Text by Ng Li Shuen
Photos by Ng Li Shuen and Seng Yen Wah
Hi everybody! My name Ng Li Shuen, 21, studying Environmental Science at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, Malaysia.
One month of volunteering at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre has been a valuable and unforgettable experience. I was first introduced to BSBCC by my friend/course mate Darren who encouraged me to apply as a volunteer and as a companion for him during our summer break. We also attended the Wild Wildlife with Kancil and Friends event held by Malaysian Heritage and History Club (MHHC), where we got to meet and talk to Dr. Wong for the first time. Malaysia being one of the megadiverse countries in the world is losing its wildlife and biodiversity, thus learning about conservation and working with wildlife has never been a more crucial and timely task. In the hopes of uncovering how conservation work is done in our country and exploring my potential career path, I applied for BSBCC and anticipated the adventure that awaited me.
It wasn’t long before I was working in the heart of conservation and it was a thrilling experience. Upon arriving at the Bear House, I met my buddy Brandon who briefed me thoroughly on the operations of the Bear House and guided me through all the tasks. Day by day, we worked alongside other bear keepers (collectively known as Bear Care Team) with a daily routine of cleaning cages, kitchen work (E.g. preparing porridge, fruits and vegetables, and other dietary needs), feeding the bears inside the Bear House and in the forest enclosure, fence checking and making enrichment for the bears. I also got to work under the Environmental Education unit where I’m tasked to interact with visitors at the centre’s observation platform, educate and raise awareness on sun bear ecology and the importance of not only their conservation but also of their forest habitat.
As all volunteers are required to build a special enrichment for the bears, I designed a structural + food enrichment called The Heavenly Bear Tree for Phin, a 9-year old adult male sun bear’s enclosure. Enrichment functions to emulate conditions of the natural environment and bring out the bear’s wild instincts, it also helps reduce the time spent on unhealthy behaviours like pacing. Because some bears have yet to reach the criteria to be reintroduced into the forest enclosure, enrichments are important in the rehabilitation process especially for bears who spend a lot of their time in their dens. So, I thought why not make a tree in its den? This enrichment aims to encourage movement and climbing and enhance the bear’s sensory stimulus (E.g. using their tongue, claws and scent). Though I hoped Phin would climb the log, he climbed on the grills instead to get to the banana-filled fire hoses. My guess is that Phin probably doesn’t yet understand the function of the “tree” since he is still undergoing fence training (or maybe this tree is simply un-climbable XD) Nevertheless, it did make Phin climb all over the cage to get all the juicy bananas.
Though some tasks were physically challenging for me at first, I felt myself grew stronger every day as the weeks passed. Believe me or not, I even have muscles (small ones la haha!) now from scrubbing cages, scooping porridges, lifting fruit baskets, sawing logs and woods, walking around the forest enclosure xP But if I were to be completely honest, doing all the physical work was so much fun and fulfilling. Challenging and proving myself wrong about my strength was what fueled me to keep going. And I must thank all the staffs, especially buddy Brandon for being so kind and understanding towards my physique and always lending a hand when I needed it!
During my free time, I like to walk around the bear houses to observe and admire the bears and recognize them. Brandon was always there to help me recognize special features like their chest marks, facial appearance, and behaviours. One day after work, I walked around bear house 2 to refill the water containers just to make sure the bears have enough water to drink over the night. The minute Linggam’s water container was filled, he stood up and started splashing the water onto his body and occasionally looking into my eyes and sniffed as if to acknowledge and say thank you! Something about this had me in awe that I left the water running for him as he continued to splash for a good 5 minutes. From then on, I grew fond of Linggam and so did the obligation to fill all the water containers in bear house 2! It feels good seeing the bears healthy and thriving in the centre. If it wasn’t for BSBCC, I can’t imagine countless sun bears being held captive and have lost their ability to survive in the wild.
But what really made my whole volunteer experience worthwhile was how amazing the people here are. Everyone had been friendly, welcoming and caring since I first arrived. The staffs welcomed any questions we had and did not stinge on sharing their knowledge, experience and stories of the bears. And not forgetting my days in Bjorn Hala! From sweating through multiple power cuts to cooking and showering in the dark, feet chewed by the overly affectionate and adorable Miko, I did not even miss home. I sincerely thank the staffs for being so kind to us and treating us like family. Thank you for making Bjorn Hala such a homely place, I really felt a sense of belonging when I was here. No matter in the Bear House or Bjorn Hala, I will never forget the conversations, the jokes, laughter and stories we shared. Of course, not forgetting Darren who walked this one-month journey with me 😊
And last but not least, or should I say, leaving the best for last! Thank you, Dr. Wong, for giving us this wonderful opportunity to be part of BSBCC. It has been an honour and privilege serving the bears and working alongside an amazing crew in a Bornean rainforest and engaging in meaningful discussions with you during our Q&A sessions! Despite being so busy, you never neglected us and took pride in having volunteers as part of your centre’s conservation efforts! The story of your journey and endeavor is truly inspirational and will always remind me that it takes not only passion but also determination and hard work to make your dreams become your vision and mission.
Only after volunteering at BSBCC had I known the existence of this beautiful bear species in our country, only after volunteering in BSBCC had I known that world’s only conservation centre for the world’s smallest bear species is proudly situated here in Sabah, Malaysia. Only after volunteering in BSBCC had I met the most genuine, passionate and dedicated people that go out of their way to care for the bears and rehabilitate them back into the wild. Only after volunteering in BSBCC that I realized.. I really need to improve my Malay speaking.
The main ingredients of successful conservation work, I’d say? A passionate founder and leader like Dr. Wong, a dedicated crew and a handful of curious and inspired volunteers/interns. Thank you again for opening my eyes to the world of conservation, for exposing me to the Sabahan slang and culture, for generously sharing your stories and experiences, for introducing the knowledge and insights on what it takes to conserve our Malaysian Biodiversity.
Sun bears are currently facing the threats of deforestation, poaching and illegal pet trade. They are deemed the least studied bear but BSBCC is slowly changing that. I hope more and more people start to cherish our biodiversity and become part of what protects them. I strongly encourage anyone to volunteer at BSBCC because why not for an experience of a lifetime for a good cause!
Ending my story with a flashback and a quote that is now engraved in my heart.. In one of my last sessions with Dr. Wong, to answer a question asked by one of the volunteers he turned around to his magnificent bookshelf where he stores his treasured sea of knowledge, picked a book- Jane Goodall: 40 Years at Gombe, and recited:
“Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall they be saved.”