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.
Text by Chiew Lin May
Photos by Azzry Dusain, Tee Thye Lim, Seng Yen Wah and Chiew Lin May
Without the BSBCC, many captive sun bears would still live in small cages without HOPE; without the BSBCC many people in the world still would not know there is a bear species called the sun bear
– CEO & Founder, Dr. (Hon) Wong Siew Te, D.J.N
Poaching, pet trade and loss of habitat continue to pose a MAJOR threat to the survival of sun bears. Mother bears are often killed and their infants are sold in the illegal wildlife pet trade. Sun bears are very similar to humans - they cannot survive on their own without their mothers. It is tragic that sun bears are still being found orphaned. Sun bear populations have declined by more than 30% in the past 30 years, leaving the danger of imminent extinction in the wild a very real possibility.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre’s (BSBCC) CEO and Founder, Dr. Wong Siew Te has dedicated more than 20 years of his life to raise awareness and save the “forgotten bear species”. Wong founded the BSBCC in 2008 with the goal to conserve sun bears through a holistic approach that of improves the welfare of rescued sun bears, rehabilitation, education and research. Wong was one of the greatest sun bear conservationists.
The BSBCC has received 55 rescued sun bears since its foundation. Currently there are 44 rescued sun bears housed at the BSBCC. Sadly, we have seen a significant increase in the numbers of sun bears arriving at the centre in 2016. This trend is worrying as it shows that poaching is still going wild with rampant sale of sun bears or illegal bear bile medicine over websites and the numbers will continue to rise rapidly until drastic measures are taken to protect sun bears.
A three months old female sun bear cub Tan-Tan was bought by a person with the purpose of rescuing her from being sold in the remote region of Paitan. Most of the bears arrived at our centre will have in different conditions- frightened, stress and with wounds common to bears rescued from pet trade.
A lady decided to rescue an one years old male sun bear cub Nano when she saw Nano was kept in a small chicken mesh cage in Kota Marudu, north of Sabah. She purchased him from the seller for a price of RM1,500, with the purpose of saving his life. Nano was surrendered to the Sabah Wildlife Department and arrive at BSBCC on November 20, 2016.
BSBCC has been able to rehabilitate these orphaned sun bears after their years of trauma from being locked up in small cages and sold in the pet trade. Most of our bears have had an extremely difficult lives having witnessed the death of their mother, traumatic experiences through being sold as a pet, suffered unimaginable abuse, infected wounds and poor diet. Being taken away from all of that they had known...many will show stereotypical behavior and will growl in fear.
This has all changed with the greatly appreciated help from Sabah Wildlife Department. They assist in providing care and medical treatment for rescued bears. Our rescued bears will receive round the clock care from our Bear care team by helping and encouraging the bears to build up their strength as well as learning to trust their cares.
Enriching the lives of these rescued bears is an important part of bear management, which improves the bears’ lives by giving them a second chance to survive in the wild. We will make sure that the bears are having their choices and freedom. Little by little, after each rescued bear has passed their quarantine period, they will move on to the next step in the Bear house – a peaceful and safe place they have deserved all their life! Integrating with new friends, giving them access to forest enclosures for them to learn pertinent skills for survival and last but not least get them ready to be back into the WILD.
Even relishing every chop of fresh fruit, playing with their enrichment, roaming the forest, foraging for insects, inquisitive, exploring, snoozing, climbing trees, finding HONEY bees, enjoying the sunshine, tapping to check weak points of dead logs and building tree nests, play fighting with their fellow bears in the BSBCC. No more pain and letting go of the traumatic life – perhaps they are enjoying the smell of freedom !!
Let look how our rescued sun bears learn become wild bear!!
Most of you still remember Mary, a two months old sun bear cub that she was held captive in a cage as pet. She was found to be very malnourished when she first came to BSBCC because her previous owner did not fed her with milk. Her growth stunted and walking in an abnormal way. Now, Mary has improved a lot where every day for her is a treat of good food, friend and freedom.
Every individual sun bear at BSBCC has their own personality. They are growing independent every day. Strong characters like Amaco, Diana, Tan-Tan, Wawa and Nano have emerged. Slowly the rescued bears realize with their new life that they are now in a different, safer, healthier, and happier bear world which is their own.
