Text & Photos by Myles Storey
I decided to work as a volunteer at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre because I am considering wildlife biology as a career and I wanted to gain some experience of working in conservation. Before I arrived, I did not know what to expect. I was afraid that I would not be allowed to do much because of my lack of experience. However, after three weeks of volunteering, I was amazed to have had the chance to work and help out in such a noble organization. The three things I enjoyed most about volunteering at the BSBCC were the environment, the people, and the work that we did.
Although I was born and raised in Sabah, I was never really exposed to our beautiful rainforests. While working with BSBCC, every day, I worked in our rainforests and that was truly enchanting. On top of that, I was lucky enough to see many of the rainforest’s wild inhabitants. Some mornings you could see hornbills soaring the sky and some evenings you could see flying foxes flying around the trees. I saw semi-wild Orang Utans, Pit Vipers, Squirrels, birds, long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques, and a lot of different kinds of insects. With a passion for wildlife photography, I was in heaven. One day, while searching for damaged termite nests, we stopped by at a small waterfall in the middle of the jungle. It was a fun and memorable moment that I got to experience with some of the keepers.
Another aspect of working with BSBCC that I am truly grateful for is the people I got to meet. I had the chance to work with some very passionate, knowledgeable and committed people. All the bear keepers are really friendly and fun to be around, but when it comes to work, they can be very serious and hard working. One time, a tree branch fell and broke the fence of an enclosure with seven bears. When we found out, every single keeper and maintenance worker stopped what they were doing and rushed to the scene. I witnessed a great team working together to solve a major problem. They eventually managed to lure the bears back to the bear house and the issue was resolved the next day. I even got to find out about some of the keepers backgrounds and stories of how they started working with the organization. I gained information that I can hopefully use when trying to get into conservation.
I have to admit, cleaning the cages was a bit icky sometimes. However, I really enjoyed caring for the bears and making their lives more comfortable. When not cleaning cages, we were preparing fruits and vegetables. In the afternoon, we would make ‘toys’ for the bears for an activity called enrichment. The aim of the activity is to give the bears something to do and to occupy their time. We made bamboo feeders, PVC pipe feeders, hammocks, and used food balls. What is even more exciting, you get to see your creation being appreciated by the bears. It is also interesting to see the different attitudes and behaviours of each bear. Although 3 weeks is really not enough time to form any bonds with the bears, I was able to understand some of their characters and form some attachments to certain bears. On my last day, I was lucky enough to witness, Gutuk (one of the oldest bears), step out of his cage for the first time since they got him 3 years ago. It was a great achievement for him, and I could see the delight on everyone’s face.
I was sad to leave, but happy that I got to contribute in an amazing field and gain experience as an assistant bear keeper. I feel confident to say that this volunteer experience was one of the highlights of my teenage life. I am deeply grateful to the people who made this experience possible and I would definitely recommend anyone who is interested in conservation and wildlife to give this program a go. You won’t be disappointed. Where else are you going to get the opportunity to work with the smallest bears on earth and an extremely committed team in one of the most beautiful rainforest environments?
Text and Photos By Jenny Cantlay
How does a British veterinary surgeon find herself in East Malaysia making enrichment activities from bamboo for the world’s smallest bear species? A very good question and the answer is from her joining the volunteer programme at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, coordinated by Ape Malaysia.
I had the opportunity to live in Kuala Lumpur for almost three years before moving to China in 2014. As a wildlife enthusiast, I travelled to Sabah and visited the BSBCC at Sepilok last year. Although the visitor centre had only been open a few months, I was very impressed with their mission to rehabilitate sun bears rescued from captivity as pets. I had watched these small but agile bears clawing their way into logs to feast on termites and climbing up trees in the forest enclosure from the visitor platform. I became curious to know more about this engaging tropical bear species and its role in the forest ecosystem.
My interest in the rehabilitation and conservation of sun bears is both professional and personal. My veterinary training and postgraduate qualification in wildlife conservation meant that I was keen to understand about the management, health and welfare aspects of caring for these rescued bears. Despite numerous wildlife watching trips throughout Malaysia, I had never seen a sun bear until I visited the BSBCC. My interest in Malaysian wildlife meant I understood that their populations in the wild have dramatically declined in recent decades due to the loss of forest habitat from logging and palm oil plantations, in addition to the poaching of bears for pets and to supply the wild meat trade. Therefore, I wanted to learn more about this unique bear and how I could assist the BSBCC in their conservation efforts.
One year later, I returned to the BSBCC as a volunteer, no longer a tourist. On meeting the enthusiastic Ape Malaysia coordinators, Harith and Vicki, who would assist my involvement in the programme, I knew we would get along very well due to our shared love of Malaysian food and wildlife! My first day was spent being introduced to the centre and its staff, particularly the bear keepers with whom I would be spending the most time. I soon realised that although the sun bears may look cute, they have formidable claws and sharp canine teeth, so close encounters with them would be best avoided!
I was enthusiastic to start my work at the bear house and meet the individual animals for myself. The friendly team of five keepers told me that they could recognise each of them from their unique chest mark and facial characteristics. I hoped eventually I would be able to identify some of the individual bears too. After a few days of observing them in their enclosures I started to notice their particular personalities and habits. I liked watching the bold, energetic male called Fulung play-fighting with his mates and also seeing how Mary’s inquisitive nature made up for her small, underdeveloped stature. One of my favourite bears was one of the largest males called Linggam, who could often be found relaxing upside-down in his nesting basket with his limbs stretched out after his breakfast of rice porridge.
My involvement in the daily routine of preparing food, feeding the bears and cleaning out the indoor enclosures meant that I had plenty of opportunity to watch their activities and they seemed to be interested to see what I was doing too. Their long curved claws and strong forelimbs enabled them to easily scale up the bars to reach the fruit we had thrown on top of the enclosure. Despite their physical strength, they showed surprising dexterity when unpeeling rambutans or bananas to eat the fruit inside. They also greatly enjoyed their twice-daily rice porridge feeding and usually slurped it down in a couple of minutes. The daily dietary intake of each bear was carefully calculated based upon his or her weight and age, with some individuals having specific dietary requirements related to their health status, which was often due to their malnourishment whilst kept as pets. In the wild, sun bears consume a great variety of fruits depending upon the particular fruiting season and also eat huge quantities of insects, such as termites, ants, beetles and larvae. The keepers collected termite nests and logs from the forest and brought them into the indoor enclosures to stimulate their foraging behaviour. I particularly enjoyed walking to the forest enclosures to scatter fruit over the fence for the bears to find amongst the vegetation. After foraging, they would often climb up the trees to digest their food whilst lying in the branches. Giving the bears freedom to explore the forest in the safety of the enclosures teaches them the skills necessary for survival, since their release back into the wild is the ultimate goal for many of them. It was fantastic to see how the lives of these captive bears had been dramatically improved by the efforts of BSBCC.
Another important aspect of the volunteer programme was making enrichment activities to stimulate the sun bears in their captive environment. A personal highlight for me was designing and making a hanging bamboo puzzle feeder, which encouraged the bear to climb up and explore the sections of bamboo, filled with forest vegetation and chopped banana. We placed one into Panda’s enclosure and within ten minutes she had gone up to grab some plants to eat and then spent the next twenty-four hours emptying it all out. Afterwards, I wrote an enrichment record about the activity so that its design and effectiveness could be assessed. This enabled Rodger the keeper to construct two more, but he modified the hanging method for Ronnie and Sigalung who then delighted in swinging on the bamboo before breaking it apart to eat the contents. It was highly satisfying as a volunteer to know that I had contributed to improving the welfare of the bears.
