Text by Jaike Bijleveld
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Damai is a shy and sweet little girl of 2 years old who loves splashing herself with water. Besides the two sun bear cubs Loki and Sunbearo, she is the youngest sun bear in the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC).
When Damai was only 5 months old, she was found wandering at a car park before she was brought to the BSBCC.
In the first seven months or so, one of the bear care staffs showed her the jungle around the Sepilok Jungle, to get her familiar with the surroundings. To surprise of everybody, she started making a nest in a tree without a mother to show her how!
When she was about 1 year old, it became too dangerous for a human to walk with her in the jungle, so she moved to the indoor bear house. Usually this is also the age that people, who keep sun bear as a pet, start to realize that sun bears are wild animals and their huge canines and claws can and will be very dangerous. Next stop for a captured sun bear is often a tragic one: the cooking pot, the traditional medicine store or the black market.
In the wild, baby sun bears will stay with their mother until they are 2 to 4 years old, before they take off to live a solitary life. They learn all kinds of practical things to survive. Damai lost her mother too young, so she needs to learn these things from other sun bears, although she already proved that some skills depend on nature rather than nurture!
TIME TO MEET SOME OTHER BEARS
Now she reached the age that she is not so vulnerable anymore, so it was time to start an integration process with six other bears of her age: the females Mary, Debbie, Koko, Ah Bui and Bongkud, and the male Fulung. They all share four adjacent indoor cages, connected by sliding doors, but until two weeks ago the sliding door of Damai's cage was kept closed until the six others went to the outdoor enclosure at day time.
Because it would be too overwhelming for Damai to meet all six sun bears at the same time, one by one introduction was started for the first five days. Except Mary and Ah Bui, all of them where curious, started sniffing at her and wanted to play with Damai, but only Fulung succeeded. Not because Damai wanted to play with Fulung, but simply because it was not possible to escape strong and playful Fulung!
The playing of sun bears looks a lot like a wrestling match, with a lot of neck biting and clawing, but as long as there is no growling, you know it's just playing. Later, in the wild, the fighting skills they learn while playing are very useful when they get attacked by, for instance, a python or clouded leopard or other competitive sun bears.
In the following days, the number of bears integrating with Damai slowly increased, until after about 8 days the complete group could be with Damai at the same time. In the days that passed, it became clear that Damai is a girl that likes to be alone. Bongkud and Debbie manage to play fight with her for a few minutes, and Fulung still is record holder playing with Damai. The rest of the group is simply ignored or ignores Damai. But there is no aggression either, so the integration sessions can be called successful. After all, being alone is their nature.
NEXT STEP: GET READY TO LEAVE THE BEAR HOUSE
Before any sun bear can leave the indoor bear house to the outside forest enclosure, there is training required: fence training. Each forest enclosure has a fence with electrical wire (hot wire). This is necessary to make sure that non-integrated groups won't climb to each other's enclosure, or that any of the sun bears won't climb outside the enclosure where humans walk and dangers for the sun bear lure.
In the indoor bear house, next to the cages where Damai had her integration sessions, is a large training pen. With honey, porridge and fruit Damai was encouraged to come near the hot wire, with a very low voltage in the beginning. The first day, the same day of her first integration session, Damai touched the hot wire while licking the honey. It scared her so much that she immediately ran back to her own cage! The next day the same thing happened, and the three following days she had just enough courage to walk into the training pen before hurrying back to her own safe cage. It took a whole week and four more 'zappings' before Damai understood how to get the food without touching the hot wire and walk confident around in the training pen. At that point the integration area could be extended to the training pen.
This week she will be allowed to go to the outside enclosure together with the rest of her group to reach the final stage of her training: get her ready to release her back in the wild!