Text and Photos by Lee Jia Wei
Tomorrow? Oh boy, how time flies! Just a flurry of constant diggings at the bearhouse and suddenly I'm going off real soon! Suddenly 20 days doesn't seem that long at all, haha!
Being able to volunteer here was honestly, such a blessing from the start. Initially BSBCC had so many interns and volunteers, that they couldn't afford to take in anyone else until September! However, I was determined to volunteer here, and finally a chance came - an intern student pulled out, and I was given the opportunity to be at the place I wanted to be! When I was told I got accepted, I was literally running around the entire top floor of my house, as if I struck a goal in football, haha!!
How is volunteering in BSBCC? I would say it was exactly I imagined it to be! We did so many things in a day, that lunch break became a luxury, and sleep was heaven, haha!
Everyday, as I am staying in the volunteer hut 'Bjorn Hala', I would wake up and make breakfast with my fellow housemates, and around 7.30am, we would go off to BSBCC. We'll clock-in and start work at 8am when we reach there.
First, we will see which job we are assigned to. On some days, we help to clean the cages. I love how this particular chore tends to bring some people out of their comfort zone, as we have to deal with bear poop and leftover food scraps! In my opinion, cleaning the cages is the toughest of the day's work, but once you finish cleaning a cage and it's squeaky clean, you'll have such a wonderful sense of achievement when you realize the bears would feel comfortable too!
Also, we have to check the electric fences, just to make sure there are not foreign matter obstructing its current. This is also fun, as I get to enter the bear jungle enclosures! (They made sure there aren't any bears in the enclosure first before me and a staff went in) I got to see the jungle environment the bears explore in the day and it was great to see how big it was!
Then there is another job - the kitchen. I love being in the kitchen! Here, we help prepare the bear's daily meals. From cooking porridge to washing, slicing, measuring and dividing fruits and vege - it is a blast for me!
Other side chores in which everyone helps everyone to do include feeding the bears in the bear house, feeding the bears out in the enclosures:-
Making enrichments (stuff in which bears can play with):-
Finding materials needed for enrichments:-
(Ginger leaves, dried leaves)
(Logs and sticks)
(Trekking to find termite nests)
(Bamboo and banana leaves)
And of course, giving the bears their enrichments!
Some of the small enrichments we make include:-
Fire hose feeders,
Fruity ice blocks, aussie dogs (a sturdy ball with food in it) and Kongs (small rubber toy in which food can be inserted in it); and the big enrichments we make include hammocks, wooden structures and structures made from the fire hose. Usually in the afternoon, we will work as a team to prepare the enrichments, and give them to the bears in the late afternoons to play.
In overall, in my opinion, volunteering here is a "daily routine filled with surprises". Sure, you know what to expect every single day, but there are so many aspects on what you actually DON'T expect, that makes your days different from the other. Like there was one day, a huge liana plant toppled from the top of a huge tree, and blocked our walkway. We have to cut and remove all the liana in the afternoon, and boy, some of the liana were spiky!
Also, we had to scare some cheeky macaques away because they were blocking the walkway. I also got to see the bear who is going to be released this month, Lawa, in her nest on a tree in her enclosure!
On some days, we get sessions with the founder of BSBCC, in which he was eager to share his knowledge with all of us. I was really happy I finally got to meet him in person as I am going to do the same course as him in university next year!
Not only that, I got the chance to go onto the platforms and talk with the visitors about the sunbears!
As an added bonus, I got to see three cubs – Boboi, Kitud and Tan-tan - being released into the wilderness for the first time. They have never set foot in the forest, and, seeing them slowly tapping the wooden ramp, putting their first paw onto the ground and hearing the staff proudly announce that “they have touched the ground!” felt like I was part of the Apollo 11 mission, except it was the phrase “one small step on the jungle, one giant leap for bearkind”! ^-^ I was really beaming with pride, as when I first came here, they were all still undergoing fence training and playing with one another. On that day, I saw these three bear friends help each other overcome their fear of the unknown, and took their first step onto the soil and grass - they looked so happy!! ^^ One day, I bet, they’ll be roaming in the forest of Tabin once again, back to where they belong.
