Text by Syaqil Suhaimi
Photos by Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
One of the requirements of volunteering at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is that one would be required to write a blog entry on their experience during the program. I am tasked to write down about the numerous enrichment activities I took part in during my period of volunteering here. First of all, enrichment activities are defined as anything that would encourage the natural behaviour of sun bears which is essential for survival in the wild. Also, it is to decrease the sun bears’ stress levels and abnormal behaviour such as pacing and finally, it’s supposed to provide them with mental stimulation in the form of new challenges. On top of that, enrichment may be divided into short term and long term, whereby short-term enrichment are those that may last at maximum, up to a day, as the bear would have destroyed the structure built, or in most cases, eaten the food-related enrichment.
One of the activities I took part in was to make a ‘burger carton’ which is basically old egg cartons cut up and folded into burgers with ginger leaves spread with peanut butter/honey as the ‘patty’. This enrichment is one that is short term as it is very easy for the bear to destroy it and most importantly, it is food-related as sun bears love to munch on the ginger leaves (especially if it is smothered in honey or peanut butter!) Here, not only would the sun bears learn to hone their sense of smell, but they would need to use their claws in ripping apart the carton, which in this case is child’s play.
Secondly, I got to install a hammock with the help of another volunteer, Georgia and my Buddy, Roger (he can be seen in the following picture). For your information, the hammock was made by a previous bunch of volunteers from Air Asia, out of old firehoses, so we had the pleasure of installing the structure for them. Installing it was actually challenging as we had to tie four corners of the structure at the top of the bear cage, which involved climbing up a ladder and this was an issue for me, albeit a minor one, as I have a fear of heights. Also, the fact that we had to lock each corner of the hammock with nuts and bolts from at an elevation added to the difficulty of the task as one of us would have to stand on a ledge in the cage – one wrong step and one of us could have hurt ourselves. Luckily for us though, we had an experienced Buddy in Roger who constantly monitored us so everything went smooth.
As for this enrichment, it encourages the bears to climb and rest or even sleep on the hammock. Such a behaviour mimics wild sun bear habits as it is a norm for them to climb up trees and build their nests in forest canopies. This is considered a long term enrichment as not only would it be difficult for the sun bears to damage the structure, they would mostly likely use it for sleeping, as the structure is not too dissimilar from a sun bear nest on top of a tree.
As for the final enrichment, Roger and I decided to build a bear cot. The name is pretty self-explanatory – imagine a baby cot, but for bears. We decided to build a bear cot because it’s not an enrichment that has been thought off before and we felt that it would be comfortable and snug for the bears.
Nonetheless, as fun as the enrichment sounds (trust me when I say that the building part was anything but fun), it does serve several important purposes in that it would allow the sun bears to mimic their natural behaviour in the wild. First and foremost, to the bear, the cot may function as a log in which the bear could take refuge in. Large hollow logs are also food sources for sun bears so what we would do is to place some dog biscuits on the cot and smother it with dry leaves so that that the bears would ‘forage’ for the food.
Next, once placed upside down (or even sideways), the bear cot could be used as a bunk bed instead whereby one bear would be able to rest inside the ‘hollow log’ and another bear could rest on top of it – such a behaviour would enhance the integration between two or more sun bears.
Once the bear cot was completed, we decided to place it in Chin’s cage as we felt that she’s behaved really well since I started volunteering here (besides being absolutely adorable) but mostly because she hasn’t had any enrichment in her cage. Next, as mentioned earlier, dog biscuits were placed on the bear cot before it was smothered with dry leaves, after which we filled the rest of the cage with dry leaves as well.
At first, Chin seemed apprehensive about the cage, but once she found out where the dog biscuits were she entered the cot and started foraging through the dry leaves. Roger and I were pretty nervous about her wanting to enter the cot in the first place so this sign was very promising. After about 10 minutes she started climbing around the cot instead of resting in it which I found very peculiar and adorable at the same time. Nonetheless, it did show that she was stimulated and that the cot made her active and very curious!
After about another 5 minutes, she got more confident to the point where she sat in the cot, as evident in the picture below. My heart was filled with delight to have observed this and at that point I thought that this was a job well done and that this was all worth it.
All in all, the experience gained from enrichment activities has helped me to build a new interest. Well, at least, it’s something I would want to upkeep in the future – carpentry. Honestly, building the bear cot was very challenging for me in that I felt lost frequently. But with the help of Roger and other Buddies such as Brandon and Nizam, especially by observing them, I gained confidence in going about with the structure to the point where I found myself working on it alone at times! Not only would it be a productive past time, I definitely consider it a life skill which I find valuable.