During my second week, our construction abilities were truly tested in the creation of a wooden resting platform for Montom and Susie 2. I certainly lacked the practical skills of using saw, drill and spanner, much to the amusement of the keepers who knew exactly what to do. Thankfully the expertise of the team meant it was built and installed within four days. Would the bears be impressed with our efforts? Once it was in the enclosure, Montom immediately went in to sniff the new object out, as it smelt of all the humans who had sweated over its construction. Its stability and strength were tested when he climbed on top of it and walked around. Within a short time, he started chewing at the wood, even pulling some chunks off, since sun bears also like to investigate things with their mouths. When the keepers checked up on the platform the following morning, one plank had already been completely ripped off. We concluded that some modifications in platform design would be necessary to increase its durability and this event gave me further respect for the strength of these bears.
It is impossible for me to write about all the highlights of my volunteering experience, as there were so many. The busy daily routine meant that my two weeks passed by far too quickly. Overall, I was very impressed with the knowledge, dedication and commitment of the BSBCC staff who welcomed me in to their team. The Ape Malaysia facilitators also helped me to understand more about developing enrichment activities and encouraged me to think like a bear when making them. Who knows when my creative use of bamboo may be needed again!
I am certain that this well-organised rehabilitation process will enable many of these sun bears the opportunity of returning to the wild. The conservation work of BSBCC offers hope for the future of sun bears in Malaysia. So why not volunteer to make your own contribution to their work.
Terima kasih BSBCC and Ape Malaysia!
Text by Kelvin Chee Hon Yong
Photos by Kelvin Chee Hon Yong & BSBCC
Hi, my name is Kelvin Chee from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT). I just finish my study in Conservation & Management of Biodiversity and internship is a part of the requirement for my course. I’m feeling very lucky because can get a placement in BSBCC as many people apply their internship here as well.
Still remember upon arrival, the first staff I met was Nick. The funny thing was I do not know whether he can speak mandarin or not, so we just use English to chat. After reached office, only then I know he is a Chinese that can speak in mandarin too. And we just have a week to be friend as he went to further study in France later.
The first day I start to work in the bear house, Thye Lim as my supervisor run an induction to me and I still remember the words that he told me: Don’t think yourself is an intern student, but think yourself as a staff so you motivating yourself to learn and work hard and mix around with the staff. That’s why I start to follow their high pace working schedule on the second day. But that was really amazing because I learnt a lot of stuff especially how to work in a team and time management.
There are many stories to tell but I think I would like to choose some to say here. First what I thought intern here was just joining some outreach program or doing some field work. I don’t even know that intern need to wash the cages everyday! What terrifying is when you working in the kitchen preparing foods for the bears! Preparing the fruits but you can’t eat it under the hot weather and you are in hungry condition. What I mean is you can just easily get hungry during that time. And that smell of sweet corn and sweet potato will make you even hungry! Sometimes I will be duty in the kitchen for the whole week, and that particular week for sure I will buy some fruits from the market to release my tension! Besides that, the time when we making enrichments were really enjoying. They always make laugh on me when taking bamboo from outside. There is a time when me alone taking the bamboo from the outside of the main gate to the bear house, and it was really harsh to me! As they said this can build my muscles?! Oh…. After two months, it’s really build up my muscle! Wow~ So working in the bear house will definitely train you as fit as possible!
The friends that I met during my intern time were so cool! Thye Lim, Lin May, Azzry, Lester, Roger and others make my day during the time. We always make jokes and laugh at each other and went crazy together. But of course, we are very serious when we are working. Sometimes they will also bring me around in Sandakan, eat and play. It was really fun and thanks for all kind of the activities had planned.
Lastly, I would like to acknowledge Mr. Wong, founder & CEO of BSBCC for giving me the opportunity to learn here and his advices for me always encouraging me to keep on in the conservation field. Thank you very much!
Text and Photos by Claire Buckingham
“Welcome to Sandakan!”
That was one of the first greetings we heard when we first came to Borneo. But we didn’t hear it just that one time. We heard it quite regularly, because every time the power went out people would just roll their eyes to the ceiling and laugh. “Welcome to Sandakan!” they’d say, and well, after a while, we all started saying the same thing.
But there was another greeting we heard a few times. We were four volunteers: me, Jo, Marie, and Warren, and on our first day we were taken to the centre for a look around. Up on the feeding platform, we watched the dirty half-dozen (Bongkud, Ah Bui, Debbie, Mary, Damai, and Fulung) forage about in Pen D. Within about five minutes a cry broke through the jungle. Low, trumpeting – just a hint of irritation to give it a bit of a bite. That’s the quality that makes your spine stiffen and your eyes swivel, trying to catch sight of a lurking predator.
“Um…what was that?”
Just a flash of a smile. “Welcome to Jurassic Park!”
My name’s Claire, and I came to Borneo with my sister, Jo, to volunteer at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. I’ve done a couple of other wildlife-oriented volunteer projects before, but Jo’s been following Wong’s work with the bears for years. So I suggested a while back we should go together, and finally it happened this year. Though at that particular moment we started to wonder what we werereally in for, standing up on a platform watching bears and listening to dinosaurs.
Of course, they were only (only!) orphaned pygmy elephants. Which makes an awful lot of sense when you consider that the T. Rex from Jurassic Park had a roar that was compiled from various extant animals, mainly baby elephants. But it did emphasise that we were moving into a different world entirely, where we would wander on walkways that reminded you of velociraptor pens (AND THE GATES WERE OPEN), with their PETANG ELEKTRIK signs every few feet. And the ever watchful macaques and orang-utans kept you on your toes, never quite knowing if they might take offense to the way you walked or the fact you were carrying a big colourful tub filled with papaya and bananas. (Pro tip: don’t wear your sunglasses on feeding walks. You will regret it.)
The BSBCC compound neighbours that of the Sepilok Orangutan Centre, but it really is a little world all of its own, and one easy to get lost in. Every day we would gather up the food prepared for the bears in the outdoor pens and wander along wooden walkways around the older pens, thanking God for the little teenage volunteers who were building new steps (it’s an art form, walking up and down steep hills when carrying twelve pieces of corn and a pile of cooked sweet potato). From there we would toss the food over and watch the bears come running.
…or not come running. Occasionally we were lobbing food into what appeared to be empty enclosures, praying that the bears would find it before the monkeys did. With that said, you could never really forget they weren’t empty. Manis, more than once, surprised me with how well she camouflaged herself (from me; David always knew exactly where the old girl was). And on my last day or thereabouts, Roger armed me with a machete (!) and off we went on excursions into Pens F, E, and D to do the daily fence check. Even though I had just seen the bears firmly in their dens, I still kept a sweaty hand tight on that machete. Not that I’d have hit a bear with it. I’d have been more likely to scream my way through hacking a hole in the fence…
I also was never sure if Roger was pulling my leg about the alleged bee’s nest in Pen E. I kind of figured if there was one, we ought to pick it up as a treat for the bears, but then again…I wasn’t volunteering. I wouldn’t even carry back the pill millipede, which Warren ended up giving to Bermuda. He chomped down on that with great gusto. Bermuda, never change. Although I do wonder who stole the hose on Warren’s first day – I will never forget him racing into the kitchen to interrupt our corn and sugar cane duty. “I need honey! One of the bears has my hose!” Because if you ever want something back from a sun bear: get the honey. Trust me on this one.
