Text and Photos by Rica Marcus
My partner Tom and I spent the last two years saving for our trip of a lifetime. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do more than just travel. Passionate about wildlife and keen to try something new, we started to look for volunteering opportunities in Borneo. We discovered the BSBCC website and knew we had found something special.
Working with the sun bears appealed to me immediately. It promised to be something completely different to the day job. I hoped to learn something new and to play a small part in BSBCC’s effort to protect the little known and terribly endangered sun bear.
We decided to apply for the one month sun bear assistant volunteer programme. We had already started travelling and submitted our application from Vietnam in January 2015. The volunteer programme is a joint venture between BSBCC and APE Malaysia. APE Malaysia processed our application and managed our Skype interview. The interview helped APE ensure we were suitable candidates for BSBCC and it confirmed to us that it was a position we wanted with an organisation that approached animal welfare and rehabilitation in a very responsible way. After our interviews we waited nervously for confirmation from APE and received the good news that we had been accepted a few days later.
In the following months APE provided us with lots of useful pre-arrival information and were very helpful in answering our questions. Finally, on 05 March 2015 it was time to start our adventure as sun bear assistants.
‘A tropical retreat’ or ‘the dilemma of the bunk bed’
We arrived at our accommodation in Sepilok early afternoon, where we were met by Harith, our APE programme coordinator, and Mark, one of APE’s local representatives. We were given time to rest and settle into our new accommodation.
Our accommodation at Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat was much more luxurious than we had expected. Paganakan Dii is recommended by many of the travel guides – and rightly so. The chalets and dorms are tastefully built in peaceful surroundings. Our accommodation block was at the far end of the retreat and had been purposely built for BSBCC volunteers. The accommodation block consists of eight rooms with twin bunk beds, comfortable mattresses, lockable cupboards and a desk. We chose the room next to the kitchen. The tricky part was choosing which bunk to go for: from the top bunk you got the full benefit of the fan, but on the bottom bunk you didn’t have to first check for gecko poo before getting in. I chose the top bunk.
As well as our bedroom, we had full and exclusive use of the veranda kitchen, kitted out with fridge/ freezer, cooker and microwave. The toilet and showers were brand new and the latter had hot water. There is a TV room next to the Paganakan Dii café and the café itself, was to prove a great place for us to go when we were too tired to cook.
‘Sun bear assistant pioneers’ or ‘the start of a beautiful friendship’
Once we had moved into our new home, we were keen to get started and were soon chatting with Harith. We were surprised to learn that not only were we the only two participants on the programme- we were also the first! This was particularly unexpected, as we had read blogs of previous volunteers. Harith explained: indeed BSBCC had had many volunteers, but we were the first on the new, official sun bear assistant volunteer programme created, designed and delivered in partnership by BSBCC and APE Malaysia.
Harith and Mark gave us a thorough induction to the programme. It was evident that the volunteer programme had been thoughtfully designed and I hope that we are the first of many volunteers to participate in this unique and rewarding programme.
With the initial induction finished, we tucked into a welcome dinner and got to know each other better. Harith and Mark have dedicated their lives to animal welfare and conservation. They are incredibly knowledgeable in these areas and in the weeks that followed we learnt a great deal from talking with them about issues ranging from palm oil to zoo keeping. They also gave us greater insight into Malaysian culture, from steam boat restaurants to the spirit world, from biker gangs to local tribal communities.
We went to bed that night full of anticipation…..
‘BSBCC’ or ‘A good start’
The driver at Paganakan Dii gave us a lift to BSBCC on our first morning and every morning after that. BSBCC is a ten minute drive away from Paganakan Dii and located right next to the Orangutan centre. BSBCC is set in beautiful green forest and their office is attached to the visitor centre.
Harith took us into the office and introduced us to some of the team. Everyone was welcoming and friendly. Ina gave us a presentation about sun bears, the centre and their work. We watched some of the educational videos running in the visitor centre and then it was time to meet the bears. Ina took us out onto the viewing platform in the forest. We were in luck; there were three or four bears right in front of us on the ground and another one relaxing in a tree. It was wonderful to watch them getting on with life in the forest- foraging through leaves, eating pieces of fruit and playing with other bears. We saw David, one of the keepers walking along the outside of the forest enclosure, feeding the bears by throwing fruits over the fence to them – a job that we would soon be doing!
After our morning at the centre, Harith took us to the local supermarket to stock up on groceries. The food shop was quite challenging as we didn’t recognise any of the packaging so took a long time finding what we wanted. We eventually came out with plenty of supplies including cereal, milk, Milo drinking chocolate, pasta, pasta sauce, frozen mixed veggies, rice and instant noodles. The supermarket didn’t have any fresh fruit of vegetables, so we stocked up on these at the market in Sandakan on our first day off. With our fridge fully stocked, we were now ready to start our new jobs in earnest….
‘The bear house’ or ‘getting soaked’
The next morning, was our first in the bear house. Thye Lim, the centre coordinator showed us the facilities; kitchen, store room, tool cupboard and the bears’ night dens. He walked us around the boundary of the outdoor forest enclosures and showed us how to clean the indoor night pens - our first job that day. I was with animal keeper Mizuno in bear house 2, while Tom and Harith were with David in bear house 1.
I learnt quickly that getting completely soaked is unavoidable when cleaning the night dens. The effort of scrubbing walls and floors had me dripping with sweat and I tended to get splashed when using hose or buckets of water to wash everything down. To begin with the cleaning was exhausting, but over time I became fitter and established a routine. By the end of our stay, cleaning the night dens had become one of my favourite jobs. I enjoyed the physical exertion and had time to follow my own thoughts. It felt very peaceful working alongside the bears in neighbouring dens. Their presence soothed and delighted me and I was happy that my company did not bother them. I loved watching the bears snoozing in their baskets, climbing around or splashing themselves with water from their drinking bowl.
