Text & Photos by Lee Min Yi
Living in a biodiversity hotspot named Malaysia, do we really know how many things we have taken for granted all this while? Let’s have a quick test: When you come across the word “bear”, what is the first image that appears in your mind? Most probably it is a polar bear, a grizzly bear or teddy bear. Before I heard about this internship experience from my senior, I was not aware that the Bornean sun bear exists in Malaysia, the bear who knows how to climb trees and build nests.
My journey starts with 4 extremely active puppies in Björn Hala, who welcomed me with their utmost excitement and wagging tails. I still remember my first impression of the wooden house,standing alone under a dark sky, looking a tiny bit scary for a newcomer. It turned out to be the place that I missed the most after my internship ended, a room where I can sleep soundly, surrounded by the sound of nature. You will never get bored living in the house, even just walking around the house or looking through the window while washing the dishes, you can meet plenty of new friends :- puppies, cats, chickens and trees! As a person who has lived her whole life in the Peninsular of Malaysia, I have come across lots of new things here, from sunrise to sunset, from food to people, from animals to plants. I still see the same level of authenticity flourish in every single one of them.
“So hey, how was your first day of work?” Well, the routine of work in the bear house is from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and definitely requires a high amount of energy to accomplish the tasks and a clear coordination within the team is essential to get all the tasks done on time. My key takeaway from this routine is to make sure you complete what you have started that day so that you can start the next day smoothly. Although only here for a month, I have tried not to take things in an autopilot mode, but to improve bit by bit on a daily basis, familiarising myself with each process and the purpose of it = for the welfare of the bears. When you focus more on things bigger than yourself, you will find joy and satisfaction from the smallest task you do everyday.
I have also gained the knowledge and understanding towards wildlife conservation, especially the Bornean sun bears in Malaysia, from the job opportunities I can explore, to the challenges of making progress one step at a time. Some of the rescued sun bears in the centre have their own trauma, which in a way has disabled their natural instinct for foraging for food and mating. Despite the bears’ fitness to return to the wild, we are still not confident how long they could survive while poaching is still happening in Malaysia. However, when we take a closer look into what is behind poaching, more social issues such as poverty and quality education are revealed. When everything seems interconnected, people tend to close their eyes and ears as it seems too big to be solved in one day. It is undeniably a long and tough marathon which will not come to an end. That’s what makes all the baby steps matter :- start sharing knowledge with your immediate circle about sun bears. Only when more people have the common awareness of the importance to protect their wildlife can more action be initiated.
Thank you to every single person I have met on this journey:-
Pradeep who has welcomed me on my first day of arrival after a long day of work and your openness in sharing your experience.
Wahwah who has been guiding us the whole time, explaining everything you know about sunbears to us patiently & passionately.
My buddy David who guided me whole-heartedly and shared all the moments you have had throughout your working life.
Lin May & Thye Lim who are always approachable, willing to listen to all my thoughts & to discuss them openly.
Roger & Adneen who care about your learnings and well-being throughout the journey & who never tired of creating annoying moments!!
Dr. Wong who spared his precious time to answer all our questions and to show us around.
Dr. Boon for sharing her knowledge & experience in treating wild animals.
All the housemates in Björn Hala, Mizuno, Becca & Danny who make the house lively with conversations, food, humours and melodies.
My roomie, Jenny who makes my whole journey filled with laughter, adventures and fun.
To anyone who loves nature and animals, come to BSBCC as a volunteer to create your own story.
To all Malaysians, come and visit the BSBCC whenever you can and appreciate what we have in our land.
Video Link: https://youtu.be/9t5OLBKvao
Text & Photos by Seng Yen Wah
Do you still remember the little Betung?
She arrived at the BSBCC on the 26th of August, 2020. Betung was wandering alone and found by a dog in an orchard at Kampung Betung, Ranau. After that, she was kept for five months. Then, her owner surrendered her to the Sabah Wildlife Department. On her arrival, she only weighed 1.4kg. She was tiny and weak. She looked much smaller than she should be. Other than that, she is also suffering pruritus and multiple alopecias on her body. She is the smallest, weakest sun bear that we had ever received.
