By Amanda Tan
My past three weeks were spent in Borneo, volunteering at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre with 3 friends and ex-Night Safari colleagues. As happens at the end of every great experience, the last couple of days are bittersweet, a juxtaposition between feelings of heightened appreciation for the entire opportunity and the dreadful knowledge that one day in the very foreseeable future, we will once again wake up in our own beds, with the prospect of facing the mundanity that is real life. I regret not blogging regularly about the experience (studying for the GREs after returning from the bear centre each night promptly puts me to sleep), and I now face the daunting task of trying to do justice to three special weeks. Bear with me (Sorry, couldn’t resist).
The BSBCC is currently home to twelve Malayan Sun Bears, most of them rescued from the illegal pet trade, or surrendered by their owners who found out the hard way that a tiny cage is no place for a bear. These bears are the lucky ones, that is if you can consider being stolen from your brutally murdered mother and sentenced to life in a cage as lucky. Many of their counterparts fall victim to the demand for bear parts, or are killed when they encroach into human territory, by people who never stop to question who first intruded into who’s home. The centre is currently in Phase I, with room for 20 bears. The bears are undergoing rehabilitation, a long and complex process of getting them reacquainted with their natural surroundings, out of physical and mental cages, where they can be ‘wild’ again. There is a long journey ahead for the centre and the bears. With sufficient funding, the construction of Phase II will commence, creating board walks and public areas for visitors. Then education can really begin, an important step in conserving these animals, who compete for conservation attention with Orang Utans and other species, and whose plight is little known, even by the locals. For such a charismatic animal, endemic to the area, it is difficult to understand why it is almost absent in the public mind. On the few occasions that Mark and I went souvenir hunting, we failed to find anything featuring the Sun Bear (despite the fact that we found several rather absurd ideas for keychains, like handsaws and hammers), with Orang Utans, Proboscis Monkeys, Hornbills and head-hunters stealing the limelight instead.
As anyone who has ever had the privilege of working with animals will tell you, each animal is a unique individual, and these bears were no different. In just a few days, their respective behavioral quirks and idiosyncrasies became apparent to us, and we no longer needed to resort to their chest marks (each one different, just like our fingerprints) to tell them apart. Here are some pictorial examples:
Clockwise from left: 1) Suzie in her favourite, flat-on-the-floor sleeping position, 2) Manis, looking rather thoughtful in her classic, and rather human-like pose, 3) Cerah, scrunching up her nose as she often does, 4) Suria, the energetic and tireless baby of the bunch, swinging from the highest accessory of her den, legs dangling, like a (rather daring) child, 5) Ah Chong, enjoying a shower in all his obesed glory, definitely one of his favourite things to do, and 6) Keningau, the gentlest of all the bears.
I have one more day to try and get good pictures of all the bears, not an easy task as they are usually climbing all over the dens, wrestling with each other, swinging from the chains and tires that we installed or otherwise not posing for a photo; and my temptations to use the flash are quickly quelled in 5 different languages (remnants of Night Safari show days). Even without photos, I’m pretty sure I will remember each one. Having experienced the endearing and charismatic natures of these lovable animals, it is heart-breaking to fathom the struggles that they face in the wild, and the knowledge that the causes of their predicament are largely human is a bitter pill to swallow.
Note the apostrophes, as something this enjoyable can hardly be called work. A typical day goes something like this:
We arrive at the centre at around 8am, and after a check to make sure all the bears are present and well, we feed them their first meal. Our undergraduate years have given us much training in skipping breakfast (to avoid arriving later than we already are for early morning classes), and a good thing too, because a full stomach does not bode well when you are greeted by this every morning.
Smells almost as funky as it looks, but no less is to be expected when you eat two large trays of fruit and porridge everyday. While two of us head off with parangs and machetes to chop leaves and branches for the bears to browse, the other two get down to washing the dens. Thankfully, working in the Night Safari has made us no stranger to husbandry, and we easily settled into the familiar routine of sweeping, scrubbing and washing down. As far as poop goes, bear poop isn’t so bad, and the bears do try to help as we have observed them peeing and pooping directly into the drainage holes! Ironically, our morning rendezvous with these bear-sized portions of poop usually gets our appetites going and the traipse off for brunch, leaving the bears to their siesta.
We return again after lunch, when the bears are at their most active, and it’s time for enrichment. Enrichment is crucial to the well-being of captive animals.
In the wild, these animals would expend copious amounts of energy on behaviors essential to their survival, such as defending their territories and sourcing for food. While the security of a captive environment negates the survival need for many of these activities, the behavioral stimulation that these activities would otherwise provide must still be met, for the physical and psychological health of these animals. Sadly, the prolonged lack of such enrichment in the captive lives of some of our bears before they came to the centre have resulted in severe stereotypical behaviors that are extremely hard to break. Here is Manis, pacing in a small circle as she often does, with her head perpetually cocked to the left as a result.
