Text by Mae Elliessa Shaifubahrim
Photos by Mae Elliessa Shaifubahrim & Chiew Lin May
My first experience volunteering at a conversation centre
Prior to joining the volunteer program at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), I had little affiliation or experience with wildlife or the conservation industry. I signed up to volunteer at BSBCC for two weeks to learn about a species endemic to my homeland. In these two weeks I discovered a lot about the sun bears (Helarctos malayanus euryspilus) but the thick of my takeaway from this experience was becoming aware of the importance of the work they are doing at the centre, not just for the bears but especially for the bigger cause of conservation and ecosystem/world/livelihood balance.
A day in the routine of a bear keeper
Volunteers are gently integrated into the routine of an extensive list of tasks conducted daily to observe the bear house upkeep and care for the bears’ wellbeing- both physical and mental. The keepers do a lot- food prep, cleaning, feeding, enrichment contraptions, building pens etc. to care for forty-three bears is no small feat.
My favourite task would be food prep: preparing a wide (and very very large) assortment of food for the bears’ daily intake. Nothing like a store filled with kilos upon kilos of food washed, cut, weighed, some cooked, and assorted for to-be very happy bears. The next morning we sweep and clean the same weight in poop. There is nothing like it.
I have the utmost admiration and respect for the eight keepers at BSBCC. Seemingly shy and reserved at first, they turned out to be quite a cheeky bunch. The keepers conduct their work with much integrity and were a joy and pleasure to get to know, learn from, and to work with.
Getting to know the bears
In my time at BSBCC I learned to identify a few individual bears by their appearance and behaviour. Each bear have their own particular black spotted-yellow chest mark. I found myself quite drawn to Simone who spends much of her day sitting on top of her water container to observe keepers and passersby as they go about their business. I was often entranced by what her thoughts could be like as I observed her, and she observed me.
Björn Halla // People
For the duration that I was volunteering, I lodged at “Björn Halla” (translated from Swedish to mean “Bear Cave”). A very modest keep that houses some of the staff of BSBCC. It is in this house that I got to know better and was taken by the varied personalities of the people of BSBCC. I witnessed the meticulous care and regard BSBCC in-house vet, Boon takes toward animals. There was one night Dr. Wong (founder of BSBCC) arrived at the house with a nest of two baby squirrels that had been blown away by the night’s heavy rain. I was low-key jumping in my seat at the novelty of the situation while everyone else seemed to behave as if it were absolutely normal. So chill.
I sat with Pradeep at the dining table for enlightening conversations in regards to conservation, wildlife, and even his house cats. The rest of the house are a varied collection of lovely personalities and goofs Yen Wah, Rebecca, Andy, Mizuno, and Jeniur. With housemates like these I hardly had a dull moment in the house. I highly recommend staying with at the staff house if it is available- it is one of the facets of this trip that enriched my experience here even more so.
Text by Astrid Mofjell
Photos by Chiew Lin May
My name is Astrid Mofjell, I am 21 years old and I’m from Sweden. I’ve always had an interest in nature and wildlife. The last couple of years I have read so much about animals going extinct, animals in captivity etc. I really wanted to help but did not know how. After spending two weeks working at the BSBCC (Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center), I really feel like I have made a change. I have had the privilege to help sun bears adapt to a better life and I really recommend more people come here and help the sun bears.
All the volunteers are staying at an accommodation called Paganakan Dii. It is really beautiful there and you have the opportunity to cook your own food if you want to. If you are quite lazy like me, you can buy food at the cafeteria. The food is really good, and you get a lot of food for a cheap price.
At 7:30 in the morning we leave the accommodation to go to the BSBCC and we start to work
At 8:00 in the morning you either work in the kitchen preparing all the food for the bears or in one of the bear houses cleaning cages. When all the food is prepared and the cages are clean, we help to feed the bears too.
At 12:00 p.m. we have a lunch break for one and a half hours. After you have eaten your lunch you have a lot of time to go and look at the sun bears from the platforms if you want to. Here you can watch the bears play, eat, rest and even climb trees.
