Text by Ummu ‘Atiyyah Mohamed Talhah
Photos by Ummu ‘Atiyyah Mohamed Talhah & Chiew Lin May
My name is Ummu ‘Atiyyah, a Zoology student from Universiti Sains Malaysia and I was an intern at Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre for 8 weeks.
Around 3 years ago, I didn’t even know bears existed in Malaysia. That’s something a Zoology student should be ashamed of. One day I saw a picture of my lecturer at a Bear Conservation Centre, so I searched the name of the centre online and to my surprise it was in Malaysia.
A few years later, I find myself applying for a role as an intern at the centre. A few months later, I’m already in gumboots and holding a bucket of fruits.
I love working in the kitchen. Whenever I have to go through the bananas, I will always think of the song from The Jungle Book, the Bear Necessities. Nevertheless, I love going out to feed the bears in the enclosure. Seeing them out in the forest, closest to their natural habitat really made me happy, especially when I get to see them napping high up on the trees, digging, and playing.
The first half of the day is usually planned routine work and after lunch we usually get to relax a little by making enrichments.
Sometimes I feel like I’m in an advertisement promoting Malaysia. Orangutans minding their own business just only 1 metre from me, hornbills flying to a nearby tree right in front of me, as well as their unforgettable sound, almost like the sound of a duck. Not just that, countless number of unknown beautiful birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, the cute pygmy elephants, pygmy squirrels and even giant squirrels! All these sightings really make me appreciate our flora and fauna especially.
Not just the animals, I have not yet met any rude Sabahan’s during my 8 weeks stay. I admit that I am among those who call themselves slow learners. Even so, the staff, especially the bear keepers have always been motivating and patient with me. Being the only Muslim in the house, I am so relieved and grateful that they can try to understand and respect my beliefs and my “pantang larang”.
There are days where Dr Wong would have discussion sessions with the interns and volunteers. We would talk about almost everything from the bears to conservation and environmental issues, Malaysia’s forest and palm oil issues and a lot more. One time, he showed us a quote from Jane Goodall which goes like this, “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. Only if we help, we shall be saved.”
Some days we were assigned to go for outreach programs at schools, and some days we were assigned to go on the platform to talk to the visitors. Although I haven’t been the very best at talking with strangers, I really enjoyed talking to people especially those who were interested to know more.
Believe it or not, during my 8 (short) weeks of interning, I got to differentiate the bears based on how they look, and even based on their behaviours!
After a few weeks at the centre, I start to think more and more about the bears especially the ones that cant be released outside to the enclosure due to reasons that cannot be avoided. I tried to think of how I can help to minimize their stress and improvise the environment that they are currently in.
Finally, six days prior to ending my internship, I managed to provide a humble dry cage for Amaco, the oldest bear who is sadly never going to see the forest again. Brandon and I gathered dried leaves, grasses and twigs and placed them on the cage floor. For me, a dry cage is more like a fake forest, where the bears can get comfortable. Amaco and Panda (his companion) were curious enough to sniff around like cats. I wish I could’ve done more for Amaco and the others but I really hope the dry cage helped Amaco and Panda in any small way it can.
Two days before I left, a windstorm and a short but heavy rain hit the centre at around 4:30pm. We waited for the bears to come back to the bear house, fearing that there might be fallen trees, which might cause bears to escape. In the end, there was only one bear, Wawa who hadn’t returned. Everyone including the people from Wildlife Rescue Unit and other organizations came to help. David (a staff) accompanied me and another three interns in the bear house. After all of their hard work out in the dark and in the rain, Wawa finally came back. I admired all of the staff’s heroism, something I never thought I’d be able to witness. Days that usually end at 5:00pm ended at 7:00pm that day. Only after all that did we know that some of the pens in the enclosure as well as the platform for visitors were destroyed. Looking at the pictures really broke our hearts.
“Who is your favourite bear?” I always get asked this question. I usually just pick names just to give an answer because I don’t think I actually have favorites and not because of the cliché “I love them all”, but because I have weak spots for some of them. Week after week, my list of “favourites” just keeps on getting longer and longer.
Some are fierce and some are gentle. However they are, I still love them all even though they couldn’t care less about me.
When I try to look back on the first day that I arrived here, with me being awkward with everyone, it feels like a lifetime ago. However my 8 weeks internship feels so short! The bears now have a special place in my heart, and strangers became friends. How things changed since I arrived. Even though the work was tiring, hot and sweaty, I always find myself missing the days where feeding the bears was a routine for me.
To all the bear keepers and staffs at BSBCC, I thank you all so much for making this experience something so fruitful for me. Though I smell like cow dung every evening, I sincerely loved the work at BSBCC. I apologize if I have been too slow or if I asked too many questions (I know I do). I hope you will all continue fighting for our bears and for Malaysia’s forests.