Text by Alex O’Keefe
Photos by Seng Yen Wah
My volunteer experience at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC) had been phenomenal to say the least. There were a multitude of activities and jobs I was assigned to do at the BSBCC to benefit the sun bears wellness and spread awareness on their behalf. In total, I was able to intern there for six weeks.
One of the project as an intern I participated in was to make a dog house for a pregnant mother dog. While this wasn’t necessarily geared toward the sun bears, the BSBCC does its part to help a variety of animals. Over the course of two weeks we gathered recycled wood, cut it and screwed it together. We built a frame using the selected wood, then acquired a few roles of old rubber hose. (At the BSBCC, they try and use recycled materials as much as possible implementing sustainable methods of action daily). Following the completion of the frame we tightly wrapped each individual hose piece around the wood frame.
Upon delivery, Momo (the mother) was scared and apprehensive at the new structure we placed next to her. However, she quickly took a liking to her new home! She was originally sleeping on a piece of cardboard so naturally this new structure would give Momo and her puppies more protection and a sense of security.
Simultaneously along with the doghouse, I helped build a large bear platform for outside pen E. We started by finding and cutting four large pillars of wood to an equal length. Then we measured four locations for where the wood posts would stand. Once the locations were decided, we imbedded the posts into the holes through careful and meticulous work. This was done using a combinations of gravel, dirt and water which would solidify around the posts and make cement; thus bolstering the posts in an upright position. More wooden planks were cut and nailed to the original four beams. Screwing the nails into the Belian wood (the wood the structure was composed of) was hard work. Unbeknownst to me at the beginning of the project, Belian is the densest tropical wood in the world! Regardless of using an electric drill, getting in just one nail was hard work. The nail drill would often smoke terrifically billowing out large puffs of smoke due to our inability to impact the wood’s thickness. However, over time progress was made. Some finishing touches like adding varnish to the wood were completed and through a team effort our final structure was completed.
My favorite project I was able to work on was to get a sun bear named Sigalung into Pen G (an outside enclosure). As easy at this may sound, just getting Sigalung into the training pen (which was an enclosure connected to his inside area) took well over a year! Through various days of coaxing Sigalung out with food and above all honey, he eventually took his first steps into Pen G. (I have written a more detailed account of Sigalung’s journey in a blog posted on the BSBCC website if you are interested. It’s called “One Small Step for the Sun Bear Center, One Giant Leap for Sigalung!”).
Amongst the projects I helped with were the daily activities to provide enrichments for the bears. Enrichments are toys or objects made to increase the bear’s mental and physical prowess while allowing the bears to practice habits and utilizes physical features they would normally use in the wild. Most enrichments will have bits of honey or food to entice the bears into using them. Materials are often pulled from the forest and or are recycled equipment. Some enrichments include but are not excluded to nest balls (plants tightly wrapped together containing food), ice blocks, dog toys, termite mounds and bamboo pieced that hang from the enclosure.
Here are some old rubber hoses cut up and wrapped around each other. They are held down using screws and placed in the center are smidges of honey and banana. The bears will use their long claws to pry the tightly wrapped ball open then extract the food using their elongated tongue. Fun Fact: The entirety of a sun bear’s tongue can grow up to 25-30 cm!
I thought it appropriate to finish off this reading with a picture of many of the people I worked with over the duration of my stay in Borneo (I’m the one with the sun bear head on). Words cannot describe how lucky I was to meet all of them. Not only is working hard for the bears a gratifying experience but it’s also simply fun!
For those reading this, if you are interested in contributing to the conservation of sun bears check out the BSBCC website. There are lots of way to help sun bears even if you can’t travel all the way to Borneo!
It’s amazing what a small group of people in Malaysia, Borneo are doing to save sun bears.Though I played a meager role in the grand scheme of their endeavors to conserve these amazing creatures, I at least feel I have played a small but important part.