I think the funniest part of the day is after lunch because then it is time for enrichment. Then we get to be more creative which is very fun. Enrichment is a process which aims to encourage the bears natural behaviour. Most often we create toys with food hidden inside so the bears really have to make an effort to get to the food.
We will finish work at 5:00 p.m.
Working alongside the staff here has taught me so much about sun bears and also a lot about myself. If I had the opportunity to stay for a longer period of time I would. The staff here are really nice and they always make sure that you feel safe. We have shared so much laughter and the mood is always good here. The staff are really kind and they are happy to answer any questions you have.
Each bear has a different story about how they ended up at the BSBCC. Almost every one of them have been kept illegally as a pet. Their stories really touched me and it made me realize how important the work they do here really is. Even though their stories are really sad, it was really nice to see the progress of the work they have done here.
It made me so happy when the staff told me that this May, four of the bears at the center are going to be released into the wild again. I am so inspired by the people working here, the things they do really works and hopefully even more bears can be released soon.
It feels really good to be a part of the solution and I will remember this for the rest of my life.
Text by Ludwig Gassner
Photos by Ludwig Gassner, APE Malaysia & Chiew Lin May
Hi! This is my short story about my trip and work at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). I am Ludwig Gassner and I´m 18 years old. I live in Sweden and I am currently in my last year of studying to become an animal caretaker. When the opportunity arose that I could have an internship here in Borneo I could not turn it down. This was supposed to be an experience of a lifetime and it really was. We have been through and learnt so much, so I do not even know where to begin.
We are 5 volunteers that came here from Sweden. We are all in the same class at school, so we were good friends even from the beginning. We all flew here together, and the flight was very long because we are from Sweden so it took about 24 hours to get here. I believe that was the longest any of us had ever flown before. But eventually we got here, and we were, as most of the volunteers here, staying at Paganakan dii. Our first day when we got here, we got to rest. It was much needed after the jetlag and the long trip. The next day we got to follow our two volunteer coordinators and they helped us to get a small introduction of the BSBCC and all the staff. They helped us to get settled and went grocery shopping with us. The first week of working you really had a lot to take in. All the routines, names of the bears and staff was a great deal of information to memorize and remember. We all got our own keeper and mine was Adneen. He was the one that was going to keep an extra eye on me and to give me different tasks that we needed to do.
A normal day in the bear house usually looked like this:
In the morning you always prepare the food for the bears and clean their cages. You need to feed the bears 3 times a day and you clean the cages once every morning. In the afternoons we usually feed the bears and make enrichments.
The founder of the centre is Wong Siew Te (Dr. Wong) and lucky for me I got to meet him, and not only that but we had sessions with him every week where we could ask him questions and he told us about the centre, the project and how it all started. He was extremely nice and incredibly down to earth, and it has been a pleasure listening to him talking about his work here. A true inspiration.
He told us all about why he keeps the bears the way he does and how it all works, and this is what I learnt:
The point of the centre is to conserve and increase the Bornean Sun Bear population. There are two subspecies of sun bear and the Bornean sun bear is one of them, and they only exist here in Borneo. That is a big reason why the species is so threatened by extinction and that is a reason why the BSBCC was founded in the first place. The purpose of the centre is to conserve the sun bears by rehabilitating them so they can get reintroduced into the wild. Wild Sun bears live in the rainforests of Borneo and it´s difficult for the bears to survive because of the competition of other animals and all the threats they may face. Bornean Sun bears suffer from poachers, pet keeping, deforestation, gallbladder extraction and other natural predators. The Sun bears that exist at the BSBCC have either suffered from people keeping them as pets or poachers killing their mothers when they were cubs. Sometimes people find these orphaned cubs and keep them as pets, and that´s when the problems start. Most of the bears at the center have been kept in a small cage their whole life so they don´t know about the outside world or the forest. That´s when something called stereotypical behaviours start. They are predators so they naturally have big territories that they patrol. Then when they are locked up in small cages that are not even close to the size they need, they pace. Pacing is a common stereotypical behaviour that the bears do when they cannot express their natural behaviours for example, having large territories. So that´s where the centre comes in. They can´t just put a pet kept bear that has spent it´s whole life in a cage directly into a big rainforest environment. The bear wouldn´t know what to do and it would get extremely stressed and do all kinds of unpredictable behaviours. That’s why the bears get to live in a pretty small cage first and move up to bigger ones once they show signs that they are ready for it. Then after they have shown in the big rainforest enclosure that they have all the right attributes and skills that a bear needs to survive, they can be released into the wild.