Our days had a pretty common pattern: mornings would be in the kitchen or in the dens, and then afternoons were spent first at a feeding, and then organising enrichment for the bears. On our first day, we got split in two; Marie and Warren went into the forest in search of dry leaves, while Jo and I sat out in the driveway with David and Mizuno, building bamboo feeders. And I am ashamed to say we got that detail because I was terrified of the forest. It wasn’t so much the macaques or the orang-utans, but more the leeches. Ah, the leeches. Thye Lim and Lin May even brought (somewhat accidentally, I assume) a leech to the dinner table on our first night. I never encountered one on my skin. For that, I touch wood.
At the end of our first day, we were asked who our favourite bear so far was. Without hesitation I said “Amaco!” And got a few odd looks for it. I suppose it’s fair enough; there are some very gregarious bears who can’t help but attract a lot of attention (yes, Fulung, I’m looking at you), but Amaco…just interested me. He was a big male bear, and I discovered he was twenty-two years old. But what intrigued me about Amaco was that when I helped to distribute his food about the den, at first he was not at all interested. Due to the unnatural conditions he was kept in for eighteen years, Amaco displays stereotypical behaviours that break my heart. He was too busy running his nose along the bottom of the den door to want to eat, until I accidentally dropped some papaya on his head. Then he perked up and became curious.
Maybe that’s why I found myself often gravitating towards Amaco: because he was so clearly an example of what humans can do so wrong by these bears, and how even when circumstances change they can’t necessarily get “better,” at least not without hard work. I liked to take Amaco’s food to him, attracting his attention before scattering the bananas and melon and papaya about the den. I loved watching him disembowel his bananas, or climb to the top of the cage looking for the corn lodged up in the ceiling. It gave him something else to do, something that’s not the coping mechanisms he was forced to find as a cub, and I really liked that. The little building project that we volunteers got involved in was all about building some outdoor enrichment for Amaco and Gutuk, which we nicknamed “the retirement village.” I really hope both of them like getting out of the bear house and into something a step closer to their natural environment.
I did have to remember that Amaco is a big bear, though! I liked to watch him while he was eating, but I only spent time cleaning in bear house two on my last day. I was wandering over to check on him late in the morning and he was curled up near the door. How cute! I thought, and grinned as I watched him sleep. He soon woke up, saw me standing there, and barked. A sun bear bark cuts right through you. But as much as it gave me a little fright, it made me smile more. Because it’s good to know that Amaco knows how to look after himself, despite everything.
In the end Amaco was still a favourite, but I then developed soft spots for Gutuk and Om, because I gave them their porridge most days I was there. I also found Chin fascinating, and you can’t help but notice Bermuda and get to know him. I remember watching Bongkud and Fulung mock-fighting inside one morning, and then they had a repeat performance out in the enclosure during morning feeding. It’s not a bad thing: it’s all a part of learning about being a bear out in the wild. It’s all an aid to their reintegration.
Natalie is the only bear so far released back to the wild, and I spoke to Wong about her a few times. She’s deep in the forest, now, and can only be monitored by a GPS collar that only transmits when the cloud or tree cover don’t mask the signal. She’d been off the grid for a few days when we arrived, but soon came back online. Wong’s busy as anything, but when I inquired about Natalie’s status one morning, Wong was gracious enough to take me into his office (packed to the rafters with textbooks and photographs) to show me data of her wanderings. It was so easy to see how glad he was that after weeks exploring, she seems to have chosen a home range at last. I loved seeing exactly what everyone has been working towards, and despite the amount of work he has to do Wong was always happy to chat about the bears and their progress. You can really see the care he has for their welfare in all that he does.
Because I spent my first three days in the kitchen washing and chopping endless bowls of bananas, I didn’t really get to know the bears until I started cleaning in bear house one. I was nervous to begin with, because even though I have been around large predator-type animals in their enclosures before (and in the wild too; I have some stories about lions and leopards!), I’ve never been around them for such extended periods. The bears are pretty chill about having humans in their usual spaces, but I checked the locks on the doors about five times before I went in, and then would check them again at random intervals. In particular, the thought of the back guillotine door opening to reveal a startled bear on her way back in made me formulate idiot escape plans that really wouldn’t have done anyone any good. But the fact was, BSBCC has stringent and well-followed regulations in place and I never felt in any genuine danger the entire time I was there.
This isn’t to say the bears are of the cuddly variety. They are individuals, and they are wild creatures – you have to be constantly aware of your surroundings and the bears’ personalities. But that just made me happier, to know that some of them will one day follow Natalie out into release. Because sure, they’re cute where they are now. Manis has this ridiculously adorable habit of sitting up and resting her front paws on the cage and then her chin on her paws, watching you like a little old lady judging your life choices. If you clean the den next to Julaini, be ready to defend your boots and your broom because as far as he’s concerned, they are his. Bermuda takes great offense to having people’s backs presented to him, and will throw a tantrum to prove it. Om scared me silly one day by living up to his “karate kid” nickname as he played with remnants of a bamboo feeder I didn’t realise he had. Fulung is Fulung (AKA “the cutest little bear that ever did cute and he knows it”).
My favourite activity was porridge feeding, which happened twice a day. We were each assigned bears in bear house two for the duration of our stay; I was looking after Om, our karate expert from earlier, and Gutuk, an older bear with hearing and vision deficiencies. I was rather fond of him, and not particularly nervous about feeding him. Om, on the other hand, was a big and boisterous younger bear. I’ve fed large carnivores before, but this was a little nerve-wracking; you had to get in position, open the feeding trough, and push the food in before a hungry bear got a mind to snatch it from you.
With that said, it was easy to get used to the procedure. I loved watching them snuffle up their porridge, and besides: if you ever wanted to feed Sir Linggam, you had to learn to put his food in with careful and slow respect. Or else he’d get into a snit and not eat his specially prepared meal. Oh, Linggam. In the end, it was taking the porridge trays back that proved trickier. Ronnie, in particular, loved to slap a paw into the tray as his daily act of rebellion.
In the end, as a pharmacist, my favourite moment was the bears’ health checks. We weren’t sure at first that they would happen during our tenure, but after a couple days off we came back to see the bear house set up to receive guests in the form of a veterinary team. I was allowed to help out with Panda, and given she was the fourth and last of the morning, I was going to be super late to lunch. But as hungry as bear den cleaning made me, I didn’t much care. I was going to help with a bear’s health check!
Panda is a big girl. And she’s not a panda; as it turns out, she got the name because she was touted as a “black panda” by her previous (presumably somewhat zoologically challenged) owners. She was also regularly fed chicken in those bad old days, hence her rather large size. But I was always amazed by how much excess skin the bears had, which you never noticed until they were picked up. It’s a defence mechanism, and a damned efficient one at that, but their skins seemed to fit fine otherwise.
As the note taker, I could not touch the bear, but I was that close to her it didn’t feel like it mattered. The darting process is always slightly traumatic for the bears – there’s no easy way to do it with potentially dangerous animals like these – and she seemed restless in her anaesthesia. Being a pharmacist, I had to check out what she’d been given, and ended up reading somewhat extensively on it. The bear’s eyes also remain open during the procedure, so they’re given antibiotic eyedrops to keep them moist and free of infection, and the bear is masked to help keep them calm and still.