For example: Tan-Tan is the holder of the record breaking all records among all sun bear cubs we have had so far: At six months old she could construct a little nest in the tree using broken twigs and leaves. It was truly amazing to see!
Besides that, due to the emotional trauma that resulted from his being kept as pet, Nano was very stressed and in pain. After one year, Nano finally has reduced his stereotypical behavior by spending more time with his bear friend, Noah. He is on the road to recovery. We tear up just thinking how Nano has finally overcome his fear...
Sun bears are beautiful animals in nature. They deserve the chance to go back to the deep forest and to become a WILD bear. We all have two things that the sun bears do not, which is a voice and freedom. Please use your voice to help them and stop the hunting or killing of sun bears, we can make a difference to their future survival. Together we must save the sun bears!
On behalf of our rescued bears, a big bark THANKS to Wong, our supporters, funders, volunteers, friends and bear care team for taking care, supporting and loving them!
Text and Photos by Naziah binti Muntil
Becoming an intern at BSBCC was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Before this, I only had a greater exposure on small animals (cats and dogs) and ruminant; less on wildlife animals. By having an internship here, it’s a great opportunity for me to open my eyes and expose myself to become more familiar how wildlife field is like.
2 weeks into the internship, the other interns and I were given the opportunity to join the Bear Care Unit. I helped the team to prepare the foods for the sun bears thus I was able to learn about their foods (what they eat and what foods that cannot be given to them). I also enjoyed joining outside feeding which we fed the sun bears in the pen.
One of the interesting parts throughout my internship here is doing enrichment for the sun bear. By doing this, it helps sun bear to perform its natural behaviour and designed the surrounding to mimic sun bear’s natural environment.
Lastly, I would like to thank Mr Wong Siew Te, Thye Lim, Lin May, and all the bear keepers due to their generosity and time and the knowledge and experiences you all shared with me will be useful as I continue my college career and start the next stage of my life. BSBCC is a place that I will always look back at as the beginning of my inspiration to work with wildlife species and be more active in conservation.
David is energetic and fit to do his job. He shows great responsible to all the tasks that assigned to him. Although David is still new to this field, his passion to the bears and hard works were recognized by every body in the centre. For sure he can picked up and get used to it very soon. We all glad that David has joined us together!
Text by Ng Wai Pak
Today, I was carrying out my duties at the centre. After the sun bears had their morning meal, I observe and record the bears’ activities. Sun bear are very active animal. They are curious, energetic and always have thing to do to keep them busy. After two hours of record, I found out the centre is become quiet except the sound come from the stand fan to keep the floor dry. I noticed most of the bears are lying on their own basket bed, and having their afternoon nap. Yes, the bears do take afternoon nap. No matter they are born in the wild or keep in the cage, they do have this natural behavior.
Lets look at the diagram below which I taken from Wong’s research data back in Danum Valley. It shows that the wild sun bears do have their short nap around 10 am in the day time (the little dip at around 10 am) after two hours of feeding peak at round 8 am in the morning. So, we are glad that our sun bears in our centre do keep their natural behaviors.
Of course, not every bears is going to sleep at the same time every day. There are some bears still want to hang around foraging at the ground, sniffing around, playing on dry branches, and disturbing others who want to rest!
I recall back the time when I was a volunteer in my friend’s kindergarten several years ago. The bears are just like the kids; they won’t stop for any seconds, and the only time you can found silence is when they are having nap. That is the most peaceful moment of the day. No more yelling, no fighting, no crying… nothing. I would say there are a lot of similarity between taking care of the bears and helping out in the kindergarten. For sure, I am glad to see them sleeping peacefully, both the kids and the bears.
Text by Ng Wai Pak
It seems that the blog was silent for some times. Thus, I was told to write some bears’ stories in Sepilok while Wong is away for a while at the moment. Of course I am more than willing to share my experiences that I learnt from the bears with our dearest readers. Before I go any further, I think I should give a brief self-introduction to every one who read this blog. I am Wai Pak, from Perak, one of the states that located in West Malaysia. I have been followed Mr. Wong for one and a half year, worked as a field assistant under his Bornean Sun Bear and Bearded Pig Research and Conservation Project in Danum Valley Field Centre, Sabah.