Now, Betung has settled well in the quarantine. The bear keepers, Adrian and Danny, are taking care of her around the clock. The keepers are her surrogate mothers. They spend their time bonding with her. Betung likes to sit on their laps, resting and of course she loves to play with them too. She is little, but she never gives up during their play fights! She will show her small but sharp canines and paw with her tiny front paws to let you know how she strong she can be!
To improve her health condition, we decided to give Betung a walk in the sun. Having some sun can help her obtain Vitamin D and boost her immune system. During the first walk, she showed curiosity about her surroundings.
Betung tried to climb during the walk. However, she is too weak and unable to climb to any great height. Her muscles and strength need time to build up. To encourage her to climb the keepers will show her a tree and go with her. It took some time, but It’s working! Now she spends more time on a tree, especially when the keeper is on there too. Now, she is more active outdoors.
Every time she goes out, we will get her ready in a box. She loves to stay in the box. She feels safe and finds this fun! After she arrives in the forest, she walks out of the box and begins the day’s adventure. Digging is one of her favourite activities in the woods. Tearing, digging and biting will never make her bored. After exploring, she often keeps her mouth open because the wood debris is in her mouth, and she does not like it. She will keep using her front paw to remove the debris or sometimes she will need help from the keepers.
In the forest, everything for her is huge! But she keeps walking without any fear. She is courageous. When there is a breeze, she enjoys it! It is delightful to see how much she enjoys the forest!
The rehabilitation of Betung may be long. However, the team at the BSBCC will do their best to give Betung a better life! Please share your love with her; she needs your help. You can help to make her life different!
Text by Jerome Visperas Esteva
Photos by BSBCC
My name is Jerome Visperas Esteva, and I currently work at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre as a Ticket and Shop assistant.
The reason why I am volunteering at the bear house is to gain more information about the bears. I am curious to learn about their daily routine and I want to experience how to feed them, make their daily enrichment and clean their cages (where the bears sleep at night).
This is actually my first time working in the bear house. I found my first day at the bear house was a bit hard adjusting to a different routine. To be honest it needs a lot of energy to do all the work here. The daily tasks include :- cleaning the bear cages, preparing food for the bears, feeding inside & outside(forest enclosures), completing the check of the electric fences, making enrichment, etc.
My mentor/”buddy” was Mizuno who is one of the senior bear keepers. He taught me a lot about the safety and the bears behaviour. I am extremely grateful for all the information he shared with me.
I have gained so much experience and learnt so much during these two weeks. I want to say THANK YOU to all the staff at the bear house for helping me during my training program.
Text by Rebecca Kimlaw
Photos by Mizuno Merek Men & Seng Yen Wah
Hi! I am Rebecca Kimlaw, one of the staff at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. My volunteer program started on the 14th of July and ended on the 27th July. I was fortunate enough to spend my two amazing weeks volunteering with the bears. It gave me a glance to see how the operations are generally carried out in the bear house. It was a good chance to learn more about the bears.
My two-week volunteering here was one of the most precious experiences in my life. There was a lot of work to do in the bear house and required a lot of energy. The tasks I was assigned doing were cleaning the bear dens, preparing a lot of food for the bears, feeding bears inside and outside the bear house area and so on. I started falling in love with the bears. Although they are so adorable, we must all bear in mind that its illegal to keep them as a pet. I hope people have awareness about this, so we can protect these beautiful bears together.
I felt comfortable at the bear house because the bear keepers helped me so much. They taught me a lot about the bears. One of my favourite moments is making an enrichment for the bear. Normally, we use leaves, banana, and other accessible nature resources to make an enrichment for them. I enjoyed feeding the bears inside and outside bear house area. I felt satisfied when I saw the bears enjoying their food.
All the bears are cute. But the one that I like the most is Om. Om is a 15 years old male bear. He is a very energetic bear and enjoys his food. He spends a good deal of his time in the forest. Sometimes he is quite content playing all alone, especially with small pieces of dead wood. So, my buddy (Mizuno) and I made an enrichment for him. We could tell that he liked it.
Special thanks to my buddies Danny, Bithrenley, Mizuno and all the bear keepers at the bear house for giving me information and helping me during my training programme. I sincerely recommend this place to anyone who would like to participate in volunteering programmes. You will not regret it! Hopefully I will have a chance to enrol in this volunteering program again.