Panda was weighed first, and then transferred to the table where measurements and general health observations were made. I loved seeing her teeth up close, and also the remarkable claws the bears have evolved for their arboreal life. Their ears are ridiculously small and cute. I’m not sure why we measure them, specifically, but I didn’t care. I just liked seeing cute ears up close and personal. And their tails!
With swift efficiency the team took blood and hair samples, and I helped Azzry and Roger get imprints of her paws. Then Panda was transferred back to the den for a slow and quiet awakening. Most of the bears seemed a bit cranky after their checks, but no worse for wear.
Mamatai, however, became an interest for me because her health check revealed a small infected wound, which might have been taken a few days earlier during integration with Wan-Wan. She proved most recalcitrant about her meals and enrichment in the days that followed. I must have annoyed Thye Lim those days, I think.
But I really I just loved to watch her being given medication, both oral and topical, and when I could I would try to unobtrusively watch her eating and then report back when she didn’t. (Spiking her porridge with honey always went down well!) She was on the mend when I left, and I hope she’s much better now. Mamatai would have fascinated me anyway, given her distinctively short legs, caused by her early captive life: yet another reminder of how important a place like this really is in the lives of these bears.
Days at BSBCC were always quick-moving and interesting – and hard work. I left home covered in snow and came to thirty plus degrees centigrade heat and humidity that went to 100%. I drank a lot of water and yet it never seemed enough. I was often hungry but found I couldn’t eat a lot. It’s also hard to sleep when it never gets cold! But Paganakan Dii, despite being simple accommodation, was still more luxurious than other places I’ve stayed during volunteer work. Barring the “Welcome to Sandakan!” incidents, there was always power, for starters! And at the end of a long day, a tall glass of iced lime juice in the common area was heaven. Although, let’s be honest: given how quickly we went through t-shirts and trousers in that heat, our favourite appliance there was the washing machine. And we gave it a workout, that’s for sure.
Speaking of water and washing, on our last day, we all lingered around the bear house, taking our time saying goodbye. Chin was doing her usual sadface act, climbing into her waterbowl and dunking her feet. It was empty, so I kind of eyeballed her a little and said: “This is for drinking, right?” And filled her up as a weird kind of going away present. Except, of course, the first thing that went in wasn’t her tongue. It was her butt.
Panda then looked sadly at me from her own den, and I couldn’t resist one last go round of my favourite thing: making a little puddle on the floor so she could starfish in it. You have to be careful with the water – too much, and it damages their paws – but the bears love puddling in it. And I could never be sure if or when they might overheat, though Wong assured me they pant like dogs to cool themselves down. Still, as I wandered down the corridor, I saw Linggam thumping his paws in his empty waterdish, and had to fill his too. Two seconds later? Empty water dish, and water all over me and the bear. He seemed happy enough. I just had to laugh.
Volunteering is always worth it. I found – not at all to my surprise – that I wasn’t much use when it came to building things (I am certain David spent a lot of time laughing himself sick at my ineptitude with a hammer, ironwood or not), but I was surprised by how soothing it is to clean out bear dens every morning. Walking around the compound was always made interesting by passing the elephants on their own daily walks, or looking out for the monitor lizard that was (supposedly) stalking my sister. Our last day ended with a barbecue attended by a rogue egg-loving orang-utan. These are experiences you can’t imagine, and that you won’t forget.
I just think it’s a good lesson, though, in thinking about what it means to be here. Especially with the medical checks, there was always that urge to touch. Just once. Just a little. And there was always that justification that I may very well never see these animals again. But then, the bears are here because Wong didn’t think they deserved to never see their natural habitats again, to never be bears again. They’re not here for us. We’re here for them. And I am so grateful to have been allowed to come to BSBCC and learn that for myself.
Text and Photos by Garnette Nawin
Hello everyone! My name is Garnette Nawin. I’m a 20 year old Sarawakian from East Malaysia. I am from Miri, Sarawak and I’m currently doing my second year of Diploma in Animal Health and Production. It was funny at first when I got lost searching for the BSBCC here in Sepilok, Sandakan, because everything that I had imagined was not as expected. Gladly my supervisor, Thye Lim, never got tired of me asking questions, and just by describing the entrance of BSBCC through the phone, he had successfully showed me the way to the visitors centre. I was so anxious and nervous as it was truly my first experience to be so far away from my hometown doing an internship about the Sun Bears. I was greeted by two very friendly staffs from BSBCC, Rahim (also my housemate) and Fairo, upon my arrival. They showed me around the visitors centre and the staffs’ office and had made me feel like home already. At that time Wong, the CEO and Founder of BSBCC, was not around so the other intern students and I got a short and interesting briefing by Tee Thye Lim, our supervisor in doing the internship programme. He introduced about the background of the centre and also showed us around the Bear Houses.
I got more excited when I got to meet two of the international volunteers which were Tom and Rica, the lovely couple that always warmed my heart with their sweet smiles and guidance. Although I only had the chance to work with them for a few days, they had already made me excited as I’d never had the feeling of working together with adults as a team. What more to say when they are from the other side of the world. Silly me! Haha!
Then, the most exciting part was when I got to see the bears at the observation platform. I have no idea that they existed in Borneo. All I knew was mostly about the Orang Utans and Monkeys. Yes, that’s all I knew. As it was the first time seeing the bears it made me ask multiple questions to Thye Lim and he kindly explained almost everything about them to me. Knowing that I would get the chance to work with the bears the next day had got me more excited. Haha!
Same goes to Lin May as the Researcher and the Reintroduction Officer. As far as I know, she would always be there when I have to consult her with questions and information. To sum it up, all of the staffs here at BSBCC act as a big family and would always be there first when you have any problems. Also, of course safety and healthy are always the “top” ranking being applied when we carried out our work. Work hard, play hard!
Working at the Bear House with the keepers and also workers that were under the bear care unit taught me a lot of unexpected knowledge. I got to know the behaviours and especially the personalities of each bears. Although there are only 35 rescued bears at the moment, I still had difficulty recognizing certain bears from a distance when I was at the observation platform as they have similar body size. Besides that, unlimited enrichment activities are given to the bears, whether it is in the form of food or the opposite way. The centres mission is to let the bears learn by themselves and our job is to provide them with as many things as possible. Each and every bear also have their own proportions of porridge and supplement. This is needed for the particular bears that have a health problem or injuries or wounds.
Working with the supervisor and the other staffs has taught me about punctuality and being disciplined in carry out every day work, even from other aspects. Of course, excuses are totally not allowed! Being here at BSBCC helped me so much in improving my communication and language skills, especially in English. Not just in the form of meeting other international volunteers and countless visitors every day, but in the form of how to approach them and greet them with a warm and sincere smile.
Being here as one of the intern students taught me countless of amazing experiences and not to forget that the challenges were more than I had expected. But for me, that was the fun part. The longer I have stayed here, the more that I have taught myself that there is much more to learn and to learn despite the activities and work being conducted are almost the same every day. Lucky me having got the chance to discover the BSBCC’s website on the internet where it is just one click away! Gaining the precious experiences here has made me wonder that the period of only 10 weeks is not close to enough.
Before saying goodbye, let’s share with you guys some photos I’ve taken during my time at BSBCC!
Working here was not easy, challenges were much to face but I can guarantee there is super extreme fun that awaits you! Grab the precious chance to work with the staffs here in taking care of the bears then spread the news everywhere you go! If I were to tell you about all my experiences during my time here at BSBCC, I could go on for countless pages. Do it for the bears as they have the right to live in the wild again in the future.
