Date with Sun Bears

Date: January 27th 2015

Text by See Toh Yee Nin

Hi I am Yee Nin, I’m 21 years old and I am a 3rd year veterinary medicine student. I come from Perak, Malaysia and this is my first time volunteering in a wildlife sanctuary. I am here for a period of 2 weeks as one of the requirements to fulfill the compulsory field practice that is part of the curriculum.

Much like what we had done previously volunteering in zoo, the daily routine was not much different from each other, which included cleaning, preparing food, feeding, and behavioral observations. However, what really impressed me regarding the conservation center was the concern on the status of the species population and efforts in the rehabilitation project. As well as the welfare of the animal is being well taken care of.

On the first day working in the bear house, we are warned to be extra cautious by the staff and not to be too close with the bears as the bears are very powerful and destructive due to their strong arms, hard claws and sharp canine teeth even though they looked cute, innocent, clumsy and small dog-like body size (body weight of 20 to 50kg). I was even stunned by their clever actions of opening a coconut and splitting up a bamboo feeder which indicated the degree of the forcefulness and their instinctive destructive behavior.

After a few days working in the bear house, I shed my fear towards bears gradually and gained more confidence, especially removing the empty feed tray from the cage, which is the movement where we are within a close distance with the bear as the bear can easily grab us and cause harm. The most relished part of the daily routine is the feeding in the forest enclosure. After scattering feed in the forest enclosure area, I enjoyed watching them forage for food, watching the way they removed the inedible part and enjoying their meal. By watching them manipulate all their limbs to remove the husks, then end up lying on the ground on the ventral recumbency with their round belly facing the sky, holding the coconut up by the forelimbs to drink the coconut juice, you definitely can’t stop screaming, “Dear bear can you stop acting cute?”.  Every bear has their own pattern of behaviors, such as feeding, climbing (cage or tree), resting in the hammock or basket, grooming etc which most of them are really funny and brighten up your day.

Other than normal daily routine, we also helped in constructing the enrichment materials. In order to prepare enrichment, we were scared by the creepy look of the tractor millipede which is never found in Peninsular Malaysia, bitten by fire ants during the collection of dry leaves, and traumatized by leeches when looking for termite molds in the jungle.  This was indeed an unforgettable experience over here. In addition, I had a great opportunity to do behavioral observation and construct an ethogram for Chin in the electric fence training pens which I had previously learnt in my ethology lecture.

The CEO and the founder of the conservation center, Mr Wong Siew Tee at certain extends, impressed me with his passion of conserving the bear population, fancy knowledge of sun bear ethology, capability of leading the team and his philosophy of life, which is “finish all the food and do not waste the food like a bear”. The staff here are joyful, friendly, highly motivated, excited and happy to share their experience and knowledge regardless of the bear or the rainforest. We also had some cultural exchanges by learning some of the culture and lifestyle of Sabahan, which is a lot different from Peninsular Malaysia.

On the last working day in BSBCC, I was lucky enough to have a great opportunity which involved being present in a physical examination where a bear, Linggam was vomiting and depressed and the veterinarian from Wildlife Rescue Unit, Dr Laura decided to put him under sedation so that he could receive supportive therapy. From the short discussion with Dr Laura and BSBCC’s staff, it is sad to say that the recent studies on sun bear, no matter what aspect, either medical field or ethological field information is very limited. More information is needed so that the current method of bear care can be greatly improved, and thereby I have a strong feeling that I might be considering to work on this if I decide to venture into wildlife medicine in the future.

During the afternoon feeding, I did spend a long time sitting on the platform and watching the bears in pen D. I barely believe that time flies too fast and today is my last day of my internship at BSBCC. They are as cute as those furry bear dolls and all their funny moves dissolve your heart. This endangered creature enriched the ecosystem of the rainforest by the ways of their feeding behavior and should not to be allowed to become extinct from the rainforest.

In short, the experience and knowledge that I gained at BSBCC overwhelmed my expectations from different aspects of animal management, human resource management, working culture, sanctuary sustainability, research, education and the passion towards conserving wildlife. BSBCC will be the first on the list as I am happy to promote the volunteering program to my wildlife fanatic juniors because this is one of the best reference centres in Malaysia to see the full picture of how a model of rehabilitation mechanism runs with support from Sabah Wildlife Department. Finally, congratulation and good luck to BSBCC for releasing their first bear, Natalie in to the wild in the coming March after 6 years of hard work and sacrification :)

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