Text by Nurul Haslinda binti Abdul Kahar
Photos by Seng Yen Wah
Hi! My name is Nurul Haslinda Binti Abdul Kahar, one of the ticketing staff at BSBCC. All of the ticketing staff was given two weeks to do the task as a bear keeper at the bear house and I am the third staff after Khoirul. These two weeks actually has been a great chance for me to know more about the bears, for instance, what do they eat? which bears don’t get along when they are together? why some of the bears are given a different diet? Most of those questions I used to wonder about have been answered by working at the bear house in those two weeks. I was also able to recognise the bears inside the bear house during my volunteering period. YEAH!
During my two-week training, I did the same work as all the bear keeper staff. No exception. Hahaha…
It took a few days for me to get used to all of the tasks, such as fence check, food preparing for the bears inside the bear house and in the forest enclosure, fecal check with my buddy(Roger), husbandry work and many more. All of the tasks given actually required lot of energy every day! Now I understand how the bear keepers doing their daily routine before releasing the bears into the forest enclosure.
This two-week training has given me so much experience and profound knowledge about the bears. Now, I am able to share them with visitors who visit this centre. Here I want to say thank you to those who helped me during my training at the bear house, especially my buddy, Roger, and all the bear keepers.
I hope in the future I will have this kind of volunteering opportunity again.
Here are some pictures taken during my training program:
Text & Photos by Laurelle Cassandra Rooney
Hello there! I am Laurelle Cassandra Rooney, a 21 year old from Tawau, Sabah. I am a second year Zoology student at University of Malaysia Sarawak.
Why did I choose BSBCC and what have I learnt from doing my internship here for the last 10 weeks?
Being an animal lover, I’ve always dreamt about working with animals not only with domestic animals but the wildlife as well. My passion grew bigger as I grew up and I heard of a conservation centre which is the BSBCC. I ended up doing my internship at the BSBCC and it turned out to be the best decision I have ever made. It iwas my first time working with these wild animals and I got to experience hands-on activities with the sun bears. While doing my internship here, I learned that the sun bears are listed as a vulnerable species in the IUCN Red List and they are the world’s smallest bear species.
When I first arrived, I was amazed at how the whole bear house runs with the bear keepers. My daily work routine consisted of cleaning the cages, food preparation, feeding the bear inside the house as well as around the forest enclosures, making enrichments, fence checking and assists in health checks. Personally, my favourite part of the day is making enrichments for the bears. Watching the sun bears eat can also make your day.
We treked into the jungle to find logs and sticks. I manually drilled for the first time in my life, collected banana and dry leaves and logs which we used to mimic the environment of being in a forest enclosure. I had the opportunity to design and make some hanging platforms for the bears to rest and play on. I also had the chance to build a ramp for one of the pens to allow the bears to enter the forest enclosure.
I would like to say a huge thank you to my buddy, Roger, for always helping me and supporting me throughout my internship here in BSBCC. I would also like to thank the other bear keepers which are Azzry, David (longest working staff in BSBCC), Brandon and Adneen, who have helped me while I did my internship here. These people were there for me during my hard times and they always had their way of cheering me up and I would be stress-free just by working with them. We did a lot of projects together from hanging platforms, to building ramps, and preparing enrichments together. They taught me the correct way of handling the equipment when doing our projects.
Working in the bear house has left me with a bunch of memorable experience in my life. I learnt the diet of the sun bears and from what I saw, different bears have different diets and different personalites which makes them cute in their own way. Watching them play with each other is also the best part of the day.
I would like to thank the educational staff for giving me the chance to visit two different places which were Sukau, Kinabatangan and around Sandakan area for the outreach programme. I got the chance to share information about the BSBCC itself and also about the sun bears. By joining the outreach programme, I, myself, gained more knowledge on sun bears and the way of conserving the sun bears and other wildlife.
I want to say thank you to Dr. Wong for the sharing sessions and also for giving me the opportunity to be part of the team even if it is only for 10 weeks.
I came to BSBCC to make a contribution in helping the sun bears in any way possible and I feel like I did. Working with the sun bears made a huge impact in my life and my passion in working and aiding the wildlife grew bigger. I would like to express my gratitude once again to my buddy, the other 3 bear keepers, Azzry, Brandon and Adneen, not to forget David, who helped me throughout my internship here. Thank you so much for the rewarding experience and accepting me as a part of their team. Do forgive me if there were any mistakes that I have done unintentionally. But it is time to say goodbye to the team. Always keep in touch with each other.
