. Lastly, the bears within the Centre are all waiting for a second chance in the wild and it is of grave importance that the bears do not get overly habituated with people.
My buddy keeper during my Programme was Bithrenly (a.k.a Bit). Although fairly new with the Centre, he managed to share many of his experiences and stories about the bears with me. Among the many tasks with him, my daily routine usually revolves around preparing food for the bears (4 feedings in a day), cleaning poop and scrubbing enclosures, checking the perimeters of the enclosure fence, making enrichment projects for the bears to play and sharpen their skills. I also had many valuable instances, such as group Q&A session with the “Bear Man” himself, Dr. Wong, assisting the vet (Dr. Boon) during a routine medical check for Julaini. I mean there are not many non-field related people who can say they have use a thermometer on a bear. Hahaha! I even learnt and got to inspect bear poop for parasites! ><
In summary, I am thankful for this valuable experience and I feel privileged to be there, with everyone.
Being amazed with efforts of BSBCC in preserving the Sun Bears is one thing, learning hands-on about the smallest bear in the world is another. On top of it, I was also truly amazed with the dedicated members of BSBCC (office staff and bear keepers). One can feel their enthusiasm and love for the bears emanating from them.
There are many people to thank for making my journey an unforgettable one. Instead of naming and possibly missing out names, I would like to just extend a huge shout out of appreciation to the BSBCC FAMILY! I hope to see all of you very soon.
Text by Grace Cheong Wei Yen
Photos by Grace Cheong Wei Yen & Chiew Lin May
Personally, I feel that this experience has opened my eyes to how much work it actually requires to take care of human beings, and how much more these bears need! Coming from an Asian background, the concept of filial piety is constantly reinforced, and now I truly realize how much effort my parents have put into raising me. Besides that, I have been privileged to have a first-hand experience of taking care of the sun bears which are endemic to Borneo only, a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Furthermore, there is no such satisfaction as witnessing a bear finally succeed in doing something that you had a part in!
So if you are seeking to escape the busy city life or to explore your interest in wildlife, or even carry out an internship as part of your program, then this is the place to be! Never mind all the bugs, this is a rare chance to catch a glimpse of other animal species endemic to Borneo like the sacred kingfisher and rhinoceros hornbill, or even Asian pygmy elephants! If I had the chance or time to come back a second time, I definitely would not hesitate.
Text by Angeline Ngu Hong Huong
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Hey everyone! This is Angeline Ngu from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. I am a primary school teacher and also a hardcore bear fan. I am really astonished by the adorable sun bears in the forest enclosure during my first visit to BSBCC. Watching the bear sunbathing on top of the tree through the telescope almost melted my heart. No doubt it was love at first sight. Coincidently, I met Dr. Boon who is a bear doctor in BSBCC and she explains all the stories about the sun bears and the details about the volunteer programme. That’s when I made up my mind to spend my Christmas holiday volunteering in BSBCC.
Despite knowing it would be tough working with wild animals, some more need to trek in the jungle, I actually hestitated a little just before departing. But since I am really looking forward to seeing the sun bears, here I am, about to end my two weeks volunteering with a really heavy heart, especially to say goodbyes to all the sun bears when I have just started to recognize them by their characteristics =( And not forgetting the friendly staffs in BSBCC whom I call the bear family.
For me, it is a bittersweet experience working in BSBCC. Let’s first talk about the sw-eeeeett part. It’s a big bear family here in BSBCC where the keepers are like the parents to all the sun bears. You must witness how worried the keepers are when the bears are not feeling well. They would try everything to make sure the bears take their medication. Throughout the volunteering days I had so much laughters with the keepers and all the friendly staffs in BSBCC as we share everything from our family to the bear stories. Not forgetting the Christmas party in Bjorn Hala, the keepers are capable of doing everything from fixing electric fence to cooking. The food they prepared is finger-lickin good! The sweetest part, the keepers constantly checking us volunteers out to make sure that we can handle our tasks and are always there to help whenever we need. We had so much laughters inside and outside BSBCC. Here comes the bitter part. I would say it is really tough taking care of wild animals as it requires a lot of heavy work. It is a great challenge for me to trek through the muddy and slippery ground in the forest especially during rainy season to check the electric fence. A big thank you to my buddy keeper, Mr. Pradeep who always tolerated me and my snail pace when hiking up and down the hill. Carrying heavy objects like food and wood is inevitable in the bear house but the keepers are always ready to help. Overall, all the hard work is worthwhile as long as the bears are happy and healthy.
Volunteering in BSBCC is truly an eye opener. I am privileged to having been able to join medical checkup session on the oldest bear in BSBCC, Amaco who is currently 27 years old with Dr. Boon and Dr. Reza. I was tremendously nervous before that as everyone is worried that he might not be able to pull through the process due to his age. Fortunately, he did and he was recovering well! During the process, I have learnt how to measure a bear’s heartbeat, respiration and body temperature. All this sounds pretty easy until I was inside the clinic and was really panicing because I could not hear the heartbeat even with a stethoscope. Meanwhile, Dr. Reza patiently taught me to first feel the heartbeat then hearing it would be easier. It works like magic! I was also given the opportunity to help Dr. Boon in recording dental details of Amaco and to trim its nails with a mini saw! That is something new! I enjoyed everything throughout the process as I know I would never have the opportunity to experience all these in my life. Not a single day passed by that I did not learn something new while working with the sun bears. Yeap! That is me trying to complete the entire “mission impossible” and I am proud to say MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!