Boy, I learnt so many incredible things here. I saw how humanlike the bears are! It was so surreal realizing that I am working with bears the first time I stepped into the bearhouse. Seeing them climb everything reminds me of myself when I climb everything in playgrounds! They are so curious, and so intelligent too. Seeing them figure out what to do with their enrichments really made me feel, "Wow, how similar they are to us!" And every bear had his/her own unique behavior and facial features, just like humans, that my initial thought of recognizing the sunbears via their chestmarks dissipated as quickly as it came. Chin always is having so much fun playing with wood, Along is always curious at my washing brush, Kitud loves to stand and watch you, Linggam loves your sincerity, Simone loves to try everything, Cerah and Jelita are friendship goals.... It resolidified my thoughts - We are all animal. We are all equal. No being is superior to the other. Why do us humans put ourselves higher than every other being? The mere fact is we are all the same. We are all breathing. We are all, Life.
And the people. Oh the people! They are probably the definition of "smells like team spirit!!" They ARE team spirit. Everyone in the bear house helps each other like no one else. Not one is selfish. Everyone, literally EVERYONE, is as friendly as anyone can get. At first, as I am from Penang (West Malaysia), I felt a little left out as I wasn't too fluent in Malay and couldn't exactly express what I wanted to say. As the days went by I slowly got used to their way of speaking and now "apa-apa saja yang mereka bilang pun saya tau bah" :D We had so much fun together after work. They took me out for Hari Raya, watch a movie, have a bbq party together, grocery shopping, tour the orangutan center, eat outside, hear a talk given by Mr. Wong in Sandakan city, and Mr. Wong even brought us to his house to try the food he made himself! It doesn't feel like a routine when I'm around them - they will crack the silliest jokes and tell the most amazing stories, experiences, even randomly throw in incredible facts, and anime. Oh yes, and I've met so many people who studies/studied about the environment like I do - in which in Malaysia, we are a rare breed! Haha! Think this volunteering opportunity is serious? Yes, everyone takes the work seriously. But the atmosphere around the people? Not!! They'll make any serious atmosphere disappear in an instant! This is the power of Sabahans!
Will I come again? Are you kidding me? Of COURSE! I can't wait to see more and more bears released into the wild, and more bears rescued and rehabilitated. A LOT of the public think this is only a "center" and what they don't know, is that ALL bears are RESCUED and are given a second chance to go back into the wild. I really want to see them released back into the Bornean rainforests, where they belong, and I know they are going to continue doing a great job at this, as long as they stay true to their mission. :)
I'm not sure if he minds this, but I'm going to quote a particular staff because this sentence has such a positive impact on me:-
BSBCC Staff: "I'm going to quit this job, when there is no need for it anymore."
Me: *thinks sadly that he means that when the sunbears are extinct* "What do you mean no need for it anymore?"
BSBCC Staff: "When there are a lot of sunbears in the wild, and they are not even endangered anymore."
This is hope. And I'm hopeful for the sunbears.
This is a dream. And they are driving it.
I expect big things from you guys ;)
Text and Photos by Wong Chung Li
BSBCC is a place where I have lovely experience for both my volunteering days and my school tour. Back when I was still a student from Yu Yuan Secondary School on 2013, I had a precious chance to visit BSBCC with my classmates along with teachers before it was opened one year later. It’s a fruitful and fabulous tour as we could see the bears which we have never seen. In addition, the staffs were telling a lot of interesting facts to us and the ways we can conserve these cute creatures. At that time, I hope that I could do something for the bears.
However, I have postponed the plan until three years later. It’s my summer vacation of my university, so I decided to join BSBCC as a volunteer for a month. On my first induction, I was given instructions and rules I have to obey. This boosted me up and I really can’t wait for it to be started.
Ok! I have to drive 10 miles daily from home to work on early morning. As volunteer, I was offered a chance to stay in Bjorn Hala, a staff house which accommodates some staffs and volunteers but it’s a bit crowded then. On morning, we are assigned to different works according to the schedule but usually we have to prepare the foods or do fence checking first. Fence checking is an inspection of the voltage of our fences surrounding the forest enclosures and confirmation of the bears staying in the forest. We have to remove some branches trapped between the fences which lower the voltage. After that, we back to bear house and do our following works. Sometimes, I was assigned to clean cages. At first, I felt that the faeces and the dirt in the cage smelled unpleasant. After one month of “training”, I can say loudly that I can endure and get used to it already haha!