Regards from me, Laurelle.
Text by Vivian Lee Ker Chuon
Photos by Vivian Lee Ker Chuon & Chiew Lin May
Hi there! My name is Dr Vivian Lee and I am a Malaysian veterinarian from the state of Penang. I first found out about the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre when I attended a talk by Dr Wong Siew Te, who is the founder of BSBCC. Over the years I have followed the work of him and his team and heard many good things. I finally decided to make the trip and volunteer for two weeks, and I’m really glad I did, because the last two weeks have been amazing!
This is my first time to Sabah, and BSBCC were kind enough to pick me up from the Sandakan airport. It’s easy to figure out who is picking you up because they will have a sunbear shirt on. It’s all about the sunbears here. I was greeted by a smiling Azzry, who pointed out the sights to me on the way to the centre. Once there, we proceeded to do a security briefing (in short, be careful of macaques and orangutans), and then I had a quick tour of the centre before I went to Bjorn Hala with my housemates for the next two weeks.
The next day, I started my first official day at BSBCC. I met my buddy keeper, Roger, and assisted him with his tasks. We were assigned to Bear House 1 that first day, and I worked up a really good sweat! Cleaning up after 43 bears is a lot of work, but I enjoyed giving my muscles a good workout. I really do feel a lot fitter after these two weeks. Whilst working in the bear house, I started getting to know each of the individual bears, as each of them has a very distinct personality. You can tell that the staff at BSBCC really care a lot about their bears and the work that they do. The keepers know what each bear likes and dislikes, what health issues they might have, which bear is friends with which other bear, which bear won’t eat their veggies, which bear won’t come back home at night because they’re having too much fun playing in their enclosure, and which bear likes to break all the branches off the tree they’re climbing. After two weeks, I can only identify maybe 3-4 bears by sight, but ask any keeper and they’ll be able to tell you which bear is which.
After all the cleaning tasks are done, we get to do one of my favourite tasks, which is feeding. I don’t think I will ever get tired of watching the bears crunch through a juicy carrot or chase after a coconut. Most of the bears, except the ones with dental disease which I’ll talk about later, get a diet of raw green veggies and fruits, with some starchy foods like raw sweet potato and pumpkin as well. The bears love fruit the most, enjoying things like watermelon, honeydew, bananas, papaya, and this interesting little fruit called snake fruit or salak, which to me looks like a little pangolin. Most of them won’t say no to a leaf of Chinese lettuce or a cucumber either. As a little treat or for positive reward training, the bears go nuts over a dab of peanut butter, Marmite or honey.
The afternoons are mostly devoted to creating enrichment for the bears. I got to develop my non-existent carpentry skills, doing sawing, drilling, tightening screws and putting together a structure for one of the pens. The keepers are very skilled at providing motivational support for volunteers, hence even though I was a bit hesitant at first, by the end I was happily sawing and hammering away. During Hari Raya, we even made ketupat stuffed with apple and peanut butter for a festive sunbear treat!
I was happy to be able to assist Dr Yeoh Boon Nie, BSBCC’s resident veterinarian, on the days when she was conducting a few annual health checks for some of the bears. We also took the opportunity to conduct dental scaling and polishing of the bears teeth as well. I’ve only ever done dental scaling and polishing for dogs and cats, so this was very interesting for me. Some of the older bears have been eating a soft, cooked diet for a long time, and as such, their teeth weren’t in a great condition. Bears in captivity also live a lot longer than bears in the wild, due to the provision of a steady source of food and absence of dangers in the wild. Thus their teeth have to last a lot longer. As their human carers, we have a responsibility to make sure that they are as healthy and as comfortable as possible.
After sedating the bear, we brought them to the clinic where they were intubated and maintained on a gas anaesthetic whilst we performed the procedure. I also jumped at the chance to be able to place an intravenous catheter in a sunbear (they have really thick skin!). After ensuring that the anaesthetic was stable, we proceeded to do the dental charting, scaling and polishing. Seeing the bears shiny clean and polished teeth after each procedure was very gratifying. Besides the dental, the bears were also given a physical examination, blood was drawn for an annual health screen, and things like overgrown nails were addressed.