And that is what I have learnt during my time here at the BSBCC.
Thanks to all the staff and the people that made this possible. And a special thanks to Dr. Wong for letting us come here and giving us the chance to help his centre. Also, a special thanks to my buddy Adneen and for my second buddy Roger.
Text by Tindra Spennare Jacobssen
Photos by Tindra Spennare Jacobssen & APE Malaysia
Hello! My name is Tindra, I am from Sweden and I am 18 years old.
I study animal care at my school Spånga gymnasium and will graduate in a few months. Four of my classmates and myself got the opportunity to be volunteers at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre thanks to our school. We have now been here for five weeks as a part of our internship.
Before I knew about our school’s internship abroad, I had honestly never heard about Sun bears or even the island Borneo, but I have always been interested in conservation and rehabilitation of wild animals, so I did not want to miss such an experience.
During these five weeks I have weighed hundreds of kilos of fruits and vegetables, cleaned a lot of cages and gotten sweaty like never before. We have been going on trips to find banana leaves where we also got to try fresh coconut juice. We went on a walk into the jungle to find termite nests and got attacked by leeches.
My buddy Jeniur and I worked on a project together with my friend and her buddy. We improved a platform in an outside enclosure as an enrichment for the bears and to make them more visible for the visitors. We carried a lot of logs and it was really heavy, but all that was in my head was “do it for the bears”, and that really pushed me.
I also got to know the keepers and staff at the centre, they have been very friendly and funny since day one. The funniest moment from these weeks was from when we taught each other words in Malay and Swedish.
I have gained so many new memories and I have learnt so much during these weeks that it is hard to know what to include in this blog post, a thousand thoughts are going through my head right now. But if you are reading this and are thinking about volunteering at BSBCC, I really think you should!
I want to say thank you to the staff at BSBCC and APE Malaysia for making this volunteer experience the best possible and I hope to see you again in the future!
Text by Josefin S.
Photos by Sumira Muis & Chiew Lin May
Hi my name is Josefin. I am from Sweden and I am a student at Spånga gymnasium (a Swedish high school). My four classmates and I have been volunteering at BSBCC (Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre) for 5 weeks from 7 January to 7 February. During that time I have learnt and experienced a lot. I have seen a great variety of animals like macaque and different species of bird. I have even been chased by an orangutan. When we came here, we had spent 18 hours in the air and 24 hours travelling with little to no sleep. The temperature went from minus 2 to 30 plus degrees, so on the first day I started to sweat by the thought of moving.