In cleaning cages, I learned that the faeces of the bear reflect what they eat and the different behaviour of different bears. A few naughty bears love to distract and disturb me from the neighbouring cages and when they grab the things, I can barely get it back due to their overpower strength. In doing kitchen works, I also learn of what bears eat every day and some special diet for some bears.
After preparing the second meal of porridge, we will go outside feeding. Outside feeding enables me to see bears playing in the forest in a short distance and have trained my stamina on carrying buckets of fruits and walk on the forest. When feeding is done, we will do some enrichment for the bears. Bears do pacing while they stress out. Some may injure themselves by doing so. The purpose of doing enrichment is to reduce their pacing behaviour and somehow encourage their climbing and foraging skills. I really enjoy this activity. It gives me a sense of achievement when the bears play it and try to suck the foods out.
After coming here, I start to differentiate each bear by looking at its appearance other than its unique chest mark. I also understand how complex the process of placement of bear from integration to fence training to forest enclosure and finally release is. The release of bear requires a lot of energy and money but it allows the bear to enjoy the wild again. Our bears all have sad past when they were still cubs. So I really hope that they can live happily afterwards.
Mr Wong, the CEO & Founder of BSBCC is a kind and knowledgeable wildlife biologist who has studied sun bear for 20 years. He always shares his stories and experience with us during his free time. He has a lot of books inside the office and he can always remember where the information comes from. His stories of building up the BSBCC and sacrificing his personal life are really inspiring. Other than sun bear, Mr Wong study birds well too. After I tried his foods, I believe he will become a famous chef if he didn’t become a wildlife biologist.
I would like to thank all the staffs, especially the bear keepers and maintenance team which I always work with (Forgive me for not mention the names one by one). Given my limited ability to speak Malay, they can still communicate with me well. They are so friendly and patient in teaching me the ways to use some equipment. We have chit-chatting a lot and know about each other well. I also love to listen to their working experience and other stories.
I would like to give credits to Lester, my buddy. This is because he really helps a lot and provide professional advice to me on doing our enrichment called “Swing Along” for one of our bear called Along. As I know, Along still hasn’t stepped on our enrichment yet haha. Besides, he is a funny guy and always influent in atmosphere. Without him, we always feel like we lack something. At last, I would like to say that it’s a great honor to work along with you guys and being a part in helping sun bear. Thank you!
Text & Photos by Nicola Chin
My two weeks at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre could be described in many ways: hard work, eventful, fun, enriching, etc. Ultimately, it was a wholesome experience I have absolutely no regrets about, and I’d like to tell you about what I did there, and why it was worth it.
Full days of work were the norm, with a large range of tasks that went towards maintaining the facilities both indoors and outdoors (cleaning and fence checks), keeping the bears well-fed and occupied (food preparation, feeding and enrichment, more on that later), as well as other projects that would go towards improving the lives of everyone at the centre. Tiring as they were, me and the other volunteers could go away each day knowing that our work there made a difference.
Among my favourite tasks as a volunteer was enrichment, which involves fashioning objects for the sun bears to interact with, be it a bamboo shoot filled with tasty fruit, or a bed of dried leaves to forage through. Enrichment gives the bears things to do, and teaches them to use their senses and bodies like they would in the wild, which was always fun to watch! My other favourite project was getting to decorate the bear house walls, upon the request of Lin May, one of the bear care staff. As someone who loves art, it was wonderful to be given the opportunity to contribute to the centre with my drawing skills. I painted a series of bears engaged in different enrichment activities, and sketched some more bears in the kitchen; these were then painted by Lester, another one of the BSBCC staff.
Sun bear murals
Design by me
Painted by Lester,Sabine and David
Education was another important part of the programme. I learned loads about the sun bears, their troubles at the hands of poachers, and their role in the Malaysian forests, and through an educational booth set up in the centre, us volunteers were able to impart our knowledge to the visitors there. This was difficult, because many of the visitors were simply not interested, but it was rewarding whenever someone adopted a bear, or even just went away knowing one more fact about sun bears.
