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.
Video by Chiew Lin May
Three years ago when we look at Nano, it is hard to believe what he has suffered in his life...
He was rescued with the intention to end up his unfortunate life as a house pet by keeping him in a small chicken mesh cage. He was found underweight and dehydrated. It took a lot of courage and time for him to get recover from the trauma.
Today, Nano is doing very well at his new home. He is easily identifiable as "sitting up straight with the tiny yellow chest mark" and distinctively longer face shape. Nano was seen having a fun day out in the sun. Nothing can stop him from being a wild bear!
Catch a glimpse of his beautiful journey here!
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.
A sanctuary and refuge for rescued orphans to grow up wild, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre has big hopes for the world’s smallest bear.
ONE SUNNY DAY
In a tropical rainforest in Borneo, bear keeper Jeniur “Boboy” Justin is standing on a watching platform 20m above the dense forest floor. He is observing Logan, a young male sun bear who’s busy trying to crack open a coconut. Logan’s claws and powerful jaw make short work of the tough shell, and after a refreshing drink, Logan lays on his back for an afternoon siesta.
“Logan loves to eat, he will steal other bears’ food. He has become chubby, ” says Boboy with a laugh.
Logan and his keeper, Boboy are in the forested area of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sandakan, a district in Sabah, East Malaysia. The only centre in the world solely dedicated to the conservation of the sun bear. This has been a refuge for Logan since he was rescued in 2018 as a young cub.
“When Logan first arrived, I could see that he was scared. We found that his left paw had a problem. It got injured in a poacher’s snare,” says Boboy.
Being a young cub without his mother, and with an injured paw, Logan was in need of critical care, and it was Boboy who took on the responsibility of looking after him.
“It’s not easy being a surrogate to Logan,” Boboy reflects. “There are a lot of things we need to know, like how bears, especially babies, can survive in the jungle, how we should teach them to be wild.”
It took months of dedicated care from Boboy for Logan to become confident and capable of fending for himself.
A DARK CLOUD
Logan’s plight is far from an isolated incident. Since BSBCC was set up in 2008, the centre has worked with the state wildlife department, to rescue over 60 bears.
“On average, we have five to six bears being sent to our centre every year; half of them are adults and half of them are cubs. All of these animals are all orphaned, because their mums were killed by poachers,” laments Dr Wong Siew Te (who goes by Wong), founder of the BSBCC.
Sun bears, which are the world’s smallest bear and found all across Southeast Asia, are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Though the exact numbers of sun bears remains unverified, studies have shown that their population has fallen by over 30 per cent in the last three decades.
Habitat loss has been a major factor in this, but the biggest threat that the bears currently face is from poaching for industries like the pet trade and food. Despite being a legally protected species in Malaysia, poaching activities still persist.
One of the biggest current threats, comes from their use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). For centuries, bear bile and gall bladders have been sought after for treating a variety of ailments. A recent report by TRAFFIC, stated that almost 70 per cent of all TCM shops in Malaysia were found with some form of bear products. Up from 2012, when it was at 48 per cent.
But while the use of bear products in TCM has increased, so has knowledge of TCM over the years. There is now a realisation that there are viable and healthy alternatives to using wildlife products. The Federation of Chinese Physicians and Medicine Dealers Association of Malaysia, is advocating for the use of medical herbs instead.
“We can completely use medicinal herbs to replace animals” states Ng Kean Hwa, a second-generation TCM practitioner. “With a clear diagnosis, and when used appropriately, it can directly help achieve the curative effect and is a good form of protection towards the natural environment.”
The value of looking after sun bears and not exploiting them isn’t just for the benefit of the bears. Sun bears provide a very tangible benefit to the welfare of people as well.
Sun bears help maintain a healthy diversity of trees by keeping termite populations in check, and dispersing seeds. These trees are essential resources that people use for medicine, building infrastructure, and other needs that are important to the well-being of society.
“For us as humans, we need a healthy forest ecosystem to provide us with clean air, clean water, stable climate, genetic resources like medicine. All of these matter to us,” says Wong.
To help educate the public on the need to conserve sun bears, Wong has opened the centre for the public to view the bears in a forested enclosure, and to raise public awareness about their plight through education and eco-tourism.
Here, the bears are fed their natural diet and have regular medical and dental check-ups. Rehabilitation is a critical component of BSBCC’s work, and when the bears are suitable for release, they are returned to the wild. To date, BSBCC has successfully released seven sun bears into protected forests.
“My hope for all sun bears is that they can survive for a long, long time in Southeast Asia,” declares Wong. “I really hope that the sun bears can live forever in this world.”
RAYS OF HOPE
Back at the platform, Logan has woken from his nap and is climbing a tree in search of something else to eat. Boboy smiles as any proud parent would, and shares a story of when he had to teach Logan the art of tree-climbing.
“There was one time I climbed a small tree, and the tree wasn’t able to support me, and the branch almost broke. What I was most afraid of was that Logan was just below me, and I feared I would be crushed along with Logan,” he shares with a laugh.
“Logan’s hand was weak when it came to climbing trees, but he still challenged himself and refused to give up. That’s why I like Logan. I have spent all this time working with him and our relationship is so close.”
Today, Logan is a master tree climber, despite having a deformed paw. But Boboy has bigger hopes for his "adopted" bear. “In time, we will try our best to fix Logan’s paw… so he can be like other bears, and be released into the wild.”