In my first week I spent three days in the kitchen chopping up and weighing different vegetables and fruits. Every bear gets approximately 4.5 kilograms of food each day. As of now the centre is keeping and rehabilitating 43 bears, so you can imagine the amount of food we prepared in one day. During my time here I have improved on a lot of skills. One being cutting up large quantities of fruits with a big knife. I have also learnt how to use different power tools like a drill machine. To engage the bears and encourage their natural behaviour we built enrichments. For example, making a platform that will make it easier and help them learn to climb, because in the wild they spend a lot of time in the trees, sleeping and hiding from predators. Building the enrichment often involved cutting, sawing, drilling, and some sweat and tears. I can assure you that if you volunteer here, at the end of the day you will feel exhausted but very fulfilled. My buddy and I managed to make two different types of enrichment. The first was a piece of wood about 25cm long that we drilled holes into. In the holes we put dog biscuits, mealworms, honey or peanut butter. In total we made 40 pieces, one for each bear. I was so glad when Om (one of the bears) ripped his piece of wood into a million pieces trying to get to the food, it was exactly what I was hoping for
One thing that surprised me and made me really happy was that the founder Dr. Wong, sat down with the volunteers once a week (if he had the time) and answered any questions that they might have about the bears, the centre, him or any other questions about wildlife conservation. It was really sweet, and you would get some great answers. When I look back at my five weeks here, I smile. I have done and learnt so much. One day we went to get banana leaves and the keepers found coconuts. They cut an opening at the top so we could drink the coconut milk and later they opened it so we could eat the “meat” inside. It was delicious.
In conclusion: if I once more were given the chance to volunteer here, I would pack my bags in a heartbeat and jump on the nearest aeroplane. I highly recommend volunteering here as it will be a life experience you won't forget. You will meet amazing people, learn, see and do stuff you never done before, and most importantly you will see and work with the cutest bear. There is nothing like seeing them lie on their back with their feet up in the air eating a sugarcane or drinking the coconut milk. It just takes your breath away.
Text by Eva Wiktoria Wikström
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Hello! My name is Wictoria, and I am 19 years old. I come from Sweden, and I have been volunteering here at BSBCC for 5 weeks with 4 of my classmates as a part of our internship in school, where we are studying to become animal caretakers. During these weeks, on the other side of the world, I have learned so much about so many things, and I am very glad that I got the chance to experience this.
When we got out from the airport in Sandakan, after our almost 24 hour long journey, we were hit by the gazing sun, and I quickly realized that the upcoming weeks weren’t going to be easy. Working in 30oC when you are used to the Swedish winter with 0oC is very hard, and the first week was very rough. Everything was so new, and the hot weather in combination with the jet lag and the language barrier (I really struggled with my English at first), made everything more difficult, but everything got easier as time went on. I quickly got into the routines, and I got to know the keepers fast, which made everything better. We have been laughing and joking a lot, and they are all very easy to talk to.
Except for the daily routines such as preparing food, cleaning the cages and feeding all the bears etc., we all got one project each to work on with our buddy keeper. I got to help with the integration training with the three bears Phin, Wan-Wan and Mamatai, so that they could share cages (without fighting) instead of staying alone. I helped to observe the bears, and every minute for half an hour, I wrote down each bear’s behaviour. We did this almost every day for a few weeks, and it was very fun and unique – especially to see Wan-Wan and Mamatai spend the days together during my last week here. You really get to see the bear’s different personalities while working so close to them.
I also really enjoyed making enrichments for the bears. Spending just one hour making small, simple enrichments using fire hoses, leaves, dog toys and things like that, can keep the bears entertained for double the time. In this case, you can really say that even the smallest things can make a big difference.
Thank you to everyone at BSBCC, both the staff and bears, for making this possible. This is an experience I will never forget, and I am very happy that I got the chance to do this. I will bring so many memories back home to Sweden. Volunteering is a good and simple way to help endangered species, and since not many people have heard about the Sun bears and their conditions, I now feel like I have a responsibility to spread the word about them and make people more aware of these amazing bears.
Text by Kiara Rose Jasmin Villacrez
Photos by Kiara Rose Jasmin Villacrez & Ape Malaysia
Tja tja bloggen! That is a typical Swedish way to begin a blog post. My name is Kiara and I have spent 5 weeks at BSBCC as part of my high school curriculum together with 4 other classmates. It has been THE experience. I have never been to Asia before so that is a big achievement. To also have had the opportunity to help the conservation of a vulnerable species sounds too good to be true for me. It is so much more rewarding to be behind the scenes and do the same hard work the bear keepers are doing instead of just watching as a visitor. Many friends got the idea that I was getting very comfortable and was on vacation. While I had a great time, it was no vacation. Still, I would gladly choose volunteering over vacation any time.