Text and Photos by Rica Marcus
My partner Tom and I spent the last two years saving for our trip of a lifetime. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do more than just travel. Passionate about wildlife and keen to try something new, we started to look for volunteering opportunities in Borneo. We discovered the BSBCC website and knew we had found something special.
Working with the sun bears appealed to me immediately. It promised to be something completely different to the day job. I hoped to learn something new and to play a small part in BSBCC’s effort to protect the little known and terribly endangered sun bear.
We decided to apply for the one month sun bear assistant volunteer programme. We had already started travelling and submitted our application from Vietnam in January 2015. The volunteer programme is a joint venture between BSBCC and APE Malaysia. APE Malaysia processed our application and managed our Skype interview. The interview helped APE ensure we were suitable candidates for BSBCC and it confirmed to us that it was a position we wanted with an organisation that approached animal welfare and rehabilitation in a very responsible way. After our interviews we waited nervously for confirmation from APE and received the good news that we had been accepted a few days later.
In the following months APE provided us with lots of useful pre-arrival information and were very helpful in answering our questions. Finally, on 05 March 2015 it was time to start our adventure as sun bear assistants.
‘A tropical retreat’ or ‘the dilemma of the bunk bed’
We arrived at our accommodation in Sepilok early afternoon, where we were met by Harith, our APE programme coordinator, and Mark, one of APE’s local representatives. We were given time to rest and settle into our new accommodation.
Our accommodation at Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat was much more luxurious than we had expected. Paganakan Dii is recommended by many of the travel guides – and rightly so. The chalets and dorms are tastefully built in peaceful surroundings. Our accommodation block was at the far end of the retreat and had been purposely built for BSBCC volunteers. The accommodation block consists of eight rooms with twin bunk beds, comfortable mattresses, lockable cupboards and a desk. We chose the room next to the kitchen. The tricky part was choosing which bunk to go for: from the top bunk you got the full benefit of the fan, but on the bottom bunk you didn’t have to first check for gecko poo before getting in. I chose the top bunk.
As well as our bedroom, we had full and exclusive use of the veranda kitchen, kitted out with fridge/ freezer, cooker and microwave. The toilet and showers were brand new and the latter had hot water. There is a TV room next to the Paganakan Dii café and the café itself, was to prove a great place for us to go when we were too tired to cook.
‘Sun bear assistant pioneers’ or ‘the start of a beautiful friendship’
Once we had moved into our new home, we were keen to get started and were soon chatting with Harith. We were surprised to learn that not only were we the only two participants on the programme- we were also the first! This was particularly unexpected, as we had read blogs of previous volunteers. Harith explained: indeed BSBCC had had many volunteers, but we were the first on the new, official sun bear assistant volunteer programme created, designed and delivered in partnership by BSBCC and APE Malaysia.
Harith and Mark gave us a thorough induction to the programme. It was evident that the volunteer programme had been thoughtfully designed and I hope that we are the first of many volunteers to participate in this unique and rewarding programme.
With the initial induction finished, we tucked into a welcome dinner and got to know each other better. Harith and Mark have dedicated their lives to animal welfare and conservation. They are incredibly knowledgeable in these areas and in the weeks that followed we learnt a great deal from talking with them about issues ranging from palm oil to zoo keeping. They also gave us greater insight into Malaysian culture, from steam boat restaurants to the spirit world, from biker gangs to local tribal communities.
We went to bed that night full of anticipation…..
‘BSBCC’ or ‘A good start’
The driver at Paganakan Dii gave us a lift to BSBCC on our first morning and every morning after that. BSBCC is a ten minute drive away from Paganakan Dii and located right next to the Orangutan centre. BSBCC is set in beautiful green forest and their office is attached to the visitor centre.
Harith took us into the office and introduced us to some of the team. Everyone was welcoming and friendly. Ina gave us a presentation about sun bears, the centre and their work. We watched some of the educational videos running in the visitor centre and then it was time to meet the bears. Ina took us out onto the viewing platform in the forest. We were in luck; there were three or four bears right in front of us on the ground and another one relaxing in a tree. It was wonderful to watch them getting on with life in the forest- foraging through leaves, eating pieces of fruit and playing with other bears. We saw David, one of the keepers walking along the outside of the forest enclosure, feeding the bears by throwing fruits over the fence to them – a job that we would soon be doing!
After our morning at the centre, Harith took us to the local supermarket to stock up on groceries. The food shop was quite challenging as we didn’t recognise any of the packaging so took a long time finding what we wanted. We eventually came out with plenty of supplies including cereal, milk, Milo drinking chocolate, pasta, pasta sauce, frozen mixed veggies, rice and instant noodles. The supermarket didn’t have any fresh fruit of vegetables, so we stocked up on these at the market in Sandakan on our first day off. With our fridge fully stocked, we were now ready to start our new jobs in earnest….
‘The bear house’ or ‘getting soaked’
The next morning, was our first in the bear house. Thye Lim, the centre coordinator showed us the facilities; kitchen, store room, tool cupboard and the bears’ night dens. He walked us around the boundary of the outdoor forest enclosures and showed us how to clean the indoor night pens - our first job that day. I was with animal keeper Mizuno in bear house 2, while Tom and Harith were with David in bear house 1.
I learnt quickly that getting completely soaked is unavoidable when cleaning the night dens. The effort of scrubbing walls and floors had me dripping with sweat and I tended to get splashed when using hose or buckets of water to wash everything down. To begin with the cleaning was exhausting, but over time I became fitter and established a routine. By the end of our stay, cleaning the night dens had become one of my favourite jobs. I enjoyed the physical exertion and had time to follow my own thoughts. It felt very peaceful working alongside the bears in neighbouring dens. Their presence soothed and delighted me and I was happy that my company did not bother them. I loved watching the bears snoozing in their baskets, climbing around or splashing themselves with water from their drinking bowl.
By the end of that first day, Tom and I were both completely exhausted and asleep by about 8pm! It did get easier though. Over the coming days we became more familiar with the work and were able to get fully stuck in. Our daily routine looked something like this……
‘A day in the life of a sun bear assistant’
07:50 arrive at work and change into wellington boots
08:00 indoor morning feed (typically rice porridge) before most of the bears go outside to forest
08:30 – 11:00 in the bear house on kitchen duty or cleaning night dens. Kitchen duty involves washing and chopping lots of fruit and vegetables for the mid-morning and mid-afternoon feed. The portions of bananas, papaya, sugar cane, sweet potato and melon were weighed out for the bears in the different outdoor enclosures and for those remaining inside. The rice porridge for the late afternoon feed was normally prepared last and then the kitchen had to be thoroughly cleaned. I enjoyed working in the kitchen, because it involved careful timing of the different tasks so that everything would be ready when needed.
11:00 – 12:00 mid-morning indoor and outdoor feeds (fruit, vegetables, or coconuts). A great opportunity to observe the sun bears.
12:00 – 13:30 a much needed lunch break, usually spent at the Sepilok Kafeteria.
13:30 – 14:00 mid-afternoon indoor and outdoor feeds (fruit, vegetables, or coconuts)
14:00- 16:00 enrichment projects or collecting stock for the bear house (dry leaves, logs, banana leaves)
16:00 – 17:00 with all (or at least most) of the bears back inside it is time for the final feed of the day (typically rice porridge followed by banana leaves.)
17:30 pick up back to Paganakan Dii.
18:00 onwards time to shower, eat, rest and sleep!