The desire for the sun bears to see a new dawn, is one that Boboy wishes all Malaysians will come to embrace. “I hope that everyone can work together to protect and care for the wild animals we have. I hope that one day, my children will have the opportunity to see the sun bear in the wild.”
Before he returns to look after the rest of the bears under his care, Boboy has one last story to share. “We gave him the name Logan because of his left paw. It looks like the comic superhero Wolverine’s claw,” says Boboy with a smile.
High up in the trees, Logan has found a comfortable spot, and like a true hero, has fallen asleep once again.
LET’S TALK ABOUT IT:
How can we get more involved in sun bear conservation and spread awareness?
ABOUT BORNEAN SUN BEAR CONSERVATION CENTREEstablished in 2008 by wildlife biologist Dr Wong Siew Te, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is the world’s only conservation and research centre solely dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of the Malayan sun bear. A sanctuary for bears to recuperate and relearn natural behaviour for release back into the wild, the centre also aims to spread public awareness through eco-tourism and education.
CONTRIBUTORSDirector & Editor
Producer & Writer
Video by Chiew Lin May
"Basindo nan tenggil"
Did you know the Malay name for the sun bear means “he who likes to sit high"?
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 Pradeep Gunasegaran
Photos by Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) has been responsible for the care of 4 bears that were received between 2017 and 2018. These four bears are Soo (5 years old), BJ (4 years old), Kina (4 years old), and Sika (3 years old). All four of them were ‘raised’ by people as cubs before they were handed over to BSBCC through Sabah Wildlife Department or personally by the owner. Soo was bought at Sook Keningau Market, BJ was bought for RM 300 in Pitas and Sika was kept as in a pet in Pensiangan in a chicken mesh cage by her owner while Kina was claimed by her caretaker to have been abandoned by her mother by the roadside at Kota Marudu. They grew up without the care of their mothers as their mothers were probably killed by poachers but BSBCC do see potential in them to behave like wild bears due to their age and with the proper rehabilitation process in the next few years. In order to proceed with their rehabilitation process, they would need to be transferred to the Bear House. Due to the high stocking density at BSBCC, three older bears; Phin, Wan Wan and Mamatai would need to be brought to the quarantine while another two older bears; Om and Ronnie would need to be rotated in the Bear House.
The transfer process was done through three phases in order for the bears to not get too stress. During the first phase BJ and Kina were transferred into translocation boxes at Quarantine while Phin was darted. Once the 3 bears were ready for transfer, Phin was brought to Quarantine while BJ and Kina was brought to Bear House 2. The second phase was involving the darting of Mamatai and Wan Wan and then bringing them to Quarantine. By the end of Phase 2, Om and Ronnie were transferred to a different section of Bear House 2 using the sky bridge structure. The last phase was then completed with the darting and transfer of Soo and Sika from Quarantine to Bear House 2. The entire transfer process of all nine sun bears followed through really smoothly without any undesirable incidences.
In order to make the bear feel more comfortable in their new environment, each pen was prepared with a thick layer of dried leaves and also a couple of gunny sacks. The purpose of the dried leaves is to reduce any injuries that could be inflicted on their foot pad due to pacing in a new environment while the gunny sacks are for them to play with. BJ and Kina had no issues with their new environment. As soon as they were in the pens in Bear House 2, they were exploring the entire new space. Both were climbing the structures that were present such as hammock and the vertical log. BJ really seem to like the hammock while Kina liked using the vertical log. Whereas for Sika and Soo, after they woke up from anesthesia, Sika was also as curious as BJ and Kina in her own pen while Soo was alert with the new arrangement; just like how she was in Quarantine. At Quarantine, Phin, Wan Wan and Mamatai was calm after waking up. However, Phin was not used to having dried leaves underneath his feet. He was walking around the pen, taking food that was provided for him but his gait was a little peculiar. Wan Wan was preoccupied sniffing the scent of another bear named Diana at Quarantine. Mamatai on the other hand was enjoying herself with the gunny sacks that were given to her.
On the following day after the transfer process, Phin, Wan Wan and Mamatai were doing well at Quarantine. Our main priority was with the four that were at Bear House 2. BJ, Kina and Sika consumed all of the food given to them and they showed sign that they were doing well in Bear House 2. Kina clawed the log that was available to her; Sika was resting like any wild bear on the log structures while BJ was in the basket. Because of their calmness, they were all integrated together to ensure that they continue to benefit out of this social enrichment. Soo was on the only bear which was on high alert to her surroundings. She stayed at the highest point in the pen and only came down when the keepers left Bear House 2. In the evening, a few keepers were selected to sit in front of her and coax her with food. Then reason for this exercise was not to get her to be used to the keepers but to be calmer with the presence of the keepers as the keepers would need to provide her with supplementation, medication and application of topical medication in case of any injuries. By the end of the day, Soo came down and took the food that was given to her by the keepers and she also took her supplementation. She also was no longer at the highest point in the cage as she was exploring the ground and eating the ration of food provided for her. Over the following days, the four of them continue to behave positively. Environmental enrichments such as Aussie Dog balls, Fire Hose Pockets and coconuts were also provided to them and they did not hesitate interacting with the enrichments provided. With all these positive progresses, in the upcoming weeks or months, BJ, Kina, Soo, and Sika will undergo fence training in order for them to continue with the rehabilitation towards becoming like their wild counterparts. We at BSBCC hope that the rehabilitation process will go well and we would rejoice to their release into the natural habitat some day in the future.
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.