Text by Claire Buckingham (Volunteer)
Photos by Chiew Lin May
It sounds cliché to say it, but the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is all about second chances. Chin, now nine years old, came to BSBCC in July 2014 via a wildlife rescue unit, who took her from a primary school’s mini zoo. It’s illegal to keep sun bears as private pets, especially in small cages like she was. She was also not given much in the way of enrichment, which may have some bearing on why she’s been christened “The Curious” at BSBCC. At the centre she finally has the opportunity to explore her surroundings and learn something about life in the forest as a sun bear!
Things cannot be just that simple, of course. When the bears are brought to the centre it is a big adjustment for them simply to become accustomed to life in the dens in the vicinity of other bears, and also the humans who provide their food and tools for enrichment. But even when this just becomes day to day life, the bears still need to learn about life in the forest, and life around other bears.
Sun bears appear to be primarily solitary animals, except when a mother is looking after her cubs. This doesn’t mean they live in the forest alone – they still need to have some idea of how to act with other animals, whether in play, mating, or defence; being that sun bears don’t generally get a lot of their protein from meat, they probably don’t need to practice a lot of attacking, but they do need to know how to stand up for themselves.
At the centre, there are two bear houses, and currently only one is open to the enclosures outside; bear house two will be open shortly to its more recently completed forest enclosures. Several enclosures allow bears to go outside alone, such as those used by Kudat and Manis, but the other enclosures have bears sharing their spaces with one another. Two of these enclosures can be seen from the feeding platform, and anyone who has come to BSBCC will no doubt have fond memories of hungry bears at play amongst the trees.
Bears in the outdoor enclosure cannot be immediately controlled by the keepers – and in some ways, they should not be. Hopefully many of the bears at BSBCC will eventually return to the wild, and there they will need to be able to take care of themselves. This doesn’t mean all care isn’t taken to ensure the bears are familiar with one another – and this is why integration between bear individuals and groups takes place in the bear house before they are allowed to mingle together in the forest enclosures.
Chin’s first chance at returning to a more naturalised surrounding began with her integration into a group of six bears. Tokob was the dominant female, and was most closely associated with Susie and Kuamut. Three more females rounded out the group: Cerah and Jelita, and then Lawa. Given these six females had already comfortably sorted themselves into two groups of three, it would always have proved somewhat of a challenge for Chin to find her place amongst them. However, within the confines of the bear house, it appeared Chin was accepted by the group and happy enough with her place within it.
In January 2015, Chin was released into Pen C with these six bears. It was to prove, unfortunately, a difficult four days for her. The other bears rejected her, and she resorted to hiding under a tree to avoid their attacks. They caused injuries to her hind foot, and to her muzzle. Curious as she was about her new surroundings, she was distracted by the need to be constantly on alert; this can be seen by her behaviour in a favoured spot, where she kept her back to a large tree. Its shape kept her protected on three sides, and gave her a vantage point to watch for the other bears.
In those four days, the other bears did not permit her to share in the food brought to the enclosure. It was definitely a tough few days for Chin, and when she finally came back inside it was decided she would not be placed in this group again.
In February 2015, she was instead introduced to another group, known as the Rungus group. This comprises the females Rungus, Panda, and Ah Lun, and the male Julaini (whose brilliant chest mark adorns a BSBCC t-shirt that became my favourite!). The group tentatively began to play together within the bear house, and then Chin began to show dominance. It appears she learned this from Tokob, and she learned it well.
I personally first met Chin in June 2015, which is when she was first beginning to be encouraged into Pen A. Because of her experiences with Tokob’s group, it was decided she would not be immediately placed in the forest enclosure with the Rungus group in Pen B, even though they appeared to be integrating well within the bear house. Instead, Chin would be given her second chance by being allowed into Pen A on her own.
Chin was one of the first bears I got to know, as she tends to night den in one of the four cages just inside bear house one’s entrance. Given the only other bear in this area is Bermuda – a big, no-nonsense male – she was easy to recognise and to get to know. I spent my first three days primarily in the kitchen, preparing and splitting up the food for the bears depending on where they were. On day three, I came in and immediately noticed a change in the food split – Chin was categorised today in Pen A. Chin was going outside!
After her earlier experience with the forest enclosures, Chin was naturally somewhat recalcitrant about the very idea of it. Most of the dens have four entrances – two side doors for transfers between dens, one main entrance, and the back guillotine door that leads to the enclosures. The guillotine door usually opens to either a climbing frame or a ramp, and Chin would make good use of her ramp. Indeed, when Lin May came to tell me about Chin’s release to the forest plan, she showed me how Chin was going about it – and I peeked into the den to see little more than two bear feet hanging over the lip of the door.
Chin’s naturally curious, and likes to play – certainly I often found her attempting to use her water bowl like a bath, despite the fact it was barely large enough to take only her backside. So Chin couldn’t quite resist the lure of the outdoors, though she was also nervous of it. More than once I saw her seated sideways in the guillotine door, one front paw appearing to prop the door up, a faraway look in her eyes as she surveyed the forest beyond her den. Other times, she’d stay inside, but displayed a frank fascination with the door structures. She would pick at the tracks with those massive claws, and then get irritated and yank the back door right down, as if to say, “I said I wasn’t going out today!”
But Lin May would come open it right up again, and Chin would go back to her dreamy watchful state. Sometimes, if a little food was scattered, she’d go back to lying belly-down on the ramp like a little kid about to take their first slide all the way from the top.
It was also interesting to watch some of the indoor integration she continues to have with the Rungus group. I watched her “talking” with Panda one day; the bears were in separate dens, but the grate that locked the side entrance gives the bears a way to watch one another. At first Chin just pulled her lips back over her teeth, moving her muzzle in a silent roar; Panda echoed the motion. Then Chin appeared to pull back, front paws straight out before her and her backside raised, head ducked down low. I thought this was a submissive position and, confused, asked Thye Lim about it as I had been told that Chin was acting dominant amongst the Rungus group. He explained to me that this is, for Chin, a dominant posture; much like elephants tuck their ears back before they charge, this is Chin getting down into a charge position. Being that they were in separate dens it wasn’t going to happen, but I did notice that Panda backed away and left the grate between them when Chin did this.
I also watched her with the others, split between two dens with an open grate; Chin spent a lot of her time at the grate, appearing to act as both a watchman and a gatekeeper. She particularly seemed determined to stop Julaini from coming over to “her” side. Later, she had to be bribed with honey to come back to den 13, where she would have access to the forest. Instead of going out, she played with the now closed and locked side gate. She even managed to lift it just a little, only to be disappointed to find the only way out was to the forest!
Of course the only time Chin went fully outside was on one of my days off – though she only managed ten minutes before she decided it was time to come back in again! Since my last day at BSBCC she has continued on these little jaunts outside, and Lin May told me the next step is to close the guillotine door and see what happens next.
This is all a part of Chin’s second chance – both at getting back into the forest enclosure, and then just in her general life. She’s had a cruel start to things, but at BSBCC she has a chance to learn what it is to be a regular sun bear. It’s not going to be easy, but they don’t call her Chin the Curious for nothing. I think she’s going to be all right.