Text by Megan Katie Noblett
Photos by Megan Katie Noblett & Chiew Lin May
There are three things you need to know about Borneo before you volunteer with BSBCC. It is hot. It is humid. There are a lot of bugs. As someone best suited to the cold and who can barely cope with a British summer and has a deep dislike bordering on phobia of things that have too many legs (aka anything more than six) I did actually get asked the question by my mother why on Earth I was going to a place so hot, so humid and full of creepy crawlies that literally set my skin crawling; the answer – the bears.
I am a zoology graduate and also earned a masters degree in Anthrozoology (the study of human-animal interaction) and was fortunate enough to conduct my research project on Moon bears in China. Even before this, bears have fascinated me and it is on my bucket list to work with each of the eight species or at the very least see them in their natural habitat. But I didn’t want to volunteer with BSBCC just to tick a species off my list but because I was deeply impressed with the vital work Dr. Wong and his team are doing. I have followed the organisation for a few years and finally had the time to take the 16 hour plane ride to Borneo to work with BSBCC and see the Sun bears.
Upon arrival I was met with the heat, the humidity and the bugs (so many bugs) but I quickly forgot them and even embraced them as I was set to work cleaning cages, preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner for 43 bears (they each eat 5kg of food a day so as you can imagine, there is A LOT of food), doing fence checks, helping with public education and making enrichment.
Enrichment was definitely the most enjoyable part of being in the bears houses. Making nest balls (peanut butter, bananas, apples and spices wrapped up in a nest of twigs and leaves), hosepipe honeycombs (fake beehives made from old fire-hoses stuffed with peanut butter, bananas, apples and spices) Sun bear burgers (two egg cartons strapped together around leaves with – you guessed it – peanut butter, bananas, apples and spices) and giant ice pops made from fruits and veg for the Sun bears to enjoy on a hot day. We spent hours carefully crafting these items to watch the bears rip them into pieces a matter of seconds. However, it was most certainly worth all the hard work to see the enjoyment the bears got from seeking out the sweet treats.
The highlight of the trip was working with one particular bear, Sigalung. Being kept illegally as a pet since cubhood until his rescue in 2014, Sigalung was a little afraid to step out of his indoor den into the forest enclosure and I was tasked with trying to get him to go outside and observing him as he did. We laid food and yummy treats like peanut butter and honey to appease his sweet tooth and day by day we moved the treats further down the platform and the steps leading to the enclosure. The first day I observed him, I could clearly see how tense and even frightened he was. He would stretch out as far as he could whilst still keeping his back two paws in doors to reach his food. He would make a quick grab of the food and took it inside so he would have to exposed more than necessary. At one point a butterfly flew at him and he startled so badly he ran back inside. We persevered and each day Sigalung became braver and braver (I think the peanut butter helped a lot) until he was walking out onto the platforms as soon as the doors opened and even ate outside. It was wonderful to see how this bear was overcoming his fears and I hope he will progress further until he can enjoy the forest enclosure with his bear friends.
It was my first time in Borneo and stayed on my own there for a month, but never felt lonely. The keepers and all the staff at BSBCC and APE Malaysia along with my fellow volunteers are wonderful friendly people who are quick to welcome you to the Sun bear family. They have really looked after me, making me laugh and patiently answered all my questions (mainly, ‘which bear is that again?’).
Sabah is a truly gorgeous place. Not only did I get see one of my favourite animals up close but I was surrounded by the beauty of Borneo and all the magnificent creatures that call it home. Geckos, Sunbirds, Flying lemur, Monitor lizards, Giant flying squirrels, baby Macaques, Giant fruit bats, Pygmy squirrels, a whole host of butterflies and dragonflies were only some of the many animals I was able to see in the wild just by looking around the centre and my accommodation. The experience has been truly magical and something I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I am a tutor of Animal Management at a FE college back in England, teaching 16 – 19 year olds all about animal biology, husbandry and conservation. It is the type of experience I have had at BSBCC that I can use to encourage my students and inspire them in their own careers in the wildlife and conservation sector. I would encourage anyone to volunteer with BSBCC; even with the heat, the humidity and, yes, the bugs – the bears are so worth it and I will miss them all a lot.