Text by Woo Chee Yoong
Photos by Woo Chee Yoong and Tee Thye Lim
The Island of Borneo is famous as the largest island in Asia and third largest island in the world. A vast and astonishing green area, covered with mysterious tropical rainforest, and so many amazing creatures that have not yet been discovered. Inside the island lies a very important habitat for the wildlife of Sabah. The Tabin Wildlife Reserve was once home to the Sumatran Rhinoceros, but sadly, the Sumatran Rhinoceros was declared extinct in the wild in Sabah, leaving the only two in captivity with Borneo Rhino Alliance, BORA, at Tabin.
During my internship period, I was given the chance to assist Tee Thye Lim, the BSBCC’s Operation Executive, who is currently conducting his Master’s research in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, with sun bears as his focus. His team assisted with his final sampling in the core area of the Tabin Wildlife Reserve for one month. First of all, I am very thankful for this opportunity given by Dr(Hon) Wong Siew Te, the founder of Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), as well as Thye Lim. Besides myself, the other team members were Jeniur, Mizuno and Logan, who made the team complete, fit and tough. Each of them has their own strengths, and combined performed excellent teamwork. Hence, the sampling was smoothly completed. I feel thankful for the presence of these three warriors because they took good care of me as I was inexperienced living in a forest environment, and they always unselfishly taught and guided me with their own survival skills.
The methods we used for studying the sun bears at Tabin Wildlife Reserve were baited camera trapping and hair trapping. At each camera station, two trees were chosen as the targets and wrapped with duct tape to get the sun bear hair samples, and one of the trees was tied with bait made of shrimp paste and salted fish. The bait was wrapped inside a black net, and was hung above the tree within view of camera, in order to lure the sun bear to climb so its hairs would stick on the tape. Each camera was set up with photo and video mode. We stayed in the forest for two weeks in order to change the bait after one week.
Each day living in the forest posed a challenge for us, especially when the climate was not on our side. During the first two weeks, rainy days caused panic among us when the river water almost flooded to our camp site. Even huge trees were flushed away, known as “Water Head”. Then, in the next two weeks, we were hit by huge winds, known as “Wind Head”, and we could hear the sound of large trees falling to the ground. Even the calls of elephant or fresh footprints served to make us more alert to our surroundings.
However, it was not all hard work. We shared funny moment’s everyday which cheered us up and helped us forget our tiredness. We designed our own camp with comfortable hand-made furniture, and built tables, chairs and a kitchen area to induce more homely feeling. We bathed together in the super cold river (with underwear on of course), and watched movies in the forest using a phone and a speaker. We also played a poker card game called Bridge, where the losers were punished by washing the dishes, lighting the candles and making tea and coffee. The fried rice cooked by Mizuno was better than most of the dishes served by restaurant in the city. We did some crazy stuff, which will always be kept a secret by our team.
The best part of the experience was being able to witness the wildlife freely roaming in the forest. We heard the calls of gibbons and helmeted hornbills in the morning, and saw great argus’s right in front of us. Spotted hornbills flew round us, and bearded pigs, mouse deer, muntjac and sambar deer ran past us. A Malay civet even broke into our kitchen area! Lastly, we found sun bear claw marks and heard the loud barks of a sun bear when Jeniur and I were on our way to service a camera. Frightened and shocked were my reactions at the time, because the barks clearly showed that our presence was unwelcome. But it was a wonderful experience that I will always remember.
The forest is the sun bear’s home. We arrived uninvited, which is something that none of us in this world would like. Loggers and poachers are becoming more daring, and are exploiting every piece of this green land and the wildlife living inside it without mercy. More attention and funding are given to captive animals for education and research purposes, but wild animals need to be given the same attention and protection. I hope the public from all over the world will give more support to conservationists, like us at the BSBCC and other organisations which work to protect important species, such as Sun Bear. Preserving their main habitats is important to assure future of these species so they can continue to survive.