This may sound liked a strict routine, but every day in the bear house was unique……
The one with Natalie’s collaring
Natalie is the first sun bear that BSBCC plan to release back into the wild. If successful, it will be the first ever release of its kind, so we were very privileged to find ourselves involved in an important part of the process – putting the electronic collar around Natalie’s neck so that she can be tracked once she is released back into the wild. The morning of the collaring, the atmosphere in the bear house was electric. Everyone was nervous, but excited. The team performing the collaring was led by Wong and included staff from BSBCC and from the wildlife department. Once Natalie had been sedated, she was weighed and laid on a table to undergo a series of medical checks. It was fascinating to watch the team at work and I felt truly privileged to be there. I was even asked to help weigh Natalie and Tom was put in charge of filming the event! The collar was placed around Natalie’s neck and carefully tested for size and fit. When the team was satisfied, Natalie was returned to her night den where she slowly came round. In the following days she was closely observed as she stepped out into her private enclosure to continue her journey back to the wild. I hope with all my heart that she makes it and is able to thrive in the environment she was born to live in.
The one with the pit viper
One afternoon we went into the forest behind the bear house to collect logs for the night pens. Before we started, Harith reminded us to be careful and watch out for snakes- particularly the highly poisonous pit viper that is often found in the trees. As he finished his instructions, something caused him to look up at the tree he was leaning against and there, less than a meter above his head was a huge pit viper curled up on one of the branches! Harith quickly took a few steps back, while the rest of us came closer to take a look. The snake was beautiful, but it was a very real reminder that we were in the Bornean forest and had to be alert at all times! We began collecting our logs at a safe distance….
The one with the swing
One of our enrichment projects was to build a climbing structure for the five bear cubs in quarantine. Tom and I led the design. We decided on a structure based around a long, sturdy log, with two tires and two swings. This would give the bears practice at climbing, equipping them with a skill needed in the forest. The centre piece of the structure imitated a tree trunk, the swings the movement of swaying branches and the top tire a tree top where the bears could rest.
Azzry and Lin May gave their input about the suitability of the structure, including safety and height- the structure should be challenging, but not impossible for the bears to climb and play on. Harith, Mark and many of the workers in the bear house helped us to build the climbing structure and it proved a great bonding experience. It took us several afternoons to put it together. On the day we had anticipated to finish, we encountered a serious hitch: the hole we had drilled was too small to fit through it the rope that was needed to secure the structure to the roof of the quarantine area. As we were working with iron wood, which is as hard as the name suggests, we could not use the existing drill to simply widen the hole we had made. After hours of trying various means of threading the rope through the hole, we eventually admitted defeat. There was only one solution: we needed to purchase a larger drill bit. We returned to the project a few days later, a larger drill bit in hand. What we had failed to achieve after hours of effort a few days earlier, was completed in a matter of minutes. At last, our structure was ready. We installed the structure late afternoon and the young bears were introduced to it the following morning. As we were not allowed into the quarantine area with the bears, Lin May took pictures and videos for us. Seeing the footage of the bears using our climbing structure was simply wonderful.
‘Time accelerated’ or ‘parting thoughts’
As the days went by I started to feel completely at home in the bear house. I got to know the team, I was familiar with the routine and I knew all the bears’ names (even if I couldn’t always put the right name to the right bear!) But of course, the more I enjoyed each day, the faster they went by and before I knew it, it was our last week and then our last day. We stretched our last day out for as long as possible, but in the end it was time to say goodbye to the bears and to the team.
Volunteering at BSBCC has truly been the experience of a life time. I have learnt much more than I ever would have expected. I have learnt about animal behaviour, welfare and rehabilitation. I have learnt about the challenges of conservation, and most of all I have learnt about the commitment of the people who have dedicated their lives to facing these challenges. It is the passion of the people I have worked with that has made the deepest impression on me. I will never forget my time spent working alongside you all. Thank you.
Text and Photos by Emma Hambleton
Hi, my name is Emma Hambleton, I am a third year environmental science student at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia and I was fortunate enough to have my first volunteering experience at BSBCC in January 2015 with fellow USC students Caitlyn Turner and Hayley Beck.
Feeling excited but nervous to be leaving Australia I couldn’t wait for my BSBCC volunteering experience to begin. Arriving in Borneo was a sense of the unknown, where I knew very little about sun bears to begin with and didn’t know what to expect in terms of what Borneo was going to be like. Our first day at BSBCC was on Monday 12th January 2015. We were first introduced to BSBCC founder and CEO, Wong Siew Te, we had a chat with him before being introduced to Nick who gave us a thorough introduction to BSBCC. We then had our first sun bear observing experience – so beautiful!!
Our first two weeks at BSBCC consisted of us working around the visitors by either working at the observation platform with other staff or in the information booth. The first few days at the platform gave us the opportunity to learn about the sun bears by listening to the staff talk to the visitors and, by asking them questions. After a couple of days of listening and learning about sun bears, we then spoke to visitors and answered any questions that they may have had about the bears. This helped us to retain the knowledge we had gained and by passing our knowledge on to visitors, it is hoped that they too would spread the word about sun bear conservation.
Our time in the information booth was spent informing visitors about different devices that are used to track bears, entertain bears (such as enrichment toys), or showing visitors pictures of the behaviour of sun bears who had previously been kept in cages as pets. Talking to the visitors was somewhat nerve-racking at first, given the fact that I didn’t know much at all about sun bears before arriving in Borneo. However, after a while, it became a lot easier as I was continuously learning more about sun bears, which then made me more comfortable answering questions from visitors. I particularly liked working at the observation platform as we got to observe the sun bears and watch them as they played, slept, ate or roamed around in a natural setting.
I was super excited in the third week of our stay, which was when we started working in the bear house! There was never a dull moment. We would begin the day by feeding the bears their porridge which was always fun/interesting watching the bears eagerly await their breakfast. After we cleaned the bears’ trays we began cleaning the cages. Being so close to the sun bears was pretty cool as some tended to watch you as you cleaned the cage beside them. For instance, the very first cage that I cleaned I left my bucket a little too close to Julaini’s cage and Julaini stole the bucket which was a shock at first. After Julaini had the bucket taken off him I could see Julaini’s sharp claws trying to grab my broom through the cage, this happened most days that I cleaned the cage beside him which made me laugh and I could sense Julaini’s playful personality so it’s safe to say Julaini became one of my favourites because of that.
After cage cleaning we got to feed the bears in the indoor enclosures which was always fun and interesting to see that, like humans, most of the sun bears didn’t eat banana peel, the green part of watermelon or the skin on any other fruit. It was cute seeing particular bears eating mannerisms, like the way Sigalung would lay on his back while he ate his fruit. Once the bears in the bear house were fed we would go and feed the bears in the outside enclosures. Fulung was usually the first bear we saw as he walked up the hill alongside us most days and would stand on his two hind legs like a human, waiting for his food – so cute! My favourite days would have to be coconut days. It amazed me to see how these strong little sun bears could open a coconut from the husk to the inside. This just showed how sharp and strong their teeth and claws are.