By the end of that first day, Tom and I were both completely exhausted and asleep by about 8pm! It did get easier though. Over the coming days we became more familiar with the work and were able to get fully stuck in. Our daily routine looked something like this……
‘A day in the life of a sun bear assistant’
07:50 arrive at work and change into wellington boots
08:00 indoor morning feed (typically rice porridge) before most of the bears go outside to forest
08:30 – 11:00 in the bear house on kitchen duty or cleaning night dens. Kitchen duty involves washing and chopping lots of fruit and vegetables for the mid-morning and mid-afternoon feed. The portions of bananas, papaya, sugar cane, sweet potato and melon were weighed out for the bears in the different outdoor enclosures and for those remaining inside. The rice porridge for the late afternoon feed was normally prepared last and then the kitchen had to be thoroughly cleaned. I enjoyed working in the kitchen, because it involved careful timing of the different tasks so that everything would be ready when needed.
11:00 – 12:00 mid-morning indoor and outdoor feeds (fruit, vegetables, or coconuts). A great opportunity to observe the sun bears.
12:00 – 13:30 a much needed lunch break, usually spent at the Sepilok Kafeteria.
13:30 – 14:00 mid-afternoon indoor and outdoor feeds (fruit, vegetables, or coconuts)
14:00- 16:00 enrichment projects or collecting stock for the bear house (dry leaves, logs, banana leaves)
16:00 – 17:00 with all (or at least most) of the bears back inside it is time for the final feed of the day (typically rice porridge followed by banana leaves.)
17:30 pick up back to Paganakan Dii.
18:00 onwards time to shower, eat, rest and sleep!
This may sound liked a strict routine, but every day in the bear house was unique……
The one with Natalie’s collaring
Natalie is the first sun bear that BSBCC plan to release back into the wild. If successful, it will be the first ever release of its kind, so we were very privileged to find ourselves involved in an important part of the process – putting the electronic collar around Natalie’s neck so that she can be tracked once she is released back into the wild. The morning of the collaring, the atmosphere in the bear house was electric. Everyone was nervous, but excited. The team performing the collaring was led by Wong and included staff from BSBCC and from the wildlife department. Once Natalie had been sedated, she was weighed and laid on a table to undergo a series of medical checks. It was fascinating to watch the team at work and I felt truly privileged to be there. I was even asked to help weigh Natalie and Tom was put in charge of filming the event! The collar was placed around Natalie’s neck and carefully tested for size and fit. When the team was satisfied, Natalie was returned to her night den where she slowly came round. In the following days she was closely observed as she stepped out into her private enclosure to continue her journey back to the wild. I hope with all my heart that she makes it and is able to thrive in the environment she was born to live in.
The one with the pit viper
One afternoon we went into the forest behind the bear house to collect logs for the night pens. Before we started, Harith reminded us to be careful and watch out for snakes- particularly the highly poisonous pit viper that is often found in the trees. As he finished his instructions, something caused him to look up at the tree he was leaning against and there, less than a meter above his head was a huge pit viper curled up on one of the branches! Harith quickly took a few steps back, while the rest of us came closer to take a look. The snake was beautiful, but it was a very real reminder that we were in the Bornean forest and had to be alert at all times! We began collecting our logs at a safe distance….
The one with the swing
One of our enrichment projects was to build a climbing structure for the five bear cubs in quarantine. Tom and I led the design. We decided on a structure based around a long, sturdy log, with two tires and two swings. This would give the bears practice at climbing, equipping them with a skill needed in the forest. The centre piece of the structure imitated a tree trunk, the swings the movement of swaying branches and the top tire a tree top where the bears could rest.
Azzry and Lin May gave their input about the suitability of the structure, including safety and height- the structure should be challenging, but not impossible for the bears to climb and play on. Harith, Mark and many of the workers in the bear house helped us to build the climbing structure and it proved a great bonding experience. It took us several afternoons to put it together. On the day we had anticipated to finish, we encountered a serious hitch: the hole we had drilled was too small to fit through it the rope that was needed to secure the structure to the roof of the quarantine area. As we were working with iron wood, which is as hard as the name suggests, we could not use the existing drill to simply widen the hole we had made. After hours of trying various means of threading the rope through the hole, we eventually admitted defeat. There was only one solution: we needed to purchase a larger drill bit. We returned to the project a few days later, a larger drill bit in hand. What we had failed to achieve after hours of effort a few days earlier, was completed in a matter of minutes. At last, our structure was ready. We installed the structure late afternoon and the young bears were introduced to it the following morning. As we were not allowed into the quarantine area with the bears, Lin May took pictures and videos for us. Seeing the footage of the bears using our climbing structure was simply wonderful.
‘Time accelerated’ or ‘parting thoughts’
As the days went by I started to feel completely at home in the bear house. I got to know the team, I was familiar with the routine and I knew all the bears’ names (even if I couldn’t always put the right name to the right bear!) But of course, the more I enjoyed each day, the faster they went by and before I knew it, it was our last week and then our last day. We stretched our last day out for as long as possible, but in the end it was time to say goodbye to the bears and to the team.
Volunteering at BSBCC has truly been the experience of a life time. I have learnt much more than I ever would have expected. I have learnt about animal behaviour, welfare and rehabilitation. I have learnt about the challenges of conservation, and most of all I have learnt about the commitment of the people who have dedicated their lives to facing these challenges. It is the passion of the people I have worked with that has made the deepest impression on me. I will never forget my time spent working alongside you all. Thank you.