Text by Monika Lapka
Photos by Chiew Lin May and Seng Yen Wah
My name is Monika and I'm 24 years old from Australia. I worked as a zoo keeper with mainly giant pandas for 3 years before I decided to quit my job to travel around Asia volunteering at a number of different animal conservation organisations.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is the third organisation I have volunteered at since starting my travels. I found out about BSBCC during an Advancing Bear Care conference in Vietnam a few years ago, where I met Dr. Wong the founder and CEO of BSBCC. I spent 1 month volunteering at BSBCC and loved every second! I have learnt so much about Bornean Sun Bears, their husbandry requirements and the steps needed to successfully rehabilitate and release them into the wild. I am very grateful to have worked and helped such a beautiful centre who's main priority is definitely the welfare and survival of the species. Dr. Wong and his amazing team are doing an outstanding job for the sun bears.
I felt apart of the keeping team straight away, feeling very appreciated and respected.The keepers and staff that I worked with were extremely friendly and incredibly funny, always making me laugh. The amount of care and passion that the keeping staff have for the bears is very inspirational.
Manual labour and cleaning makes up most of the daily tasks. Cleaning the dens every morning can be quite challenging especially when the weather is very hot and humid. But it doesn't matter that you get all sweaty and smelly because what really is important is giving these beautiful rescued bears a lovely and clean space to spend their time.
One of my favourite parts of the day is making enrichment. A definite highlight was actually the first day when all the keeping staff, interns and volunteers gathered together in the afternoon to make enrichment for the bears. Everyone was sitting around making nest balls out of vines we collected earlier and egg carton sandwiches filled with ginger leaf and bananas. It honestly felt like a big happy family all talking and joking. It was a very heart warming moment for me, I felt apart of something special and a family away from home.
Another highlight was making one of my enrichment ideas come to life for one of my favourite bears, Bermuda. I got the idea from a picture I saw of a similar type of enrichment but for elephants! I thought a mobile, like what hangs over a baby's cot, could potentially be fun and mentally stimulating with the items attached rotating 360 degrees around above the bear. One of the staff, Tommy, helped me put it together and I had an absolute ball making it with him. We called it Bermuda's Lullaby and it turned out exactly as I imagined it in my head. It also looked very neat and pretty, very important I know, especially when a bear is potentially going to destroy it in seconds. We installed it in his den with a few peanut butter and honey smears in the PVC pipes and Bermuda loved it! Swinging it around and grabbing for the PVC pipe. It was wonderful to see that he enjoyed Tommy and my creation so much.
In my final week volunteering I was fortunate to see 2 new arrivals Kina and Sika. 2 tiny little bears that had been rescued and brought to BSBCC for a new start and potentially be released back into the wild in the future. Sika is only 6 months and Kina a year old. I had made firehose cubes before and one of the staff members, Lin May, asked me to make one for the new arrivals. I ended up making a loose cube which turned out to look like a ball. It wasn't until the day after the arrival of the 2 bears that Lin May showed me a video of Kina playing with the ball I'd made! Kina was rolling it around, lying on her back biting it, scratching at it and throwing it with her mouth. It brought tears to my eyes seeing this tiny little bear who had been stolen away from her mother and kept as a pet, in an environment far from her natural habitat being able to feel joy and start feeling more comfortable to settle into her new home. This was the most rewarding experience for me.
The biggest thank you to Dr. Wong Siew Te and the staff at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre for having me volunteer at their beautiful centre!
Volunteering at BSBCC has been an amazing experience that I will remember forever. I have absolutely fallen in love with Sabah, it is such a magical place that I plan to return as soon as possible. I have met some of the kindest, generous and absolutely hilarious people here in Borneo, making life long friends. I was truly sad to leave and say goodbye to what felt like home. The work, passion and determination that the BSBCC team have for sun bears and their conservation is truly inspirational! Keep up the amazing work and I will return soon to finish my Sabahan training!
Caged, pet sun bears have a sad life. From the day they were captured and kept as pet, most of them will NEVER touch the soil, climb the trees, and dig the ground again.
Many of our rescued sun bears also have the same fate. However, with our state of the art forest enclosure, the rescued sun bears at BSBCC have the chance to enjoy the forest.
Bermuda, a 10 year old male sun bear at BSBCC, was rescued by Sabah Wildlife Department on October 10, 2002. He live on a concrete floor since he was captured from the wild as a little sun bear cub. For him, the ground is always a smooth layer of concrete floor, until today.
Bermuda finally passed his electric fence training lately. We let him out to his forest enclosure for the first time on Valentine Day Feb 14th. We put food, and honey (all time favorite food for bears) on the ramp to encourage/lure him out of his den. What he did that entire day was pocked his head out to reach the food and honey on the ramp without stepping a foot on the ramp.
This is a very pathetic story for all caged sun bears. To all of them, confined and locked up in a small cage is life. They do not know the world beyond the cage. Rain, soil, trees, leaf litters and other natural vegetations and natural elements in the forest all are something that they never come in contact. The only time when they walked on the forest floor was during the first few weeks or months of their life, until their mothers were killed and they were captured by poachers. To them, forest is an alien nation, fills with unknown bugs and unknown noise; the place that is so strange, unsecure and uncertain. All of our adult bears decided to stay inside the den and not wondering into the forest enclosure when we released them out to the forest enclosure for the first time. It sometime took them weeks if not months to wonder out from their den. Only the young once would go out immediately and enjoy the forest without second thoughts.
