Text by Rebecca Heng Si Qi
Photos by Nealbert Robert
I vividly recall my initial sense of unease as I stepped into the bear house on my first day, the bears pacing anxiously, a telltale sign of their stress. Reflecting on my time volunteering with the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), the journey has been profoundly meaningful and etched deeply in my memory. As a volunteer, my responsibilities spanned a range of tasks: preparing food, offering medical care, feeding, cleaning the bear’s cages, performing fence and faecal checks.
Mornings were dedicated to meticulously cleaning the bears' cages, a task that became a steady rhythm of our routine. While not without its challenges, the satisfaction that followed made every effort worthwhile. As I diligently carried out this task, I couldn't help but notice the bears' inquisitive gazes, particularly those of Kipaku and Betung in Bear House 2. Their innocent expressions, often accompanied by their distinctive paw-suckling, revealed their yearning for both attention and comfort. A heartfelt tug at my emotions was a constant companion during these moments. And yes, you could almost guarantee getting drenched during this process!
My duties extended to the kitchen, where I prepared vegetables, fruits, and other foods for the bears. Their robust appetite, requiring four daily meals, was a delightful surprise. I learned that beyond their protein intake, bears relished dog biscuits. Among the highlights was the feeding routine – a satisfying workout of carrying heavy buckets up steep, slippery paths to the forest enclosures. The bears' contentment as they enjoyed their meals made the effort gratifying, although mischievous macaques occasionally tried to snatch a share. Strangely, the bears tolerated these antics without a fuss, leading us to adopt strategic food distribution to prevent the macaques from dominating. Interestingly, bananas were the clear favorites, and the feeding process involved offering starchy items before moving on to fruits.
Taking on the role of a medic was an added responsibility. Meticulously blending medications into small banana pieces for specific bears showcased their intelligence as they sometimes separated the medicine from the food. Ensuring the bears ingested their medications presented a bit of a puzzle. For Amaco, the oldest bear, we devised a unique approach involving blending pills with his favorite milk to address this challenge.
In the afternoon, our focus shifted to enrichment. We ventured out to gather banana leaves for the bears. These leaves serve as a natural "toothbrush" for them. Additionally, we engaged in an activity that entailed hiding fruits, honey, peanut butter, and other delectables within a bundle of leaves, skillfully tying them up. Notably, this enrichment exercise played a pivotal role in heightening the bears' sense of smell throughout the process. Every action, big or small, contributes to the well-being of these amazing creatures.
Collectively, all of us volunteers, myself included, engaged our creative minds to devise ways of enriching the bears' lives. Teaming up with my buddy, we embarked on a brainstorming journey to craft a project that would contribute to the bears' experiences. Allow me to introduce you to my enrichment project, the "Loget-loget" (also known as "santai" in Dusun) – a specially designed swing aimed at providing Manis, the grandmother bear, with a comfortable spot to santai (relax). It's been a truly gratifying experience witnessing these projects spring to life and make a tangible impact on the bears' well-being.
In addition to my ongoing responsibilities, I undertook a couple of important tasks: conducting faecal checks and fence checking. In the mornings, the focus shifted to scrutinizing the colour and texture of the faeces, as well as assessing any leftover food. Similarly, the fence check provided a special opportunity – entering the forest enclosures to thoroughly examine the fencing – of course, without the bears present. I still remember one time when a lock was rusty, and we had to climb over the fence to address the situation. It's these little adventures that add to the uniqueness of the experience.
A heartfelt thank you goes out to the keepers, fellow volunteers, and interns, especially my buddy who guided me throughout these two weeks. These individuals have been invaluable companions during this volunteering journey. With hope, our paths will intersect once more in the days ahead. Pounsikou!