Five Years and Thirty-five Bears

Date: July 23rd 2015

Text and Photos by Joanna Buckingham

My journey to BSBCC is probably longer than most. Most of my friends,  family and work colleagues have known me as a sun bear fanatic and I can pinpoint the exact moment in 2009 that I fell in love with these ridiculously small and cute bears.  Always a bear lover, one day up popped two odd stocky short black bears on a tv ad for a New Zealand program on a zoo in Wellington. What are those?! I exclaimed and sun bears came into my life.

Google then brought the plight of the Bornean sun bears and Wong’s work to set up the centre which I have followed since 2010 from small beginnings and Facebook fundraisers to the opening of the visitors centre and the arrival of favourite Kudat. I always said I’d come to volunteer and finally with encouragement from my sister whose done several volunteer programs we had skype interviews in December 2014 with APE Malaysia, were accepted and booked flights for June 2015.

Excited and nervous with my bags, several vaccinations and a fear of the sun and humidity (as an extremely pale, freckled,  blue eyed ginger from NZ) I boarded a flight from London to meet my sister in Kuala Lumpur where she arrived from NZ for our flight to Sandakan and our first day.

We headed out to the centre at 9am and I was buzzing with elation after five years to be finally able to see all the bears I had been following so closely.  When we first arrived Wong walked out of the office and honestly it felt a bit like meeting a celebrity! Then we were straight out to the observation platform and for the first time I got to witness a sun bear in his natural habitat with Fulung sliding down a tree. That moment I knew that my two weeks were going to be something very special.

The bear house is very organised and all about routine with amazing friendly funny staff,  after all the place is home to 35 super cute but very hungry bears. A few of my favourite memories and events were :

Bear cage cleaning

What could be viewed as a mundane sweat inducing task was one of my favourite from the start. Day 1 I cut my teeth on bear house 2 (BH2) by accidentally picking a cage wedged between two inquisitive bears eager to tease the newbie. One kept tapping on the door and the other would climb up the side of the cage and tower over me as I cleaned. It was a bit unnerving and I checked the lock a hundred times to ensure there would be no face to face (or more likely claw to face) meeting. Across one of the bears I was sure was mimicking me by splashing water everywhere.

Day 4 after an early kitchen finish I helped out in bear house 1. Julaini and Panda were having an epic bear wrestle that reminded me of all the childhood play fights with my twin brother. Distracting me from the task at hand, the two rolled and bit each other and padded around with abundant energy. At one point when Panda grew bored and turned her back,  Julaini mischievously ankle tapped Panda’s back leg causing her to tumble down. Julaini became a quick favourite from that day, after all the tumbles he came to rest at the sliding door separating us by a grill and rested his head as if he was my supervisor watching my every move. It was hard not to spend minutes lost in his cute face. With the hose in hand for a cage rinse out he rose to a seated postion, claws hooked above his head showing me his belly and armed with an expectant look that perhaps there would be a rogue spraydown but I resisted his charms.

Hot days and bear baths

Day 3 around 9am the gauge told us it was 30 degrees and 99% humidity. Chin climbed in and out of her water bowl. Sticking her bum in and reclining back on the cage with her head lolling about. She would then do a 360, other foot dipped and reclining. Kudat opposite would lie in a splayed “trophy bear rug” position with his front paws out the end of his cage and Azzry would occasionally throw down buckets of water that would flow into his cage that he could lie in.

In the afternoon during porridge in BH2, Matatai was happy with an overflowing water bowl that mimicked a shower. She is stocky like a wombat and would walk around to it, finishing with her bum in it and sinking to her tummy panting like a dog. She would then shake like a dog or rub her fur against the cage. Sigalung scooped all the water with his paws into his porridge and got it everywhere. He kept putting more water in like he was making a soup.  Phin would use his big front paws as a scoop, throwing water on his chest and to the ground. He would then sink into a position that looked like he would meditate then use his rear leg as a flipper to force the puddle he made onto his lower body. It was comforting to know even the bears of Borneo were finding the heat and humidity tough!

Hammocks and Health Checks

Enrichment was a major task everyday to provide entertainment ranging from hollowing out half a watermelon and making a special ice lolly for Ronnie to lobbing bamboo feeders onto cages for afternoon play or handing out banana leaves to well behaved bears. But a favourite and an important contribution was testing out the hammock we made for Diana. Having not been able to provide a lot of input (tools are not my friend at the best of times) in it’s construction, climbing into the mounted cage and having a swing felt like I was doing something to improve Dianas life. I was fun for me seeing the perspective of a bear in hammock and I hope she grows in confidence in using it.

Warren and I on our best bear behaviour testing out Diana´s hammock

We also had the major task of making as I coined it with inspiration from Paddington Bear “retirement home for bears” for oldies Gutuk and Amaco to eventually enjoy the outdoors. We had two other volunteers from Australia with us Warren and Marie who were proper hardcore with wood and tools as well as keepers Mizuno and David with their brunt strength and humour to get us through the hot afternoons. I dabbled in some gardening and fetching of wood while the platform for the hammock was built. On our last day with minutes to spare we hoisted up the hammock and all had a triumphant photo.

