It’s Always Sunny In Sandakan (with the sun bears!)

Date: August 4th 2015

Text and Photos by Claire Buckingham

“Welcome to Sandakan!”
That was one of the first greetings we heard when we first came to Borneo. But we didn’t hear it just that one time. We heard it quite regularly, because every time the power went out people would just roll their eyes to the ceiling and laugh. “Welcome to Sandakan!” they’d say, and well, after a while, we all started saying the same thing.

But there was another greeting we heard a few times. We were four volunteers: me, Jo, Marie, and Warren, and on our first day we were taken to the centre for a look around. Up on the feeding platform, we watched the dirty half-dozen (Bongkud, Ah Bui, Debbie, Mary, Damai, and Fulung) forage about in Pen D. Within about five minutes a cry broke through the jungle. Low, trumpeting – just a hint of irritation to give it a bit of a bite. That’s the quality that makes your spine stiffen and your eyes swivel, trying to catch sight of a lurking predator.

“Um…what was that?”

Just a flash of a smile. “Welcome to Jurassic Park!”

…that’s not a raptor on the roof, right? …RIGHT?

My name’s Claire, and I came to Borneo with my sister, Jo, to volunteer at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. I’ve done a couple of other wildlife-oriented volunteer projects before, but Jo’s been following Wong’s work with the bears for years. So I suggested a while back we should go together, and finally it happened this year. Though at that particular moment we started to wonder what we werereally in for, standing up on a platform watching bears and listening to dinosaurs.

Of course, they were only (only!) orphaned pygmy elephants. Which makes an awful lot of sense when you consider that the T. Rex from Jurassic Park had a roar that was compiled from various extant animals, mainly baby elephants. But it did emphasise that we were moving into a different world entirely, where we would wander on walkways that reminded you of velociraptor pens (AND THE GATES WERE OPEN), with their PETANG ELEKTRIK signs every few feet. And the ever watchful macaques and orang-utans kept you on your toes, never quite knowing if they might take offense to the way you walked or the fact you were carrying a big colourful tub filled with papaya and bananas. (Pro tip: don’t wear your sunglasses on feeding walks. You will regret it.)

Not pictured: the OTHER primates. The hungry ones.

The BSBCC compound neighbours that of the Sepilok Orangutan Centre, but it really is a little world all of its own, and one easy to get lost in. Every day we would gather up the food prepared for the bears in the outdoor pens and wander along wooden walkways around the older pens, thanking God for the little teenage volunteers who were building new steps (it’s an art form, walking up and down steep hills when carrying twelve pieces of corn and a pile of cooked sweet potato). From there we would toss the food over and watch the bears come running.

“So you’re saying I have to walk all the way over THERE for lunch?”

…or not come running. Occasionally we were lobbing food into what appeared to be empty enclosures, praying that the bears would find it before the monkeys did. With that said, you could never really forget they weren’t empty. Manis, more than once, surprised me with how well she camouflaged herself (from me; David always knew exactly where the old girl was). And on my last day or thereabouts, Roger armed me with a machete (!) and off we went on excursions into Pens F, E, and D to do the daily fence check. Even though I had just seen the bears firmly in their dens, I still kept a sweaty hand tight on that machete. Not that I’d have hit a bear with it. I’d have been more likely to scream my way through hacking a hole in the fence…

 I also was never sure if Roger was pulling my leg about the alleged bee’s nest in Pen E. I kind of figured if there was one, we ought to pick it up as a treat for the bears, but then again…I wasn’t volunteering. I wouldn’t even carry back the pill millipede, which Warren ended up giving to Bermuda. He chomped down on that with great gusto. Bermuda, never change. Although I do wonder who stole the hose on Warren’s first day – I will never forget him racing into the kitchen to interrupt our corn and sugar cane duty. “I need honey! One of the bears has my hose!” Because if you ever want something back from a sun bear: get the honey. Trust me on this one.

Sure, papaya’s NICE, but it’s not honey!

Our days had a pretty common pattern: mornings would be in the kitchen or in the dens, and then afternoons were spent first at a feeding, and then organising enrichment for the bears. On our first day, we got split in two; Marie and Warren went into the forest in search of dry leaves, while Jo and I sat out in the driveway with David and Mizuno, building bamboo feeders. And I am ashamed to say we got that detail because I was terrified of the forest. It wasn’t so much the macaques or the orang-utans, but more the leeches. Ah, the leeches. Thye Lim and Lin May even brought (somewhat accidentally, I assume) a leech to the dinner table on our first night. I never encountered one on my skin. For that, I touch wood.

Or coconut fibre. Whichever’s easier.

At the end of our first day, we were asked who our favourite bear so far was. Without hesitation I said “Amaco!” And got a few odd looks for it. I suppose it’s fair enough; there are some very gregarious bears who can’t help but attract a lot of attention (yes, Fulung, I’m looking at you), but Amaco…just interested me. He was a big male bear, and I discovered he was twenty-two years old. But what intrigued me about Amaco was that when I helped to distribute his food about the den, at first he was not at all interested. Due to the unnatural conditions he was kept in for eighteen years, Amaco displays stereotypical behaviours that break my heart. He was too busy running his nose along the bottom of the den door to want to eat, until I accidentally dropped some papaya on his head. Then he perked up and became curious.