I found the volunteer program at BSBCC to be very well rounded, as I got to experience so many different aspects of this organization in my two weeks here, gaining an understanding of how the group works as a whole. Everyone from the bear care team to the education team and the maintenance guys always have a smile for you and are more than happy to have a chat and share their considerable knowledge. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting to Gloria and Jerome about managing visitors (and macaques!) up on the viewing platforms, with Mizuno and Boboy about jungle trekking and night walks, with Thye Lim and Lin May about their exploits in the Tabin reserve, with Azzry about growing up taking care of orangutans, with Wawa about different sunbear personalities, and Dr. Boon on sunbear health and management. Dr. Wong himself even makes it a point to set aside time out of his busy schedule to have chats with volunteers, and you can ask him anything. He has 20 years of experience and lots of helpful advice to share. Two weeks is barely enough to scratch the surface of all there is to learn here. I also had the best time together with my new friends at Bjorn Hala, going out to sample a selection of the best food Sandakan has to offer, night walks to see wildlife, attending Hari Raya open houses, hiking up Bukit Sim Sim and admiring the view of the fishing village, singing in the car, and tasting each other’s cooking. It’s been a great experience and I would love to come back again for another visit.
Text by Milla Milanovic
Photos by Chiew Lin May
My name is Milla Milanovic, I’m 18 years old and I’m from Sweden. I study animal care and I’m now in my final year of my 3 years of education. Thanks to my school I got the opportunity to come to Borneo to do my internship/volunteering at Bornean Sunbear Conservation Center. Before I came here I had never been to Asia before and I didn’t know a lot about Borneo or the sun bears so I was not sure what to expect. I knew that the weather here was very different from the weather in Sweden. I knew that it could get very warm and humid here but I was still surprised and I don’t really think you can prepare yourself.
Volunteering at BSBCC is very sweaty and a lot of hard work but also very fun. The routines that we did on a daily basis were things like cleaning cages in bear house 1 & 2, feeding the bears and of course making enrichment which is something that is considered really important here. Enrichment is something that you make for animals to stimulate their minds and so they can perform their natural behavior.
The enrichment that we usually did could be, for example sticks that we tied together and then put a bit of peanut butter between the sticks. If the animals don’t get to do their natural behaviors then they will easily get depressed, aggressive but first of all they will get stressed and then they can evolve stereotypical behaviors like pacing, which mean the animal is walking back and forth on the same place. Stereotypical behaviors means the animal is performing unnatural behaviors. By making different kind of enrichment every day and letting the sun bears to be in their big enclosures, helps the sun bears to do their natural behaviors like using their claws to rip things and to climb, taste and to smell and search for food. That is also one reason why the bear keepers here throw and spread out the food, which consist of different kind of fruits and vegetable.
These five past weeks have been incredible fun and educational, and I have learned so much and it have been fun to getting to know all of the 46 bears and there different personalities, and you can even see that they all have different favorite foods. These past weeks went by so fast but that only means that I have had a good time. I am so grateful that I got this opportunity to volunteer at BSBCC and to work with all of the nice and friendly bear keepers. Thank you for these five past weeks and I hope I can be able to come back in the future.
Text by Susantie Saliman
Photos by Susantie Saliman, Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
Henlo! Santie here and you’re about to read about my magical life in BSBCC.
Well, first and foremost, just like any other folks, I had no idea on how my 10 weeks internship at BSBCC would change me into a whole new person when first applying. BSBCC was the one and only agency that I applied for, and it turned out that I had got the placement. Hooray!
So a little bit about myself, I am a 21 year old, 2nd year Zoology student at the Malaysia Sarawak University (UNIMAS) from Kota Belud, Sabah. I am a voluntary animals’ slave, naughty, spoilt, loud and outspoken girl, who was here for my 10 weeks of industrial training. So let’s start off with….