During the afternoon we usually made enrichment for the bears, which was fun, and good exercise, actually getting the materials we needed. We went for a few separate adventures up the road to collect banana leaves, dry leaves, bamboo, and through the forest to collect termite nests for the sun bears. Within the two weeks working in the bear house we made nest balls, burgers, bamboo enrichment, and we found termite nests for the bears which usually entertained the bears for around 15-30 minutes. I loved giving enrichment to the bears, particularly the bears that are not released into outdoor enclosures every day as it gave them something to pass the time away and it also gave them a sense of the wild by doing activities they would typically do in the wild, such as eating termite nests. This also helped to stop typical sun bear behaviour of pacing or regurgitating for a short time. It was always fun creating the enrichment as it also gave us time to hear Azzry’s (bear keeper) entertaining stories and jokes as we made the enrichment. Our time working with Azzry was always entertaining from riding down the hill on an old trolley with 31 coconuts on board for the bears, to having bamboo sawing competitions, to his casual attitude about leeches. Azzry’s famous quote “it’s onnnlyyy a leech”, are words I’ll never forget.
The two main highlights of my BSBCC experience were working in the bear house where we were able to get close to the bears, but not too close, by feeding them, cleaning their cages, and giving them enrichment. Working in the bear house was also the best way to learn each of the sun bears’ different, cute and loveable personalities such as; pretty girl Manis who would stand at the front of her cage with her head resting on her hands after she had finished her food, how Kudat would lie sprawled out with his paws hanging out under the bottom of his cage, how big boy Lingam rested his head on his hands while he watched people walk past from his hammock, how Natalie would watch your every move as you walked past her with food in hand or try and grab banana leaves out of your hand if you weren’t quick enough putting/placing them in her cage, or even the cutest little Mary who would cling to the cage while patiently waiting for her banana leaves in the afternoon – so cute! I could go on forever they are all so adorable and cute!
Although they are so adorable and cute I had to remind myself on several occasions not to get too attached to the bears as they are in there to be rehabilitated and hopefully released back into the wild, so it is a bittersweet feeling knowing that when I do go back next time some of the bears would have been released.
The second highlight was working with the staff at BSBCC, they are all the nicest, funniest, kindest, most knowledgeable, helpful, patient and friendliest people you will ever meet. Everyone at the centre was so welcoming. It was awesome to see how dedicated Wong and his staff at BSBCC are in rehabilitating the sun bears for their release back into the wild.
It is safe to say that my time volunteering at BSBCC will definitely not be forgotten and I feel so lucky to have been able to do this as part of my university degree thanks to BSBCC and USC. I had so much fun working with the BSBCC staff and fellow volunteers Amanda, Caitlyn, Fatin and Hayley. It is a rewarding feeling knowing that we’ve played a slight role in helping these beautiful animals get back out into the wild, or by at least informing others of the current sun bear situation and creating awareness. I would encourage anybody thinking about volunteering at BSBCC to start filling out their application now, it will be an experience you will never forget! I learnt so much in the month that I was at BSBCC and had the time of my life working with everyone at the centre and working so closely to the bears. It was hard saying goodbye to each and every one of the sun bears and staff at BSBCC. Thanks to Wong and all the staff at BSBCC for giving me such an amazing BSBCC experience!
Text and Photos by Caitlyn Turner
My name is Caitlyn Turner and I am a 4th year Environmental Science student from the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. My sun bear experience was shared with two other Environmental students from my university called Hayley and Emma. Our work placement at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) lasted a total of 4 weeks. Before applying for this work placement I had no idea what the situation with the sun bears was like. After spending a month working with the centre staff and the bears, I have learnt a great amount about the species and their importance in the world.
Our journey to Borneo first began on the plane trip over where we had no idea what to expect. I remember feeling nervous, anxious, and extremely excited. When we reached Sandakan it was like we had gone to an entirely different world. Going from living so close to the beach to entirely jungle was going to be a new experience. After leaving the airport we were driven to our accommodation by a taxi driver whom spoke little to no English. This was the second sign that we were no longer in a country like our own and it would be a good time to learn some Malay. When we reached our accommodation at the Sepilok Jungle Resort we were kindly welcomed by the resort staff and were checked-in to our resort room. Our room was simple, but it was perfect for the 3 of us.
The day after arriving we were into our induction at the BSBCC. We had no idea what we would be doing whilst there so we were all very curious and excited to begin. For our first day we were welcomed by the founder and CEO of the centre, Wong. He then left us in the capable hands of another staff member called Nick who kindly guided us through the centre and the bear houses. He explained everything to us and even treated us to a trip to the Orang utan Rehabilitation Centre in the afternoon. Our day at the centre finished with another staff member called Thye Lim giving a presentation which taught us a great deal about the sun bears. It was great being able to learn so much that early in the experience.
The next two weeks of our placement was spent helping out in the visitor centre. We spent our time here and not working in the bear houses as there were 3 interns also volunteering at the centre at this time. Even though we were keen to work with the sun bears it was a good chance for us to learn as much as possible about the bears before getting to experience them close up. Working on the observation platform and talking to visitors at the education booth was definitely a benefit as it allowed us to not only learn more about the bears but we got to teach others about them also. It felt great being able to educate people about the sun bears and to encourage them to support such an amazing conservation project. I think by spending the first 2 weeks doing these jobs I started to become truly passionate about the need for sun bear conservation and it made me determined to inform people about them as much as I could. My time in the centre also allowed me to make a number of wonderful friends with the visitor centre staff and most importantly it was the beginning to the 3 of us feeling like we were part of the team.
My favourite part of each day for the first two weeks was working on the platform. I never knew what I would see or end up learning each day. I remember meeting the cheeky macaques for the first time and at first I thought they were cute but I was soon to learn they are mischievous and dangerous. Lester, one of the centre’s staff, was generally called when there was a monkey problem and it always made me laugh to watch him chase them away. One of the days when coconuts were being given to the bears’ for their afternoon food, there was a macaque which climbed up a tree with one of the large coconuts. It was quite amusing as the coconut could not be opened so he got bored very quickly and dropped it back to the ground. Speaking of coconuts, another favourite of mine was coconut day as the bears are absolutely amazing at tearing the shell apart. Each bear is different with its coconut opening method, for example, some throw the coconut on the ground, others try to tap a hole into it, and others (i.e. Mary) patiently wait for another bear to open it and steal it from them.
When the 3rd week came around we were beyond prepared to work in the bear house. On our first day we were introduced to a new set of rules which were explained by Thye Lim. Then once the basics were understood we were into the hard work. The physical work inside and outside the bear house was explained by a staff member called Azzry. He guided us through everything we would be doing and even helped by making jokes about tasks so we weren’t as nervous. The daily routine was usually an outdoor pen check, clean the enclosures, morning feed out, prepare porridge, afternoon feed out, prepare enrichment and the disperse it to the bears, and finally the evening feed out with porridge and banana leaves. Even though the routine sounds like it would be repetitive, it really wasn’t. Each day I was excited as to what we were going to prepare for enrichment or what we would be giving the bears to eat. I can honestly say there was never a boring day at the bear house.
From our very first day to our last day we were treated with the utter-most kindness and it was like we were part of the BSBCC team. When we were leaving the centre to return to Australia I knew with certainty that I would be coming back to volunteer in the future. This experience has been incredible and I’d like to thank the entire BSBCC team for making the 3 of us feel very welcome and for making our time at the centre one we will never forget. All the staff at the centre were extremely friendly and I couldn’t think of a greater team of people to work with. Thank you.
Test and Photos by Hayley Beck
Upon arriving in Sepilok, I had no idea what to expect of the centre or the sort of activities I was to participate in. Caitlyn, Emma and myself heard about this amazing opportunity through our university, the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia; and all three of us jumped at the idea of being able to work so closely with a species we all knew so little about.
On our first day at the centre, we met Wong (CEO and Founder of BSBCC), who gave us a little introduction to the centre before passing us over to Nick, who showed us around the centre and got us familiar with the sun bears, the staff, the activities we would be involved in and the rules associated with these activities.
