Text by Koh Jieh Long
Photos by Mohd Nur Adneen Bin Anuar & Seng Yen Wah
I paid for the ticket, passed through the gallery, walked up a flight of stairs, was greeted by a member of staff before I saw the sun bears in their forest enclosure; everything made me feel welcomed on my first visit to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). I took photos of the sun bears eating their “third feeding” of the day, while Max, from the ticketing staff, set up a spotting scope that’s pointed directly at one of the sun bears’ favourite treats in the wild – “sarang kelulut” or stingless bee’s nest. I felt drawn to this place, even before the entrance to the BSBCC – on the wooden walkway leading to the ticket counter/shop, birds were singing, orangutans making nests, Prevost’s squirrels chasing one another… What if I could volunteer here?
I knew BSBCC has a volunteer program; I had been wanting to experience it for a long time. This is an internationally recognised sun bear rehab facility that is established enough to allow tourists to visit; a non-governmental wildlife sanctuary capable of self sustainment without compromising the welfare of their captive animals. On top of that, it has released multiple sun bears to the wilderness of the Tabin Wildlife Reserve which is truly a rare case in Malaysia. Naturally, I am curious of how they make it this far and still standing amidst the Covid pandemic?
I walked through the gallery to knock on the door to the BSBCC office. I asked the person answering the door: “can I talk to someone about your volunteer program?”. I was told to wait and after a few minutes, a familiar face showed up; it’s the same face I have been seeing on social media and online webinars, with the name that I have been hearing from the other wildlife conservationists. Dr.Wong and I chatted for a bit – after I pulled back my hand that was meant for an awkward handshake but got rejected (because Covid).
Not long after, I found myself cleaning cages in the bear house, and preparing meals and enrichments for Julaini, Romolina, Simone, Kudat, Along, Dodop, Ronnie Boy…I soon found out that Dr.Wong is very passionate and will always carve out his time and space to talk to people about nature, about sun bears, wildlife conservation, life…, and not sure if it’s just with me – about whether I have a girlfriend (x 5). I liked talking to him, and I’m sure many young people would agree feeling inspired after a conversation. My respect for Dr.Wong grew after finishing “Saving Sun Bears” – Dr.Wong’s biography authored by Sarah Pye. The book develops the innocent childhood of little Wong who just liked animals, to a rough, thankless journey in wildlife conservation where people like Dr.Wong have to do A LOT of “balancing” in decision making, especially when you are in the position of a CEO or the director of an organisation.
When Dr.Boon designs the sun bears’ daily food intake and dietary supplements, she’s trying to achieve balance between BSBCC’s budget and 45 sun bears’ nutritional needs; when Yen Wah walks baby Luna in the bushes, she’s seeking balance between Luna’s safety and wild instincts; when Pradeep plans feeding time and location, he’s balancing sun bear welfare and visibility for the tourists; and when Mizuno prepares his team to retrieve GPS collars dropped by the released sun bears in the deep forest of Tabin, he makes sure he knows the strengths and weaknesses of his team members.
When Dr.Wong makes decisions though, I can only imagine it must be similar to how the Chinese acrobat balances ten spinning plates at the end of each long stick while someone else does a headstand on top of his head. “Things will never be perfect, and we need to accept that”, I have learnt. We don’t always get our way. I just need to practice being grateful for the things that I have, starting by thanking BSBCC for the opportunity to learn.
In cage 7, Nano is sleeping on a tyre swing that’s about 2/3 his size. Other bears that have played with the tyre swing struggled to keep their balance; they would eventually get off the swing by climbing on to the ceiling mesh where the ropes of the swing are attached. Nano found his balance on that swing, and so he gets to enjoy resting comfortably at some height away from the cement floor of his cage; the same way sun bears find their balance in a tree, where they construct their nests and rest. Trees sway in the wind, balance points shift, how do we keep the balance and rest in comfort?
Now back to my own balance in life.
Koh Jieh Long
Not gonna have a girlfriend.