She sometimes paces so extensively that the pads of paws begin to bleed. It hurts to see her like this, and we are motivated to provide the best enrichment that we can, with the hopes that she will one day be cured of these behaviors.
We do our best to provide the bears with both environmental and behavioral enrichment. I arrived a week later than my friends, and Mark, Yuru and Saylin had already done a great job of installing new furniture into the dens.
Together with the daily provision of leaves and branches, the bears spend many happy hours climbing, playing, swinging, and generally hanging out on the various fire-hose suspensions and chain-link hammocks that transform their dens into playgrounds.
Designing enrichment that was stimulating and challenging enough for the bears, also proved quite a task for us. In our previous experiences designing enrichment for the animals in our department at the Night Safari, we thought Macaws were destructive. Powerful though their beaks may be, they certainly pale in comparison to the bears’, teeth, claws, and general brute strength. Case in point:
After some trial-and-error, we managed to come up with several ideas that passed the test, and kept the bears occupied for a considerable amount of time, though they always succeed in the end.
The best enrichment doesn’t always call for the most elaborate of ideas. Clever placement of the enrichment device that require some acrobatics to get to, and durable materials such as coconuts, Kong balls and fire-hose usually succeed in creating the right level of challenge for the bears. More importantly, they stimulate the bears natural behaviors such as having to climb and balance on branches to access bee hives for their favourite honey, and skillful tongue-action to obtain treats hidden deep within holes and crevices.
Watching the bears tackle and enjoy our enrichment ideas is definitely one of the highlights of our days. After spending so much time with them, the bears start to seem very childlike and human, and It is a satisfying feeling to watch them being bears, doing what they do best, a reminder of the respect they deserve as fascinating wild animals. Especially fulfilling, is seeing bears like Manis and Bermuda shirk their stereotypical behaviors for that interval of time and get absorbed in enrichment instead.
We also had a few off days to do some of our own traveling and exploration. This took us on a couple of night walks, where I had the misfortune of meeting some overly friendly fire ants, and to nearby Sukau, twice.
Sukau, a small strip of virgin forest buffer zone before the start of endless plantations, was certainly an eye opener. The home-stay on our second visit allowed us a little glimpse into the lives of the local people, whom we found to be a very friendly and jovial bunch. Two boat rides down the great Kinabatangan brought us face to face with an unbelievable amount of the area’s wildlife; from the famed Proboscis monkeys, to many different species of birds and reptiles, and even an Orang Utan.
The fascination of seeing so much wildlife in one place almost makes you forget the ugly truth behind the high density of wildlife - the sad fact that they have been forced into the only remaining strip of their original home that has otherwise been transformed into oil palm plantations, no longer hospitable to wildlife. Already, the effects of such an unnatural condensation of wildlife is evident. With no room to branch out, the elephant herds in the area number in the hundreds, a significant inflation from the usual 30 strong family groups. Human-wildlife conflict is also inevitable, and we found out that the elephant herds trampled the village graveyard on one unfortunate occasion. However, it is also heartening to see the local villagers embracing the wildlife, turning to eco-tourism to make a living, giving them a stake in protecting this valuable resource.
The past three weeks have been quite an experience, an extremely thought-provoking one too, and I’m having quite a hard time figuring out where to start. This is going to be messy (and inadequate).
Our time here in Borneo has given us city-dwellers the opportunity to see wildlife in quantities and variety that is almost mind boggling. Ironically, inextricably woven into all this natural splendor is our indelible human mark, from the endless palm oil plantations, to the pockets of forest reserves fighting to preserve at least some of the primary forest from development’s aggressive march. These visible aspects are merely the tip of the iceberg, the physical manifestation of the complex web of human values and attitudes towards wildlife, against the larger backdrop of human needs, economic, social, or otherwise, that underscore much of what we do.
With so many complex factors thrown into the mix, the struggle to conserve is a long and arduous one. The terms “conservationist” and “biologist” can no longer be interchangeable. The study of animals must work hand in hand with the study of people, and why they do the things they do, for it is easy and egocentric for us to impose our values and beliefs on others without understanding their needs, or the cultural and religious bearings on their actions. If sustainable solutions are to be found, we must learn to understand the people (who we often see as the problem), as much as they must learn to understand the animals.
The bears themselves have been amazing, and they have taught us much about their species, the troubles they face, and the importance of spreading their message, so that others can be touched by the stories of these forgotten animals, and be moved to help. As I said goodbye to my new friends today, rubbing their velvety noses and lookIng into their expressive eyes for the last time (just being dramatic here, I know I’ll be back), I promised them I would do just that.
?11:34 pm, by animalprints