We were extremely lucky to be in the centre during the time they were doing the bears annual health check. Lin May told me I was the first volunteer to get to assist and suddenly I was putting on gloves and a face mask with instructions regarding bear measurements! I definitely hadn’t expected to get this intimate with sun bears! Before long Thye Lim came rushing down with Mary and first measurement was recorded… 21.4kg. Mary is so cute with her small body and big head with her red tinged ears (apparently from other bears suckling them for comfort!). I got to test my art skills by looking at her front and rear paws and marking out injuries from her outdoor adventures. It was a great opportunity to see her powerful claws so close and also see how coordinated and talented all the staff are. It was a seamless exercise and before long Mary was back to her cage for recovery and with the team knowing a lot more to ensure her further health and growth.


I went into this experience with Kudat as a firm favourite and our first meeting didn’t disappoint. Being quite large for his age I adored his big head and feeding him banana leaves after porridge and watching how his ears moved up and down with every chew.  But the great thing was honestly getting to fall in love with a new bear everyday.  From Linggam relaxing in his basket with his handsome face occasionally peeking at me as I cleaned a cage opposite and catching an occasional wink. To Julaini trying to help with cage cleaning with claws popping through the grill to grab the squeegee.  Ronnie was a charmer with his blue eyes and Om and his karate moves with a broken bamboo feeder. Even Manis who I met late in the two weeks with her golden eyebrows and the way she sat with her elbows on the cage and paws crossed under her head for support.  In the end, Panda probably stuck in my heart the most even when she was a bit grumpy the last few days after her health check. I was lucky to watch some of her integration into an outdoor bear group as an introduction then I would pop down to see her every so often. She is also big for her size but doesn’t act like it and her way of sitting in an almost cat like pose on the ground waiting for something or someone was unbearably cute. Filling her water dish felt like a treat as she was always so close I could feel her breathing.  She couldn’t contain her excitement and impatiently would go to toss the water down where she would splay herself in the puddle and rock her bottom half back and forth with an absolute look of glee on her face.

Favourites of course aren’t just tied to the bears and the staff all had their moments. David trying to deal with my sister and my hopeless construction skills was endlessly amusing even and I admired his endless patience even when we serenaded him with Kenny Rogers “The Gambler”. Roger with all his travel tips from his former life as a travel guide. Azzry and his knack for coming up with totally appropriate English phrases delivered with hilarious timing. Lin May always seemingly armed with a camera willing to share all her incredible knowledge and sometimes getting lucky enough to spot her walking wee Kala in the forest. Mizuno showing us all how it was done when erecting poles. Then finally Thye Lim with all his very serious but hilariously animated health and safety warnings with a great talent of imitating bears.

And finally a favourite daily task had to be the outside feeding. Seeing the bears in all three outside pens enjoying bear life was heartening and something you will only get to see here.  Also it was good to try and perfect my throwing skills over the two weeks which meant not accidentally hitting a bear head with a sweet potato or disintegrating a piece of watermelon on their back. It was great seeing Fulung there to greet us and taking us up to his girls.  I could have spent hours observing them especially on coconut day and even ended up on the observation platform on my day off watching them.

Bear feedings with Fulung and friends

On the last afternoon staring at the bears not wanting to say goodbye we were also lucky enough to be part of a farewell dinner for Nick and experience one of Wong’s many other talents: cooking! It was perfect way to say goodbye and hilarious that we used so many things from the bear house and joked about eating all the bears food. We even had an orangutan gatecrasher.

 A few final tips for those thinking of volunteering or helping these wee guys:

 * Challenge your comfort zone. The idea of coming to Borneo was honestly terrifying even fueled by my five years of bear adoration. But that is what made it even more rewarding.  Sure I occasionally got a mozzie bite or two that drove me wild or had to batter a gecko out of the toilet but it was nowhere as scary as I imagined. At the newly built volunteer house, there are hot showers and proper toilets and fans in the rooms. And you can buy food and refreshing lime juice at the cafe when you are too exhausted to move.

 * It will be hot. But you will get used to it (sort of!). I scoffed in the first few days with sweat waterfalls off my face and soaked through when the staff told me this.  But few days later the sweat was more like streams and only during the really physical tasks or really humid mornings. I was more likely to be soaked through because I got attacked by a hose. Also really there is no such thing as drinking too much water when the humidity is pushing over 80% most days.

 * Tell anyone and everyone. It really makes a difference. On leaving my work I managed to tell all my colleagues and clients about these unknown bears.  Everyone asked for updates and photos.  The more people who know the more people they will tell and the more visitors will come and education will spread. I have sun bears on everything – –  desktop and mobile phone screens, my facebook header, badge on my bag – – and I’m always ready to launch into conversation about them. Even something as little as seeking out sustainable palm oil and requesting your favourite brands use it will help from afar.

 * If you’re thinking about bringing vegemite, do it.  You will regret not bringing it. And be prepared for rice. Loads and loads of rice.

 I leave the bears with a big feeling of loss with saying goodbye to all my new pint size friends (and the fully grown staff too!) but I can’t wait to come back again soon and for much longer next time! It will be exciting to see BH2 fully in action and more of the bears getting to experience an outdoor life that has been cruelly taken from them at young ages. Please support BSBCC in any way that you can as it will all make a huge difference.

The final day at the Bear House for us volunteers from left Claire, myself, Marie and Warren and APE Malaysia Coordinator Harith in front.

The final day at the Bear House for us volunteers from left Claire, myself, Marie and Warren and APE Malaysia Coordinator Harith in front.

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