Working up on the observation platform, it was amazing to see these beautiful sun bears up close! I was able to learn so much about the sun bears through talking to the staff at the centre, and hearing them talk to the visitors about the sun bears. Once I had learnt a lot about the bears, I was then able to relay the information to other visitors. It was a very rewarding feeling, knowing that by informing others about the sun bears, I was helping to encourage more people to do their best to help out with the conservation and preservation of this amazing species
Whilst working in the bear house (not accessible to public), there was a strict rule that no one was allowed to touch the sun bears. Seeing them close up, it was very obvious why that rule had been implemented! These sun bears were wild animals, with exceptionally large claws and teeth. The more human contact the bears had, the less chance they had to survive independently back out in the wild (which is the ultimate goal at BSBCC). So even though they looked so cute and cuddly, we restrained ourselves from giving them a pat!
Each day, we would clean the sun bear’s cages, cook them porridge, cut them up some fruit and vegetables, and feed the bears in the bear house as well as the bears out in the forest enclosures. In the afternoons, we would spend time forging for banana leaves, bamboo, termite nests, or anything else that the bears would be able to use as an enrichment toy to keep their minds mentally stimulated. One of my favourite enrichment activities to prepare was the bamboo feeder, in which we chopped up some bamboo trunks (not as easy as it sounds!) and placed some bananas and leaves in the middle of them for the bears to rip out. This activity was able to preoccupy the bears for about 15-30min.
The only obstacle I faced throughout my stay was the leeches! Before arriving at the centre, I never imagined there would be so many leeches. Fortunately the staffs were more than experienced at getting rid of leeches, and were more than happy to help me with any leeches I had; although Azzry did try to make me overcome my fear of leeches by walking through as much forest area as possible – thanks buddy.
One of my favourite activities working in the bear house each day was placing banana leaves all around the bear’s cages for them to find. After the sun bears eat their porridge, many of them tend to regurgitate their food back up to then eat it again. Often, the sun bear will regurgitate on their own body (arms, legs, stomach etc.) and lick it off themselves. Regurgitation is a stereotypical behaviour of the sun bears when they feel either bored or stressed out. Doing this each day results in bald spots along the bears body. So by placing the banana leaves around the cages, the sun bears then have an activity to preoccupy themselves with, and hopefully wear them out quicker – resulting in no (or less) regurgitation time. It was amazing to see how capable the bears are in climbing around their cages searching for the leaves – some would even happily hang off the roof!
After four weeks at BSBCC, I was able to learn so much! Not just about the sun bears as a species, but also about each individual sun bear. Every bear at the centre has its own diverse personality and background. It was amazing knowing more about them, and knowing that volunteering at the centre each day meant that I was helping out just that little bit extra towards their rehabilitation. I intend to spread the word about BSBCC to all my friends and family; it was really one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I have no doubt that I will be back again in the near future to continue volunteering. A HUGE thank you to Wong and all the staff at BSBCC for making us all feel so welcome, and allowing us to enjoy the opportunity of a life time! You all made my time in Sepilok absolutely unforgettable!
Text by See Toh Yee Nin
Hi I am Yee Nin, I’m 21 years old and I am a 3rd year veterinary medicine student. I come from Perak, Malaysia and this is my first time volunteering in a wildlife sanctuary. I am here for a period of 2 weeks as one of the requirements to fulfill the compulsory field practice that is part of the curriculum.
Much like what we had done previously volunteering in zoo, the daily routine was not much different from each other, which included cleaning, preparing food, feeding, and behavioral observations. However, what really impressed me regarding the conservation center was the concern on the status of the species population and efforts in the rehabilitation project. As well as the welfare of the animal is being well taken care of.
On the first day working in the bear house, we are warned to be extra cautious by the staff and not to be too close with the bears as the bears are very powerful and destructive due to their strong arms, hard claws and sharp canine teeth even though they looked cute, innocent, clumsy and small dog-like body size (body weight of 20 to 50kg). I was even stunned by their clever actions of opening a coconut and splitting up a bamboo feeder which indicated the degree of the forcefulness and their instinctive destructive behavior.
After a few days working in the bear house, I shed my fear towards bears gradually and gained more confidence, especially removing the empty feed tray from the cage, which is the movement where we are within a close distance with the bear as the bear can easily grab us and cause harm. The most relished part of the daily routine is the feeding in the forest enclosure. After scattering feed in the forest enclosure area, I enjoyed watching them forage for food, watching the way they removed the inedible part and enjoying their meal. By watching them manipulate all their limbs to remove the husks, then end up lying on the ground on the ventral recumbency with their round belly facing the sky, holding the coconut up by the forelimbs to drink the coconut juice, you definitely can’t stop screaming, “Dear bear can you stop acting cute?”. Every bear has their own pattern of behaviors, such as feeding, climbing (cage or tree), resting in the hammock or basket, grooming etc which most of them are really funny and brighten up your day.
Other than normal daily routine, we also helped in constructing the enrichment materials. In order to prepare enrichment, we were scared by the creepy look of the tractor millipede which is never found in Peninsular Malaysia, bitten by fire ants during the collection of dry leaves, and traumatized by leeches when looking for termite molds in the jungle. This was indeed an unforgettable experience over here. In addition, I had a great opportunity to do behavioral observation and construct an ethogram for Chin in the electric fence training pens which I had previously learnt in my ethology lecture.
The CEO and the founder of the conservation center, Mr Wong Siew Tee at certain extends, impressed me with his passion of conserving the bear population, fancy knowledge of sun bear ethology, capability of leading the team and his philosophy of life, which is “finish all the food and do not waste the food like a bear”. The staff here are joyful, friendly, highly motivated, excited and happy to share their experience and knowledge regardless of the bear or the rainforest. We also had some cultural exchanges by learning some of the culture and lifestyle of Sabahan, which is a lot different from Peninsular Malaysia.
On the last working day in BSBCC, I was lucky enough to have a great opportunity which involved being present in a physical examination where a bear, Linggam was vomiting and depressed and the veterinarian from Wildlife Rescue Unit, Dr Laura decided to put him under sedation so that he could receive supportive therapy. From the short discussion with Dr Laura and BSBCC’s staff, it is sad to say that the recent studies on sun bear, no matter what aspect, either medical field or ethological field information is very limited. More information is needed so that the current method of bear care can be greatly improved, and thereby I have a strong feeling that I might be considering to work on this if I decide to venture into wildlife medicine in the future.
During the afternoon feeding, I did spend a long time sitting on the platform and watching the bears in pen D. I barely believe that time flies too fast and today is my last day of my internship at BSBCC. They are as cute as those furry bear dolls and all their funny moves dissolve your heart. This endangered creature enriched the ecosystem of the rainforest by the ways of their feeding behavior and should not to be allowed to become extinct from the rainforest.
In short, the experience and knowledge that I gained at BSBCC overwhelmed my expectations from different aspects of animal management, human resource management, working culture, sanctuary sustainability, research, education and the passion towards conserving wildlife. BSBCC will be the first on the list as I am happy to promote the volunteering program to my wildlife fanatic juniors because this is one of the best reference centres in Malaysia to see the full picture of how a model of rehabilitation mechanism runs with support from Sabah Wildlife Department. Finally, congratulation and good luck to BSBCC for releasing their first bear, Natalie in to the wild in the coming March after 6 years of hard work and sacrification.