My Buddy Keeper
My internship life here wouldn’t be as fun as I experienced without my Buddy’s guide. His name is Mizuno Merek Men, people call him Awin. He’s the strongest keeper in my point of view. He is muscular – physically and mentally (HAHA). By working alongside him, for 10 weeks, I gradually get stronger as days passed by. He taught me on how to deal with working life, hence matured me in many aspects. He trained me to become tougher. Awin became a very big influence to my new addiction of body fitness. He gave me courage to keep moving on when I was about to give up, as well as always being there when needed. He became a super-protective brother of mine and the only staff member that I cried to a lot. Even though I’ve thanked him multiple times, I still need to thank him again, for providing me the never-ending support, care, comfort, attention, hospitality and all. Without him, I would still be my old weak self.
Working environment and Staffs
From the moment I stepped into the centre until the very last day of working, I received excellent hospitality that I never experienced anywhere before. I couldn’t ask for more. The first day of work even felt like I had been working there for years.
The staff at BSBCC are wonderfully friendly and were always ready to share their stories with me. I adore every one of them. They’re very well experienced and worth more than gems. Some people look down on them because some of them didn’t get the chance to attend higher education, but I never looked at them that way. I treasure these peeps in my treasure box inside my heart.
To be honest, working here can be very tiring. I witnessed some volunteers and interns being so exhausted. This wasn’t the same for me. Maybe I was just too passionate, hence I did everything voluntarily because I know everything done was all for the sake of the bears. The fact that I was working in a joyful environment with all days filled with laughs and fun, made me enjoy this kind of fatigue. Even during the last day of work, I still wanted to work the next day. It was so heart-breaking to leave these big-hearted peeps behind.
This is the best part (and teary). I never imagined how working close to big mammals would feel. But thank God, fate brought me here and I got to experience working close with the adorable, smallest bear species in the world. I got to know them more – anatomically, behaviourally, as well as their personalities, diet, and all.
I loved every single bear including the ones in the quarantine area, even though I never worked close with them. All of them deserve to get loved hence, I have no specific favourite bear. From Amaco, Panda, Chin, Along, Simone, Kudat, Noah, Nano, Wawa, Dodop, Mary, Boboi, Kitud, Tan Tan, Sunbearo, Loki, Ronnie girl, Montom, Susie 2, Kala, Rungus, Ah Lun, Julaini, Fulung, Ah Bui, Bermuda, Ronnie boy, Phin, WanWan, Mamatai, Om, Sigalung, Cerah, Jelita, Susie, Kuamut, Manis, Linggam, Kina, Sika, Soo, Logan, Romolina, and Diana. I love them all.
I wish someday, they’ll all get back to the wild where they belong. The thought of not being able to see them closely, no longer feeding them, breaks my heart. 10 weeks at BSBCC is more than enough for to become strongly attached with the bears. How much I wish they know that I love them and that I want them to live the happy life that they’re supposed to.
Outreach – Education Team
Besides working at the Bear House, I also got involved in outreach programmes on two occasions with the Education Team. I also assisted visitors at the observation platform several times. The hardest part for me here is that, I am really bad at talking and persuading people, especially the locals. It’s a sad fact that foreigners were more interested in the conservation effort of sun bears compared to the locals. On the other hand, through outreach programmes, I got to know many new big-hearted people from conservation sectors and I enjoyed exchanging stories with them.
Last but not least, I stayed at the staffs’ house called Bjorn Hala for a month and a half (6 weeks). By staying here, I learned to live in a moderation and became attached with some of the staff who also live here - Mizuno, Boboi, Becca and an intern from University Science Malaysia (USM), Ummu Atiyyah. These gems had cooked me meals throughout my stay here (because I’m a lazy cooker) hence, results in me being so clingy with them.
To sum up, I had a very wonderful time throughout my internship period here. Working at BSBCC hasn’t only taught me about working life and conservation. It taught me what life is and how to deal with it – strong and maturely. I am beyond grateful for being given the opportunity to work at BSBCC and meeting lots of new people who are gems to me. Even though I am no longer working at the centre, I will never stop spreading awareness to the world. The bears and the people here will always be in my heart. Thank you BSBCC ♥
Text by Tara Sofia Jadwani-Bungar
Photos by Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
Bermuda, Mizuno tells me, is the biggest bear the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). Yet he barely comes up to my nose when he stands on his hind legs. Across from him is Wan-Wan, a female with the loveliest pink nose. She eats bananas delicately, removing the peel with her claws before sliding the banana fruit into her mouth. They are the first two bears I meet at the BSBCC.