The bears themselves were an interesting bunch! A handful to take care of, they were a delight nevertheless, and the bears’ individual personalities revealed themselves with time and observation. I found that it was best when I appreciated the bears as animals with wild instincts, for both their benefit and mine. But it’s admittedly hard not to call them cute when you see one lying on its back, licking the piece of peanut butter filled fire hose it has cradled in its paws!
The BSBCC team members were helpful, friendly and dedicated; it was clear that they took their respective roles as sun bear carers seriously, as shown by their attention to detail, and how they made sure that us volunteers knew what we were doing every step of the way. Our programme facilitators from APE (Animal Projects and Environmental Education) were very much the same, and I appreciate the effort they put into taking care of me, and ensuring the programme was well organised.
I joined the volunteer programme as a gap year student looking for a project, and came away glad that as a local Malaysian, I was able to play a part in the BSBCC’s mission. The efforts of the team come from noble hearts, and I would highly encourage other Malaysians to try out this volunteer programme for themselves!
Text and Photos by Julia Riverstal
Hi, my name is Julia Riverstål I am currently 18 years old and I am from Stockholm, Sweden.I am on my final year at an animal care program in Sweden at Spånga Gymnasium. It is thru my school that I have got this amazing chance to see and actually be a part of the amazing work that they do at the Bornean sun bear conservation centre for a total of 5 weeks.
In April 2015 I visited the centre for 4 days with a few others from my school and it is totally stunning to see the progress that some of the bears have been doing in less than 10 months! When I was here the first time some of the cubs were still in quarantine and to see them high up in the trees at the big bear house is just the best receipt to understand that the centre is really making a difference!
My Swedish immune system have unfortunately not handled the Bornean flora of bacteria so good so I have been sick a lot and sadly I had to stay at home for some time. But even if i were sick and had to stay at home I could still help the centre with translating a Swedish TV program about Sun bears, so at least I could do something. I have never felt so appreciated and welcomed at another place and all of the staff at the centre is just outstanding in their way of showing their appreciation and kindness to the volunteers.
Some of the things that you do is routines and are pretty much the same every day, you clean the cages, prepare the food and feed the bears. But even if you do this every day it is never the same, one day the cage is almost clean and the next day it is filled with enrichment or you just have to clean a cage where there has been a complete poop party, haha! With the feeding, both inside and outside you get a perfect chance to see that everything is good with the bear, not being interested of food is a big indicator that something is wrong. Of course it is just a blast to see the bears playing around trying to crack coconut or to see them lie on their back eating sugar pipes. In the afternoon you focus on doing enrichment and if you ask me this is the most fun thing to do, to build or make something that will keep the bear busy for a while. It is not as easy as it seems, there is a lot of things you have to keep in mind when doing this. First of all it has to be safe for the bears to play with and then you have to adjust the enrichment to the bear that you are going to give it to and I can tell you that it is a lot of different personalities in those bear houses. The last week we got to be a part of BSBCC´s educating program, I was able to talk to visitors and spread the word about the sun bears situation and what they do at the centre. Educating the people is just as important as talking care of the bears in the bearhouse and it felt really good and surprisingly I met a whole group of Swedish people!
My time at the centre has been amazing, it has been a roller coaster journey for me as a person but it has opened my eyes and given me perspective that has enriched me as a person! I have would not have changed it for anything and if someone is given the opportunity that I was given, take it, you will not regret it!
I want to thank my school, every staff member of the centre and the sun bears for this amazing journey!
A big Swedish brown bear hug from me!
// The pale, chubby and red faced volunteer ;) <3
Text and Photos by Emelie Siippainen
My name is Emelie and I am a student from Stockholm, Sweden. I study animals so that I can become an animal keeper one day. My school gave me the opportunity to travel to Borneo and volunteer at the BSBCC and off course I took that chance! Ever since I was a little kid I loved animals, actually the first job I ever wanted was being a farmer because I wanted to milk all the cows. That dream soon developed into a life of loving animals and being an environmentally conscience person.
The first day at the sun bear center I was super nervous but very excited. But after meeting the BSBCC team I felt much better and quickly realized I was finally there, for the amazing bears. I got used to the daily routine quickly and started to learn the names of all the bears. During the first days the work was a bit challenging and very physical, but after a couple of days things got easier and easier. I got to do everything from cleaning the indoor enclosures to giving the bears porridge, fruit and corn, like a real bear keeper. In the afternoons we were working on enrichment projects. I loved the enrichment project time, I found it fun to come up with ideas and use my imagination to challenge the bears. After giving the bears the enrichment, I could have stayed and watch them for hours! It was so much fun being a volunteer in Borneo!