Text by Ng Jie Min
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Hi, I am Ng Jie Min from Bukit Mertajam, Pulau Pinang. I am currently 21 years old and studying Bachelor Of Communication (HONS) Public Relations in Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman,Kampar Campus. I do love nature and wildlife, so I decided to join BSBCC and serve as a volunteer in this semester break. This is my first time doing volunteering with wildlife and animals. In these two weeks, I learned a lot about the smallest bear in world, which is “Sun bear”. I also helped to clean their cages, feeding, prepare foods, make enrichment, and participated in their health check and did fence checking.
Thanks to have my buddy Pradeep, who introduced me to the sun bears. I now know that every sun bear has their own name and story behind them. In the food preparing sessions, it was complicated because every sun bear has their own food diet. Mostly we need to prepare a lot of fruits and vegetables for the bears, such as bananas, watermelons, papayas, pumpkins, cucumbers, mung beans, dog biscuits, bak choy, sweet potato and coconuts
Sometimes I also joined the keeper to fence check even though it is raining day. Yuckssss, it is muddy and leeches are everywhere! But I still try to face it because I know that this is a valuable lesson that I cannot get to learn in my life anywhere else. Making enrichment for sun bears is the session that I love the most. Enrichments can make those bears happier, exciting and reduce their stress. I did lot of enrichments including making Christmas present for them!
I was also assigned to observe some bears during their integrations. The most unforgettable moments was when Linggam, Susie and Kuamut love to play with each other. They keep pawing and hugging each other to show their love and kindness. I even got to join Ronnie Boy’s release attempt into Pen G in Day 10. I am happy with that because I saw improvement and hard work pays off.
I also was invited and join Dr. Boon Dental Health Check for the sun bears. BJ who is a male sun bear in the centre weighs 38kg. I helped to get its temperature every 5 minutes during the health check and helped it to clean his teeth. I gained new knowledge about sun bear’s teeth and it was fun to learn about their health. We also had a discussion session with Dr.Wong Siew Te who is the founder and CEO of Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. He shared with us his own story and how he met sun bears. He spends his whole life time taking care those wildlife animals. So the name “Sun bears PaPa” really matches him a lot!
One of the tasks that I really enjoyed it was having a communication session with the visitors who come over BSBCC. They ask a lot about the sun bear living style and environment. I have enjoyed this and could tell them what I actually learned here. I also shared with them the experiences of being a volunteer for two weeks’ time in the centre.
Every lunch time, I went to the nearest cafeteria to have lunch. The cafeteria was clean and the boss was friendly. Dinner is usually at the resort Paganakan Dii. The most favourite meal I love here is the lamb chop that cooked in the traditional Paganakan flavour. Yummy Yummy Yummy!
I am a person who is used to live and stay in city areas. So in these two weeks, I learned a lot about nature and got step closer to the nature. I was very happy here because all staff in the working area is so nice and friendly. I promise myself that if I get chance to come to Sandakan again, I will be back to BSBCC to serve as volunteer again. I felt peace of mind when I saw all the sun bears in a peaceful environment. Thanks again to Dr. Wong Siew Te and staffs for teaching me such valuable lessons about wildlife in the 2 weeks’ time.
It all started with a young boy from Bukit Mertajam with a deep interest in the wildlife surrounding him.
Fast forward a few decades, to where he is currently a proud CEO and founder of a sun bear conservation
centre in Sabah, the only centre in the world which focuses on the welfare of the Bornean Sun Bears. And
he is still willing to travel around to spread awareness, doing what he does best: to share his stories and
experiences in sun bear conservation.
The last two months of 2019 have been a hectic journey, with talks given to live and television audiences in and out of the country: Awareness talk at The North Borneo Rainforest Festival (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah), “熊爸雨林” talk at the National Museum of Natural Science Taiwan (Taichung, Taiwan), “The Soul of the Rainforest - Sun Bears” 雨林中的靈魂- 馬來熊 talk at Dong Xing Elementary School 新竹縣竹北市東興國民小學 (Hsinchu, Taiwan), “Biodiversity of Sabah, Borneo” talk for Wild Bird Association of Taiwan 台灣野鳥協會(Taichung, Taiwan), the making of wildlife documentary “黑熊來了” “Black Bears coming” TV show (China TV CTV studio, Taiwan), and Awareness talk for Pelangi Publishing Group’s 40 cents charity carnival (Bangi, Selangor).
Keep the inspiration juice flowing, Dr Wong!
Video by Chiew Lin May
"Time is running out! The next ten years will be crucial. If we fail, a lot of species will become extinct." - Dr. Wong Siew Te (Founder & CEO BSBCC)
The sun bears is the world's smallest bear species. They can be found in the tropical rainforest of Southeast Asia. Major threats from poaching, illegal pet trade and deforestation are pushing sun bears to extinction. If no action is taken, the remaining population will be wiped out soon.
Please keep the fight to save the species against the threat of extinction!