Bermuda's reaction when we let him out to the forest enclosure was not exception on Valentine Day. Over the next week or so he still kept himself safe under the protection of his den although the door to forest enclosure was staying open all day long. The food that we left on the ramp and the forest floor has attracted troops of forest bandits - pig-tailed macaques and long-tailed macaques, to enjoy their free meals. Bermuda, sometime I questioned his "male-hood," just stood in his den and watched his food being stolen away by these intelligent primates.
This afternoon as I was writing another blog on Fulung and Mary, Marianne our volunteer from UK rushed into the office, "Bermuda is out to his forest enclosure!" Wai Pak and I grasped our cameras and went down to witness this historic moment. This is the moment where he step foot on the forest floor for the first time in more than 10 years and we do not want to miss that! Although he did not wonder off far from the guillotine door of his den, we can tell from his fast pacing behavior that he was nerves and wanted to go back. Wai Pak then scattered some bread in the enclosure to encourage him foraging and exploring a bit more. He just ate the bread that was close to him without much exploration. After tens of minutes, he finally found his way back to his den and did not come out to explore again.
That was a good start for a captive sun bear willing to wonder off his den on the 7th day. Gutuk, another old male bear still decided to confine himself in his den although the door to the forest enclosure has been open for the past 3 months. I am sure Bermuda soon will gain more confidence to explore the forest enclosure. What he need is time and encouragement. In BSBCC, we will give him both!
By SayLin Ong
I am into my final week of volunteering in BSBCC. It definitely feels like time is passing by much too quickly. I am hoping to accomplish as much as I can in the remaining days before I fly home with Yuru.
It is important to keep our mindsets in line with that of BSBCC. It is after all Phase 1 of the project now, and much needs to be done to prepare the bears for Phase 2. The aim is to empower the bears with the confidence to step out into the outside enclosures, exposing them to their natural habitat. In our first 2 weeks, good enrichment ideas were implemented, much credit to Mark and Yuru. Some of these devices are still being utilized by the bears. It is always an achievement to come up with enrichment devices that the animals do not get bored of easily.
From now onwards, we will attempt to implement enrichments with specific goals in mind. 3 bears are of particular concern to us, namely Ah Chong, Bermuda and Manis. Ah Chong is a mature male, somewhat too comfortable in his den. He is definitely the heaviest of the 12 bears in the centre, almost always ground-dwelling, contrary to his species description. Upon being tempted by tasty bananas smeared with honey, his rare display of arboreal skills almost warrant a round of applause from all of us watching.
This here is an unflattering picture of Ah Chong’s rear. The problem with him is that he is curiously afraid of stepping out into the training enclosure, a big area meant for acclimatising bears to the outside enclosures. Our challenge is to try and coax him out, to let him know that everything’s alright outside his comfort zone. More details can be seen in Mark’s post @ http://matahari-bears.tumblr.com/post/644289648/chong-day-one.
Today was the 2nd day using the same method for Ah Chong. He showed an improvement in response to the ‘stimulus’. It was evident that he was very frustrated, with both his best friend Om as well as the log stuffed with treats barely beyond his reach. He constantly looked out at Om, paced around impatiently and tugged at the sliding gates much to our amusement. We held our breaths every time he leaned through his doorway. Hopefully in the coming days, he will be tempted enough to venture out and stay out.
This here is Bermuda, showing off his powerful frame. He was practically in that position for at least 15 minutes trying to tackle his enrichment device. A simple concept designed by myself to encourage Bermuda to be more constructive. I was surprised that he didn’t destroy everything in minutes, the positioning might have made things difficult for him.
Bermuda has the tendency to be reclusive, often not bothering with the leaves and branches that we provide in his den. After meals, he’d regurgitate and eat up the liquid expulsion repeatedly, a sign of boredom that captive animals display. I hope to provide enough enrichments to interest him and hopefully pry him away from his bad habits. He still went back to his rather unsightly habit today after last feeding, hopefully we’ll have better luck tomorrow.
Manis is a special little girl whom everyone has a soft spot for as well. She has the tendency to display the typical pacing behaviour that would make all caretakers worried. She was taken in from a zoo, probably one that did not provide much space nor enrichment for her, thus leading to her pacing behaviour. When she is not socialising with the rest of the females, she would usually be walking in circles in an anti-clockwise direction. It is heartbreaking to see that even her head is tilting in that particular direction while she circles. She also ranks the lowest in her group hierarchy, often not able to participate in enrichments provided to sharing.
This was the device Amanda, Mark and Yuru came up with, an adaptation from the Macaw enrichments back in Night Safari. We managed to confine her to a single den of her own, thus giving her a chance to enjoy her enrichment without competition from the other 3 girls. Manis was so occupied that she left her dinner half eaten!
She did however go back to her pacing habit shortly after. We plan to continue such enrichments for all 3 bears in the hope that they will respond better in time to come.
Posted May 30, 2010 at 12:24pm
We have been working around the clock since our multinational bear moving team arrived in Sandakan last Saturday. We have been sweating more than 10 hours a day over the past 4 days working really hard to make this event go smoothly, from cleaning the bear house, enriching each bear den, checking the bear enclosures, and finally, moving the bears into our new bear house.
Today is the second day of the moving. We moved the four young females in the morning: Kuamut, Lawa, Jelita, and Cerah,, followed by the big dominant male Bermuda in the afternoon. The move went smoothly and the bears settling down in their new home smoothly.
The bear basket that we provide them 5 feet above the ground is the best thing to give them comfort and security.
Don’t believe me? Look for yourself!
Five done today, 4 more to go!