Also the climate was a huge change for me; Borneo is hot and very humid, whereas in Sweden it is cold and grey. And the food is so different. But just to be able to come to a country, live there and be a part of different culture is amazing! Everyone is so friendly and happy all the time, there is never a dull moment. I absolutely want to come back and met everybody again, and especially the bears. The work that is being done at the BSBCC is not easy and it is not cheap, the entire team has to deal with pessimists that are questioning them and the work that they are doing all the time. But their purpose is to preserve the sun bear and to educate the public about them.
I spent 5 weeks in Borneo at the BSBCC working with these amazing animals. I have learned so much, not just about the sun bears but also about conservation work and what I can do to make a difference. It is a once in a lifetime life changing experience. I have met so many wonderful people and I had a blast working with the staff at BSBCC.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank BSBCC for having me as a volunteer and the staff that helped so much during my period of volunteering. I hope that Centre will create greater awareness and educate the public about the sun bear.
Text and Photos by Shannon Samuel
I am a Zoology student from Western Sydney University in Sydney Australia, ever since I was a kid I have wanted to make a difference to the life of everyone, my love has always been the love of animals, a good friend of mine reminded me when I got down that I was the ‘voice for the voiceless’, animals have no voice when their home or family is getting destroyed they can’t yell and scream and say stop. If they can’t who can, my aim is to make the lives of many magnificent animals better in particular the lives of these beautiful sun bears happier.
Previously I had volunteered in Borneo at the Sepilok Orang-utan centre however after visiting the BSBCC multiple times I was adamant to come back and volunteer with the Bears. I spent two weeks in Borneo at the BSBCC working with these amazing creatures.
The duties and activities ranged from pouring porridge to cleaning the enclosures to doing education, and enrichment. There were many exciting and wonderful adventures to be had. I loved the enrichment time after lunch in the afternoon, I found it fun to think up ideas to challenge the bears. I loved that it challenged me to think of enrichment that would take the bears a while to destroy. I loved the hands on creating that it involved. It was so much fun to give the bears the enrichment after giving them their dinner, I could have stayed and watched them for hours.
I had the wonderful experience to involved during the second week of the program in some conservation education, this is what I love, I hope that one day I can be doing conservation education and research as a career, these are the things that I have trained for my whole life. It would excite me to able to talk to the visitors of the BSBCC and encourage them to make donations or sponsorships as well as shed some light into the conservation of the Bornean Sun Bear, it was a wonderful experience to be able to complete in a place I love so much.
I loved the two weeks that I spent volunteering in the BSBCC so much, it is a life changing and a once in a life time experience, to have the insight into the world of bears is something astonishing. I have made so many new and grand friends on this experience and it is one of the many reasons why I want to come back many times in the future.
Text and Photos by Shirley Soh
I’m very blessed to have the opportunity to complete my internship for 14 days at BSBCC, although it is just a short period of time, but every moment that I spent here at BSBCC is so memorable. The cute and cuddly Sun Bear, the green and enchanting forest and not to forget all the kind and friendly staff have make my stay here in BSBCC unforgettable. I’m a 3rd year vet student and the reason that I chose BSBCC as the place for my internship is first, because I have always been having interest in wildlife especially in conservation programs and second, because it is closed to my hometown.
From the first moment that I saw the Sun Bear I could totally understand why people would catch them and keep them as their pets, their cute and cuddly features make them looked so adorable. Illegal pet trade are the main threats to the Sun Bear population besides habitat loss and illegal poaching.
During my period of internship here at BSBCC our daily activities include fence checking, cleaning, preparation of feed, feeding, and making enrichment for the bears. To be honest, for the first few days the task is quite challenging and tough especially for a small girl like me, but looking at the bright sight I get to have a free workout session every day and as I get used to the daily routine, things became easier and easier. Not to forget all the friendly and funny staff here that help to make my days brighter, for every day is filled with joy and laughter.
