Text by Alex O’Keefe (Oregon State University Student)
Photos by Sumira Muis & Chiew Lin May
Completing an internship at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC) under Ape Malaysia has been a phenomenal and breathtaking journey. As I progressed through my internship I was able to complete and partake in a number of activities that have benefited sun bears and their conservation. Some of these activities include creating enrichments, structure for maintenance and the bears, partaking in feeding, helping educate the public about sun bears and their conservation needs and conducting observations of sun bears. My specific observations were done every day for two weeks to evaluate the readiness of a male bear named Sigalung to be released into first a training pen (an outside pen connected to the inside doors of the bear house) and eventually an outside enclosure based in the forest. Having the honor to observe this bear’s progression from training pen to outside enclosure was for me exciting and something new. By the end of my observations, I would come to be attached and intrigued by the sun bear known as Sigalung.
First before describing the progress of Sigalung, here’s a little background on his journey to and time at the BSBCC. Sigalung along with a bear named Phin were rescued from a logging camp in Sipitang district, Southwest of Sabah. Likely orphaned by poachers, Sigalung with Phin were alone and would likely have been subjected to a cruel and painful life in inadequate captive conditions. Luckily Dr.Wong and the Sun Bear Conservation team found out about the bears and rescued them when they were (9 years old). Two years ago (2015) Sigalung started training pen integration. It took him more than a year to actually come out of his inside pen and explore the training pen due to fear. Often bears rescued are scared and hesitant to explore anything outside of an inside enclosure as that’s the only environment they’ve ever been exposed to pre-rescue. After more than a year of trying every single day,Sigalung climbed down the ladder connecting to the floor of the training pen and explored around. Following this moment, his confidence grew and his visits to the training pen became more consistent. Nearly a year after his landmark stride I started my internship at the BSBCC.
Two weeks in I began to observe him and his actions in the training pen. By the end of a week I had noticed a very predictable pattern for Sigalung. Immediately when his pen doors would open, he would climb down to the training pen walk in a clockwise circle and eat the food placed in the pen; all the while sniffing and exploring. By the end of two weeks I had concluded that he had comfortably and fully integrated himself into the training pen. It was now time to test our luck with the outside pen.
Before our first attempt at getting Sigalung to commit to entering the outside enclosure, I put fruit and honey outside to entice Siglung into the forest.
Once everything was set up we left the area and opened Sigalung’s inside and training pen doors connecting him to the outside enclosure.
Sigalung conducted his normal routine of climbing down and exploring the training pen. He would look at the open door leading to the forest then quickly move past it with haste signaling anxiety. This pattern of circling past the open door continued until we gave up and decided to try again the next day. The second day offered the same results as Sigalung displayed repetitive behavior comparable to the first day.The third day however, provided different and unexpected results.
The third day stared out similar to the first two days. The doors opened, Sigalung approached the doors but never went outside. He would occasionally army crawl up to the doors stick his head out and grab the food then come back inside to eat. Little progress was being made until a female adult bear named Mamatai in the neighboring outside pen appeared. She came directly face to face with Sigalung then eventually walked away into the forest. Sigalung, be it enticed or aggressive, tried to follow her until he reached the door. He like before stared out but didn’t budge. Then all of a sudden he bolted out of the door and into the forest enclosure! Continuing to sprint, he for the first time stepped on the natural forest floor.
His outside reconnoitering lasted for only five minutes as by that time he quickly ran back into the training pen then into his inside enclosure. Though only for five minutes, Sigalung had taken his first steps in becoming a real sun bear and thriving in the forest. The next two days Sigalung went into the outside pen but only for a similar duration of time. Day six would prove different. Sigalung decided on the sixth day he would not only stay out longer in the forest but also explore farther than he previously had done. Sigalung ended up walking around the entire outside enclosure area!
He had finally conquered his fear of the unknown and is now enjoying the freedom of the outside enclosure based in the rainforests of Borneo! Sigalung has truly come a long way from where he began. From capture to freedom, Sigalung can finally live out his days living as a sun bear should…in the forest.