For the first days I was nervous, but I quickly got to know all the welcoming staff and got into the routine of it all. It has been eventful, and the time has passed very fast. During my stay here I have been working together with my buddy keeper, my friend from the same school as me and her buddy keeper. We worked together with other keepers on a project to improve the platform in one of the outdoor enclosures. The project consisted of logs being added to the platform in order to give the bears more opportunities to climb, dig and explore the logs and the whole area of the platform. We carried big logs from the forest to the platforms and used drills to secure them to the platform and to a pillar we put up. The purpose of the project was both as an enrichment for the bears and to get them to be more visible to the visitors. The centre work much with eco-tourism so it is an important part as well. The project involved much hard physical work but the outcome was worth it. Many keepers helped and the teamwork was dope. Sessions with Dr Wong, the founder of BSBCC, was also included which was amazing. He had the answers to all of our questions, and we had a really good time.
During my time at BSBCC I have cleaned many cages, made many enrichments, carried many logs and laughed many times. I have contributed to the rehabilitation and welfare of the bears at the Sun Bear Conservation Centre, it’s amazing to say it and it is an amazing experience everybody should consider. While vacation is fun, and sometimes much needed, volunteering is another level of fulfilment.
Thank you BSBCC staff and my buddy keeper, Mizuno!
Text by Eileen Nyeow @ Yau Yee Ling
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Hello… my name is Eileen Nyeow. I am 42 years old and currently residing in Peninsular Malaysia. Participating in Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) Volunteer Programme was part of my mission, during my sabbatical, towards doing my little bit to help save animals. The main reason I chose BSBCC was because of the Founder, Dr. Wong Siew Te. I have read about his passion and relentless effort towards helping and preserving the Sun Bears; and was inspired to come see and experience for myself what BSBCC is all about.
This was the first volunteer programme where I had to be interviewed (before being accepted) & to obtain a full health check before flying over. Upon arriving, I went through an induction session where I was briefed with more rules of conduct. I realized and understood the need for that measure after. BSBCC is situated right smack in the middle of the rain forest in Sepilok; surrounded by other wild animals (i.e. orang utans, elephants, snakes, squirrels). Health check was necessary so that we do not pass on any diseases to the animals. Volunteering here involves much physical work so one has to be somewhat prepared. Lastly, the bears within the Centre are all waiting for a second chance in the wild and it is of grave importance that the bears do not get overly habituated with people.
My buddy keeper during my Programme was Bithrenly (a.k.a Bit). Although fairly new with the Centre, he managed to share many of his experiences and stories about the bears with me. Among the many tasks with him, my daily routine usually revolves around preparing food for the bears (4 feedings in a day), cleaning poop and scrubbing enclosures, checking the perimeters of the enclosure fence, making enrichment projects for the bears to play and sharpen their skills. I also had many valuable instances, such as group Q&A session with the “Bear Man” himself, Dr. Wong, assisting the vet (Dr. Boon) during a routine medical check for Julaini. I mean there are not many non-field related people who can say they have use a thermometer on a bear. Hahaha! I even learnt and got to inspect bear poop for parasites! ><
In summary, I am thankful for this valuable experience and I feel privileged to be there, with everyone.
Being amazed with efforts of BSBCC in preserving the Sun Bears is one thing, learning hands-on about the smallest bear in the world is another. On top of it, I was also truly amazed with the dedicated members of BSBCC (office staff and bear keepers). One can feel their enthusiasm and love for the bears emanating from them.
There are many people to thank for making my journey an unforgettable one. Instead of naming and possibly missing out names, I would like to just extend a huge shout out of appreciation to the BSBCC FAMILY! I hope to see all of you very soon.
