Text and Photos by Emma Hambleton
Hi, my name is Emma Hambleton, I am a third year environmental science student at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia and I was fortunate enough to have my first volunteering experience at BSBCC in January 2015 with fellow USC students Caitlyn Turner and Hayley Beck.
Feeling excited but nervous to be leaving Australia I couldn’t wait for my BSBCC volunteering experience to begin. Arriving in Borneo was a sense of the unknown, where I knew very little about sun bears to begin with and didn’t know what to expect in terms of what Borneo was going to be like. Our first day at BSBCC was on Monday 12th January 2015. We were first introduced to BSBCC founder and CEO, Wong Siew Te, we had a chat with him before being introduced to Nick who gave us a thorough introduction to BSBCC. We then had our first sun bear observing experience – so beautiful!!
Our first two weeks at BSBCC consisted of us working around the visitors by either working at the observation platform with other staff or in the information booth. The first few days at the platform gave us the opportunity to learn about the sun bears by listening to the staff talk to the visitors and, by asking them questions. After a couple of days of listening and learning about sun bears, we then spoke to visitors and answered any questions that they may have had about the bears. This helped us to retain the knowledge we had gained and by passing our knowledge on to visitors, it is hoped that they too would spread the word about sun bear conservation.
Our time in the information booth was spent informing visitors about different devices that are used to track bears, entertain bears (such as enrichment toys), or showing visitors pictures of the behaviour of sun bears who had previously been kept in cages as pets. Talking to the visitors was somewhat nerve-racking at first, given the fact that I didn’t know much at all about sun bears before arriving in Borneo. However, after a while, it became a lot easier as I was continuously learning more about sun bears, which then made me more comfortable answering questions from visitors. I particularly liked working at the observation platform as we got to observe the sun bears and watch them as they played, slept, ate or roamed around in a natural setting.
I was super excited in the third week of our stay, which was when we started working in the bear house! There was never a dull moment. We would begin the day by feeding the bears their porridge which was always fun/interesting watching the bears eagerly await their breakfast. After we cleaned the bears’ trays we began cleaning the cages. Being so close to the sun bears was pretty cool as some tended to watch you as you cleaned the cage beside them. For instance, the very first cage that I cleaned I left my bucket a little too close to Julaini’s cage and Julaini stole the bucket which was a shock at first. After Julaini had the bucket taken off him I could see Julaini’s sharp claws trying to grab my broom through the cage, this happened most days that I cleaned the cage beside him which made me laugh and I could sense Julaini’s playful personality so it’s safe to say Julaini became one of my favourites because of that.
After cage cleaning we got to feed the bears in the indoor enclosures which was always fun and interesting to see that, like humans, most of the sun bears didn’t eat banana peel, the green part of watermelon or the skin on any other fruit. It was cute seeing particular bears eating mannerisms, like the way Sigalung would lay on his back while he ate his fruit. Once the bears in the bear house were fed we would go and feed the bears in the outside enclosures. Fulung was usually the first bear we saw as he walked up the hill alongside us most days and would stand on his two hind legs like a human, waiting for his food – so cute! My favourite days would have to be coconut days. It amazed me to see how these strong little sun bears could open a coconut from the husk to the inside. This just showed how sharp and strong their teeth and claws are.
During the afternoon we usually made enrichment for the bears, which was fun, and good exercise, actually getting the materials we needed. We went for a few separate adventures up the road to collect banana leaves, dry leaves, bamboo, and through the forest to collect termite nests for the sun bears. Within the two weeks working in the bear house we made nest balls, burgers, bamboo enrichment, and we found termite nests for the bears which usually entertained the bears for around 15-30 minutes. I loved giving enrichment to the bears, particularly the bears that are not released into outdoor enclosures every day as it gave them something to pass the time away and it also gave them a sense of the wild by doing activities they would typically do in the wild, such as eating termite nests. This also helped to stop typical sun bear behaviour of pacing or regurgitating for a short time. It was always fun creating the enrichment as it also gave us time to hear Azzry’s (bear keeper) entertaining stories and jokes as we made the enrichment. Our time working with Azzry was always entertaining from riding down the hill on an old trolley with 31 coconuts on board for the bears, to having bamboo sawing competitions, to his casual attitude about leeches. Azzry’s famous quote “it’s onnnlyyy a leech”, are words I’ll never forget.
The two main highlights of my BSBCC experience were working in the bear house where we were able to get close to the bears, but not too close, by feeding them, cleaning their cages, and giving them enrichment. Working in the bear house was also the best way to learn each of the sun bears’ different, cute and loveable personalities such as; pretty girl Manis who would stand at the front of her cage with her head resting on her hands after she had finished her food, how Kudat would lie sprawled out with his paws hanging out under the bottom of his cage, how big boy Lingam rested his head on his hands while he watched people walk past from his hammock, how Natalie would watch your every move as you walked past her with food in hand or try and grab banana leaves out of your hand if you weren’t quick enough putting/placing them in her cage, or even the cutest little Mary who would cling to the cage while patiently waiting for her banana leaves in the afternoon – so cute! I could go on forever they are all so adorable and cute!
Although they are so adorable and cute I had to remind myself on several occasions not to get too attached to the bears as they are in there to be rehabilitated and hopefully released back into the wild, so it is a bittersweet feeling knowing that when I do go back next time some of the bears would have been released.
The second highlight was working with the staff at BSBCC, they are all the nicest, funniest, kindest, most knowledgeable, helpful, patient and friendliest people you will ever meet. Everyone at the centre was so welcoming. It was awesome to see how dedicated Wong and his staff at BSBCC are in rehabilitating the sun bears for their release back into the wild.
It is safe to say that my time volunteering at BSBCC will definitely not be forgotten and I feel so lucky to have been able to do this as part of my university degree thanks to BSBCC and USC. I had so much fun working with the BSBCC staff and fellow volunteers Amanda, Caitlyn, Fatin and Hayley. It is a rewarding feeling knowing that we’ve played a slight role in helping these beautiful animals get back out into the wild, or by at least informing others of the current sun bear situation and creating awareness. I would encourage anybody thinking about volunteering at BSBCC to start filling out their application now, it will be an experience you will never forget! I learnt so much in the month that I was at BSBCC and had the time of my life working with everyone at the centre and working so closely to the bears. It was hard saying goodbye to each and every one of the sun bears and staff at BSBCC. Thanks to Wong and all the staff at BSBCC for giving me such an amazing BSBCC experience!