Text and Photos by Barbara Katsifolis
Hi. My name is Barbara and I am a travel agent from Melbourne, Australia.
I volunteered at the BSBCC in Sandakan for two weeks in February 2017 and not one day goes by where I don’t think back to my placement. I have so many wonderful memories and learnt so much.
I visited the Sun Bear Centre as a tourist a couple of times and I remember clearly telling my local guide that I will be back to take part in the volunteer program. Four months later I found myself in gumboots with a hose in my hand in the bear-house, sweating profusely.
The whole experience was incredibly well managed by the dedicated local Ape Malaysia staff. Sumira and Mark on the ground in Sandakan are just wonderful and there was nothing we could not approach them for. Ape Malaysia has a fantastic process in place to make sure volunteers are well prepared and understand what this placement is all about.
The same goes for all the staff at the centre. I wished I could speak at least enough Malay to follow the conversations because there was always laughter in the room. Everyone was very easy going but at the same time incredibly dedicated to the purpose of the centre. I felt welcome the minute I walked in and not long after I was just one of the team.
One of the biggest challenges for me during the two weeks was to remember names and I do apologise if I don’t mention everyone I have met. It’s because I just can’t remember them all but I will come back and try harder next time.
The same goes for the bears; 44 bears are a lot even though they all have distinctive chest marks. Two weeks just wasn’t enough for me to remember them all. Thank you to the keepers and Sumira for patiently showing me again and again at feeding time who was who.
We spent most our time in the bear house and someone asked me the other day, “Was it heart breaking?” It’s a valid question. I would have rather seen these beautiful animals out there in the forest where they belong but I came well prepared and with a purpose to support the staff in creating the best possible environment for the bears that cannot be released into the forest at this stage.
I must say that I was just so impressed how the whole bear house was run. It’s a huge job to look after 44 bears and everything that goes along with it, and yet there were smiling faces all around and there was always time for a little joke. I am not an expert on wildlife behaviour but I am sure the bears pick up on this positive attitude around them. Of course, many of them show typical stress behaviours which relate back to their traumatic periods while being kept as pets prior to being rescued. Apart from that the atmosphere was mostly that of contentment.
After the first few days we understood the daily routines, and started to have more and more time to concentrate on creating enrichment items. These range from structures that make the bears more comfortable, to toys out of bamboo, wood and old fire hoses which are donated to the centre. Every bear has a different personality and respond differently to enrichment items. Therefore a lot of thought goes into the creation of various structures and some of them may not turn out to be as appreciated by the bears as we hoped.
After spending so much time with the bears, I did start to have a bit of a weak spot for Gutuk who has very poor vision and spends a lot of time on the ground, while other bears climb up into their hammocks to have a rest. One of our bigger enrichment projects was to build a “bear bed”. The idea was to encourage Gutuk to step off the floor and use this bed rather than the concrete floor.
In theory, it was a great idea and we were very excited to put it into action. After a little while of investigating I did catch Gutuk once with all 4 legs on the bed.
However, in the end I think the bed turned more into a toy for Chin who is Gutuk’s companion and one of the most playful bears. He had a great time standing on top trying to rip it into pieces.
Sometimes the simplest things are the most successful and I think piling up lots and lots of dry leaves in Gutuk’s cage was probably more successful than building a nice piece of furniture. Staying as close to nature as possible seems to be a good approach to keep in mind.
There is a lot of trial and error when making enrichment items. The staff are open to any suggestions and will help the volunteers turn any idea into a workable option.
In fact, the most memorable moments were the afternoons we all spent together crafting for the bears. It showed how much can be achieved as a team and it was just so much fun having everyone together joking around while being incredibly productive.
I would like to thank Dr Wong and all the staff at BSBCC for inviting me into the team for a short while and for Ape Malaysia who facilitate such a wonderful program.
As a travel agent specialising in responsible tourism, I have made it my goal to educate as many of my clients as possible about what a good volunteer and wildlife experience should be. I am super keen to return once a year to the BSBCC and encourage people to participate with me.
As travellers, we must start to play a role in protecting the last remaining rainforests we all crave to see and support some of these amazing people that just don’t give up and put their heart and soul into wildlife rehabilitation and conservation. You are all wonderful role models and I can’t wait to come back. In the meantime, I will talk about my experience back at home and hope to raise a little awareness about sun bear conservation.
See you all in 2018.
That tree better still be there. 😉