Text by Grace Cheong Wei Yen
Photos by Grace Cheong Wei Yen & Chiew Lin May
Personally, I feel that this experience has opened my eyes to how much work it actually requires to take care of human beings, and how much more these bears need! Coming from an Asian background, the concept of filial piety is constantly reinforced, and now I truly realize how much effort my parents have put into raising me. Besides that, I have been privileged to have a first-hand experience of taking care of the sun bears which are endemic to Borneo only, a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Furthermore, there is no such satisfaction as witnessing a bear finally succeed in doing something that you had a part in!
So if you are seeking to escape the busy city life or to explore your interest in wildlife, or even carry out an internship as part of your program, then this is the place to be! Never mind all the bugs, this is a rare chance to catch a glimpse of other animal species endemic to Borneo like the sacred kingfisher and rhinoceros hornbill, or even Asian pygmy elephants! If I had the chance or time to come back a second time, I definitely would not hesitate.
Text by Angeline Ngu Hong Huong
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Hey everyone! This is Angeline Ngu from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. I am a primary school teacher and also a hardcore bear fan. I am really astonished by the adorable sun bears in the forest enclosure during my first visit to BSBCC. Watching the bear sunbathing on top of the tree through the telescope almost melted my heart. No doubt it was love at first sight. Coincidently, I met Dr. Boon who is a bear doctor in BSBCC and she explains all the stories about the sun bears and the details about the volunteer programme. That’s when I made up my mind to spend my Christmas holiday volunteering in BSBCC.
Despite knowing it would be tough working with wild animals, some more need to trek in the jungle, I actually hestitated a little just before departing. But since I am really looking forward to seeing the sun bears, here I am, about to end my two weeks volunteering with a really heavy heart, especially to say goodbyes to all the sun bears when I have just started to recognize them by their characteristics =( And not forgetting the friendly staffs in BSBCC whom I call the bear family.
For me, it is a bittersweet experience working in BSBCC. Let’s first talk about the sw-eeeeett part. It’s a big bear family here in BSBCC where the keepers are like the parents to all the sun bears. You must witness how worried the keepers are when the bears are not feeling well. They would try everything to make sure the bears take their medication. Throughout the volunteering days I had so much laughters with the keepers and all the friendly staffs in BSBCC as we share everything from our family to the bear stories. Not forgetting the Christmas party in Bjorn Hala, the keepers are capable of doing everything from fixing electric fence to cooking. The food they prepared is finger-lickin good! The sweetest part, the keepers constantly checking us volunteers out to make sure that we can handle our tasks and are always there to help whenever we need. We had so much laughters inside and outside BSBCC. Here comes the bitter part. I would say it is really tough taking care of wild animals as it requires a lot of heavy work. It is a great challenge for me to trek through the muddy and slippery ground in the forest especially during rainy season to check the electric fence. A big thank you to my buddy keeper, Mr. Pradeep who always tolerated me and my snail pace when hiking up and down the hill. Carrying heavy objects like food and wood is inevitable in the bear house but the keepers are always ready to help. Overall, all the hard work is worthwhile as long as the bears are happy and healthy.
Volunteering in BSBCC is truly an eye opener. I am privileged to having been able to join medical checkup session on the oldest bear in BSBCC, Amaco who is currently 27 years old with Dr. Boon and Dr. Reza. I was tremendously nervous before that as everyone is worried that he might not be able to pull through the process due to his age. Fortunately, he did and he was recovering well! During the process, I have learnt how to measure a bear’s heartbeat, respiration and body temperature. All this sounds pretty easy until I was inside the clinic and was really panicing because I could not hear the heartbeat even with a stethoscope. Meanwhile, Dr. Reza patiently taught me to first feel the heartbeat then hearing it would be easier. It works like magic! I was also given the opportunity to help Dr. Boon in recording dental details of Amaco and to trim its nails with a mini saw! That is something new! I enjoyed everything throughout the process as I know I would never have the opportunity to experience all these in my life. Not a single day passed by that I did not learn something new while working with the sun bears. Yeap! That is me trying to complete the entire “mission impossible” and I am proud to say MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!