Although I have not learn a lot about the conservation work, but just by being closed to these wonderful creatures are more than enough for me. And yes, 14 days is just too short for an internship/ volunteering period. Lastly, I would like to take this opportunity to thank BSBCC for accepting me here for my internship as well as to all the staff that help me out a lot during my period of internship. I hope that the establishment of this place would create greater awareness and to educate the public about our Bornean Sun Bear.
Text & Photos by Koo Wei Chee
I always want to work with animals since I was young, but due to the wrong decision that I made in secondary school where I took art and commerce stream instead of science stream. I could not get to the field I wanted after graduated which was zoology or environmental conservation. Thus the only course that I could take was biotechnology which gave me a second chance to enter to bio-related field, Although it was tough to manage the course, I finally maintained the CGPA of 3.0 before taking my last subject which was internship and that was the chance to grab the opportunities to search a job that I liked. After searching for many related companies or organization and even other biotechnology companies when I started to think there was no chance already, BSBCC finally had a positive reply from both the e-mail and online interview, I was very surprised and happy to have this opportunity to enter the field of wildlife. These took me 7 years overall since my mistake in making the wrong decision in year 2007.
This was the first time I travelled so far by myself to Sabah from my hometown in Peninsular Malaysia, I didn’t know what I would face without any experience in handling animals. However, every single moment spent in BSBCC and the wildlife essence in Sepilok had made my four months of this internship period a wonderful experience, memory, and history (16th October 2015 to 3rd February 2016)!
I worked in the bear care unit for these four months. I was quite clumsy at first about the daily routine in cleaning the cages and food preparation, then I was able to pick up the skills and found my own way to do it without changing the motives. I was very grateful to work with those passionate, dedicated, and friendly staff in the unit, we had these kind of same thought that we do our job seriously and meanwhile we joke around sometimes to make the works lively.
The best part I liked in my work is the enrichment part where we manually make different sorts of products to enrich the bears. There are food enrichment such as bamboo feeder, ice blocks, egg carton parcel, PVC tube feeder, termite nest etc., environmental enrichment such as collecting dry leaves, banana leaves, twigs and branches, and also have some clean-up occasionally.
After working in the center around 6 weeks, I asked for projects to do to learn more, I got myself an integration, fence training, and enclosure training for 3 bears and. It was not an easy task because those bears were kept in captive and never touch the earth before, every single training was like a start, to see their behavior of things they never seen before. There was a memory which I will never forget, Sunbearo the bear got zapped by the electric fence during its fence training session, he barked in panic, he didn’t know what to do but to climb up, every single climb got more zap. The keeper in charge ran quickly to turn off the electricity, Sunbearo then climbed down when he noticed that the cage next to the training pen was opened and quickly ran into it to climb up to rest in the hammock. The whole session after that (around 20 minutes). Sunbearo and the other bears actually do not need to feel this pain, it is all due to those people who illegally keep them as pets which screw the whole life of those animals. I’m here to express this message to the public, hoping no other people will keep any of those sun bears as pet again. The best thing was that after more than two months of those training, they touched the first time on earth and able to climb their very first tree, that moments really brightened the work I had done for the centre.
Other things that I needed to cope up with other than the work in BSBCC are basic cooking and languages. The house where volunteers and interns live doesn’t have any grocery shop nearby and I never cook at all before my internship so everything started from zero from cooking even eggs, and slowly to cooking vegetables and chicken lately. I can say that I’m proud to present my own cooked dishes to serve to my parents by now. As about the language, I seldom talk in Malay language due to my education background, I rarely understand a full sentence when people talked to me in Malay and things got even challenging when people in Sabah talk in Malay faster and somehow a slight difference of using words. I knew that this was the chance to allow me to talk more in Malay language so I was very happy that I learnt a lot from the staff. Whenever I didn’t know a word, they were eager to help me to translate it to make my sentence full.
What I knew from this moment was that I will show no regrets even if I could not continue my dream work after fighting so hard and the fury persistence in order to get this internship opportunity because I have experienced it. And this is what most people do not have it, the encouragement to do what they want to do. Special thanks to BSBCC founder and CEO Mr. Wong Siew Te for giving me this opportunity and my supervisor Mr. Tee Thye Lim for being such a great mentor. I did have a positive idea for my future career, and I will still continue my first objective to other bio-related field if needed.
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!