I’m Tara, a 19 year-old university student from Melbourne, Australia and my stint at the BSBCC was my first time in Borneo. I’m studying to be a vet and would like to someday work in “conservation medicine”. Volunteering at the BSBCC introduced me to working in that sector.
The first day at BSBCC was slightly overwhelming (in a good way) because everything we were doing was new. Myself and two other overseas volunteers, Sienna and Imogen, went through a series of inductions that ensured we knew all the safety precautions and rules for the Bearhouses. You’d think this would be boring but simply being at the centre is so novel that everything seems exciting and interesting.
I learned so much about the bears – from their diet to their behaviour and their relationships – that my head was practically bursting with sun bear facts for two weeks. Some of this information came from a two-hour Q&A session the interns and volunteers had with Wong, the founder of the BSBCC. The most exciting part of this session was learning about the future of the BSBCC (can’t spoil it for the rest of you, though). The bearkeepers themselves are pretty incredible people and they showed me the everyday work that goes into running the centre and keeping up with the bears. They can get pretty creative when thinking up new enrichment for the bears.
The volunteer programme was really well-run, too. There was a great balance between routine and variation. Our days would start at 8:00am with feeding the bears breakfast (rice porridge). This would be followed up with cleaning the indoor enclosure or kitchen duty (chopping up fruit and vegetables for the bears and cleaning the kitchen area). Then we’d head out to feed the bears in their outdoor enclosures. By then, it was usually lunch time (12:00-1:30pm) which was spent in a lovely air-conditioned room. Afterwards, we’d take care of afternoon feeding. This was a bit more of an adventure as we’d often be followed by a very bold troupe of macaques. They’d regularly try and swipe the bears’ food. Back at the Bearhouse, we’d build enrichment activities before feeding the bears dinner and tidying up. Home time was 5:00pm on the dot.
Building enrichment was my favourite part of the day. Partly because it was really interesting to see what we could come up with to entertain/stimulate the bears. It was also when I got to talk to the keepers and the other interns and learn more about the bears and Borneo. Brandon, one of the keepers, and his buddies were building a firehose spider web for Along’s indoor enclosure. Imogen, Sumira and I made balls out of firehoses for the cubs in quarantine. Boboy spent quite a few days on a platform for the newest bear cub, Romolina. One afternoon, a group of us led by Mizuno walked in the surrounding rainforest searching for termite nests for the bears. I’m happy to say I did not get a single leech bite during my stay.
On some days, we’d head out in the ute (pick-up truck) to collect banana leaves, weeds and vines for enrichment. This was one of my favourite activities because I got to see more of the outskirts of Sandakan. Also, Mizuno’s driving was great. On two occasions, Imogen and I manned the education desk in the souvenir shop and I spent some time on the observation decks talking to visitors. Watching the bears from those viewing platforms was quite different from seeing them in the bearhouse. Funnily enough, I only realised how cute they were when I saw them from the visitors’ perspective. They had seemed cute before but I’d also learned to see them as individuals and hadn’t had the time to really coo over them.
Another memorable experience was assisting the vet and bearkeepers during a health check. Linggam was sedated and brought out to the examination table to have a wound on his leg checked. I helped take his measurements and his pawprints (inked and stamped just like ours).
My fortnight at the BSBCC was one of the happiest I’ve had. Despite it being a centre for bears, it was the people at the BSBCC who made my trip. Everyone, from the bear keepers to the local interns to the education staff, was kind, welcoming and open to questions. Most of all, their love and respect for the bears was clear in all their work. Thank you, in particular, to Sumira, our project coordinator, for being not only a teacher and guide but a wonderful friend.
My time at the BSBCC also showed me how difficult conservation and rehabilitation is. How do we know when a bear is ready to be released? How can we teach a bear that has never been in the wild and has never had mother how to be a bear? How can we release bears when there’s hardly any habitat to release them into? All these questions hang over the BSBCC and every other conservation effort. I don’t think there’ll ever be a perfect, full proof answer for any them. We can only do our best to heal the damage we’ve done. Some would say that that is very pessimistic but it’s quite the opposite. The people at the BSBCC are realistic but also hopeful and very dedicated. They’re problem solvers and they believe that they will find a way. They have to if they’re going to save Sun Bears.