Adventures with Sun Bears: Volunteering at Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

Date: September 6th 2014

My name is Jenny Slater and am 21 years old. I’m from the UK near a city called Coventry, in the Midlands and Warwickshire areas. I had just finished my degree in Ecology from the University of Sheffield and was taking a break before starting my PhD in Plant and Soil Science in October.I was in Sepilok to work with the Orang-Utan Rehabilitation centre and was shown the BSBCC as part of our introductions to the Sepilok area. I inquired with a friend if we could help out on our days off, as it seemed they needed the help much more than the orang-utan centre, due to much less staff. It was agreed we could help out for 5 days over our 2 months in Sepilok.

 I volunteered at BSBCC on the 20.7.14 for the first time and helped in general animal husbandry by helping to prepare food including 50kg of washed and cut up bananas! Feeding the indoor bears was a matter of skill as we have to fling the food, e.g. sugar cane, coconuts, various fruit, on top of the cages. We were lucky to get so close to them but it was good that the morale within the centre was to respect the bears, so we didn’t spend too much time gawking at them, allowing them to get on with their daily business of climbing, sleeping, eating, drinking and washing. Feeding the outdoor bears was also great, which also involved throwing skills, but this time to avoid hitting the bears and avoid giving the food to wild pig-tailed macaques.

The big males were nearly bigger than some of the bears! We also helped in creating more enrichment and platforms for the sun bears – although I think it was more enrichment for us with all the sawing, hammering and chiselling!

Before I did my next day volunteering, Natalie the bear escaped on the 24.7.14 and caused havoc within Sepilok, closing the whole area to tourists for a few days. She still had not come back when I did my next volunteering days on the 28.7.14 and 29.7.14. As such, the ‘outdoor’ bears had not been allowed out so the place was a lot smellier than before and tensions were higher among the bears; they are really scary when they barked! On the 28th we only helped prepare food as the staff looked for Natalie in the afternoon. On the 29th 5 bears were allowed out – the first time since Natalie’s escape. I also did a full day of preparing fruit and cleaning everywhere in the kitchen! The enrichment we made was little packages made from natural vegetation with organo or curry powder in them. Of course we spent the afternoon making them for the bears to destroy them in 5 seconds! We were also allowed to feed the bears their porridge, allowing even closer interaction with them. They really are beautiful, special animals.

The next day I volunteered was the 12.8.14 and, thankfully, we didn’t have to prepare the back breaking work of 50kg of bananas as the bears were fed local fruit like durian and rambutan instead. We also got to clean some of the cages and I really appreciated how important a power-washer is for a place like this. This enrichment activity was to make a new hammock for the bears. This involved power washing some hosing to clean it then sawing it into smaller pieces, drilling holes in it and screwing it together. Again I’m sure these activities are more enriching for us than the bears! It was good to know we were making a difference to the quality of life of the bears though.

The last day I volunteered was the 14.8.14 and it was quite a sobering day; Koko the bear was sick and it was suspected she had eaten a durian seed. Although we helped food preparation and cleaning, the atmosphere was tense as the WRU helped get her to a clinic in Mile 8 for an x-ray. On a positive side to the morning, we got some lovely photos of the outdoor bears. However, the x-ray confirmed the problem was a durian sick which meant a 7 hour drive to KK. Although Koko had had an anaesthetic at 11.30am she was still drowsy at when she left BSBCC at 5pm. As everyone was preoccupied with Koko we helped prepare food for the next few days. As a good bye, we had photos with the whole BSBCC team which was a lovely memento.

On the 17.8.14 I paid a visit to BSBCC to check on Koko. She had made it back OK from KK and they had successfully removed the seed and it was hoped she would make a full recovery. I went to say goodbye to the staff on 29.8.14 and was greeted with bad and good news. Koko had sadly passed on the 17.8.14, about 4 hours after I had inquired about her. An autopsy revealed she had another durian seed stuck in her throat that hadn’t been noticed on the x-ray and hence not removed. However, Natalie had returned! She was some kilos lighter and covered in ticks but had gained muscle and was generally in good health. It was lovely way to end my experience on high.

 BSBCC is one of the animal charities I have worked with and one, in my opinion, which needs advertising in countries like the UK to continue their excellent and much-needed work. The staff I worked with during my time at BSBCC are why this project survives and are assets to the project. Some of the horrors these bears have endured and the emotional scars are shown through repetitive, abnormal behaviours. However, with some of the TLC that BSBCC offer, I have no doubt that these bears will become fully rehabilitated, make a full recovery, and be released back into the wild.

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