Text and Photos by Caitlyn Turner
My name is Caitlyn Turner and I am a 4th year Environmental Science student from the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. My sun bear experience was shared with two other Environmental students from my university called Hayley and Emma. Our work placement at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) lasted a total of 4 weeks. Before applying for this work placement I had no idea what the situation with the sun bears was like. After spending a month working with the centre staff and the bears, I have learnt a great amount about the species and their importance in the world.
Our journey to Borneo first began on the plane trip over where we had no idea what to expect. I remember feeling nervous, anxious, and extremely excited. When we reached Sandakan it was like we had gone to an entirely different world. Going from living so close to the beach to entirely jungle was going to be a new experience. After leaving the airport we were driven to our accommodation by a taxi driver whom spoke little to no English. This was the second sign that we were no longer in a country like our own and it would be a good time to learn some Malay. When we reached our accommodation at the Sepilok Jungle Resort we were kindly welcomed by the resort staff and were checked-in to our resort room. Our room was simple, but it was perfect for the 3 of us.
The day after arriving we were into our induction at the BSBCC. We had no idea what we would be doing whilst there so we were all very curious and excited to begin. For our first day we were welcomed by the founder and CEO of the centre, Wong. He then left us in the capable hands of another staff member called Nick who kindly guided us through the centre and the bear houses. He explained everything to us and even treated us to a trip to the Orang utan Rehabilitation Centre in the afternoon. Our day at the centre finished with another staff member called Thye Lim giving a presentation which taught us a great deal about the sun bears. It was great being able to learn so much that early in the experience.
The next two weeks of our placement was spent helping out in the visitor centre. We spent our time here and not working in the bear houses as there were 3 interns also volunteering at the centre at this time. Even though we were keen to work with the sun bears it was a good chance for us to learn as much as possible about the bears before getting to experience them close up. Working on the observation platform and talking to visitors at the education booth was definitely a benefit as it allowed us to not only learn more about the bears but we got to teach others about them also. It felt great being able to educate people about the sun bears and to encourage them to support such an amazing conservation project. I think by spending the first 2 weeks doing these jobs I started to become truly passionate about the need for sun bear conservation and it made me determined to inform people about them as much as I could. My time in the centre also allowed me to make a number of wonderful friends with the visitor centre staff and most importantly it was the beginning to the 3 of us feeling like we were part of the team.
My favourite part of each day for the first two weeks was working on the platform. I never knew what I would see or end up learning each day. I remember meeting the cheeky macaques for the first time and at first I thought they were cute but I was soon to learn they are mischievous and dangerous. Lester, one of the centre’s staff, was generally called when there was a monkey problem and it always made me laugh to watch him chase them away. One of the days when coconuts were being given to the bears’ for their afternoon food, there was a macaque which climbed up a tree with one of the large coconuts. It was quite amusing as the coconut could not be opened so he got bored very quickly and dropped it back to the ground. Speaking of coconuts, another favourite of mine was coconut day as the bears are absolutely amazing at tearing the shell apart. Each bear is different with its coconut opening method, for example, some throw the coconut on the ground, others try to tap a hole into it, and others (i.e. Mary) patiently wait for another bear to open it and steal it from them.
When the 3rd week came around we were beyond prepared to work in the bear house. On our first day we were introduced to a new set of rules which were explained by Thye Lim. Then once the basics were understood we were into the hard work. The physical work inside and outside the bear house was explained by a staff member called Azzry. He guided us through everything we would be doing and even helped by making jokes about tasks so we weren’t as nervous. The daily routine was usually an outdoor pen check, clean the enclosures, morning feed out, prepare porridge, afternoon feed out, prepare enrichment and the disperse it to the bears, and finally the evening feed out with porridge and banana leaves. Even though the routine sounds like it would be repetitive, it really wasn’t. Each day I was excited as to what we were going to prepare for enrichment or what we would be giving the bears to eat. I can honestly say there was never a boring day at the bear house.
From our very first day to our last day we were treated with the utter-most kindness and it was like we were part of the BSBCC team. When we were leaving the centre to return to Australia I knew with certainty that I would be coming back to volunteer in the future. This experience has been incredible and I’d like to thank the entire BSBCC team for making the 3 of us feel very welcome and for making our time at the centre one we will never forget. All the staff at the centre were extremely friendly and I couldn’t think of a greater team of people to work with. Thank you.