Maybe that’s why I found myself often gravitating towards Amaco: because he was so clearly an example of what humans can do so wrong by these bears, and how even when circumstances change they can’t necessarily get “better,” at least not without hard work. I liked to take Amaco’s food to him, attracting his attention before scattering the bananas and melon and papaya about the den. I loved watching him disembowel his bananas, or climb to the top of the cage looking for the corn lodged up in the ceiling. It gave him something else to do, something that’s not the coping mechanisms he was forced to find as a cub, and I really liked that. The little building project that we volunteers got involved in was all about building some outdoor enrichment for Amaco and Gutuk, which we nicknamed “the retirement village.” I really hope both of them like getting out of the bear house and into something a step closer to their natural environment.

There aren’t a lot of trees to climb when you’re stuck in a tiny cage on a plantation.

I did have to remember that Amaco is a big bear, though! I liked to watch him while he was eating, but I only spent time cleaning in bear house two on my last day. I was wandering over to check on him late in the morning and he was curled up near the door. How cute! I thought, and grinned as I watched him sleep. He soon woke up, saw me standing there, and barked. A sun bear bark cuts right through you. But as much as it gave me a little fright, it made me smile more. Because it’s good to know that Amaco knows how to look after himself, despite everything.

In the end Amaco was still a favourite, but I then developed soft spots for Gutuk and Om, because I gave them their porridge most days I was there. I also found Chin fascinating, and you can’t help but notice Bermuda and get to know him. I remember watching Bongkud and Fulung mock-fighting inside one morning, and then they had a repeat performance out in the enclosure during morning feeding. It’s not a bad thing: it’s all a part of learning about being a bear out in the wild. It’s all an aid to their reintegration.

True friendship is all about rolling in the dirt together.

Natalie is the only bear so far released back to the wild, and I spoke to Wong about her a few times. She’s deep in the forest, now, and can only be monitored by a GPS collar that only transmits when the cloud or tree cover don’t mask the signal. She’d been off the grid for a few days when we arrived, but soon came back online. Wong’s busy as anything, but when I inquired about Natalie’s status one morning, Wong was gracious enough to take me into his office (packed to the rafters with textbooks and photographs) to show me data of her wanderings. It was so easy to see how glad he was that after weeks exploring, she seems to have chosen a home range at last. I loved seeing exactly what everyone has been working towards, and despite the amount of work he has to do Wong was always happy to chat about the bears and their progress. You can really see the care he has for their welfare in all that he does.

The first step in going home.

Because I spent my first three days in the kitchen washing and chopping endless bowls of bananas, I didn’t really get to know the bears until I started cleaning in bear house one. I was nervous to begin with, because even though I have been around large predator-type animals in their enclosures before (and in the wild too; I have some stories about lions and leopards!), I’ve never been around them for such extended periods. The bears are pretty chill about having humans in their usual spaces, but I checked the locks on the doors about five times before I went in, and then would check them again at random intervals. In particular, the thought of the back guillotine door opening to reveal a startled bear on her way back in made me formulate idiot escape plans that really wouldn’t have done anyone any good. But the fact was, BSBCC has stringent and well-followed regulations in place and I never felt in any genuine danger the entire time I was there.

Mostly because I am not a coconut.

This isn’t to say the bears are of the cuddly variety. They are individuals, and they are wild creatures – you have to be constantly aware of your surroundings and the bears’ personalities. But that just made me happier, to know that some of them will one day follow Natalie out into release. Because sure, they’re cute where they are now. Manis has this ridiculously adorable habit of sitting up and resting her front paws on the cage and then her chin on her paws, watching you like a little old lady judging your life choices. If you clean the den next to Julaini, be ready to defend your boots and your broom because as far as he’s concerned, they are his. Bermuda takes great offense to having people’s backs presented to him, and will throw a tantrum to prove it. Om scared me silly one day by living up to his “karate kid” nickname as he played with remnants of a bamboo feeder I didn’t realise he had. Fulung is Fulung (AKA “the cutest little bear that ever did cute and he knows it”).


“This one’s MINE!”

The ursine version of a Pina Colada.

This is why you don’t pat the bears.

Girls out having a drink.


Cleaning out the dens after coconut day was always…interesting.

My favourite activity was porridge feeding, which happened twice a day. We were each assigned bears in bear house two for the duration of our stay; I was looking after Om, our karate expert from earlier, and Gutuk, an older bear with hearing and vision deficiencies. I was rather fond of him, and not particularly nervous about feeding him. Om, on the other hand, was a big and boisterous younger bear. I’ve fed large carnivores before, but this was a little nerve-wracking; you had to get in position, open the feeding trough, and push the food in before a hungry bear got a mind to snatch it from you.

You don’t want to fight a bear for their food.

With that said, it was easy to get used to the procedure. I loved watching them snuffle up their porridge, and besides: if you ever wanted to feed Sir Linggam, you had to learn to put his food in with careful and slow respect. Or else he’d get into a snit and not eat his specially prepared meal. Oh, Linggam. In the end, it was taking the porridge trays back that proved trickier. Ronnie, in particular, loved to slap a paw into the tray as his daily act of rebellion.

You can’t really argue with teeth like that, mind you.

In the end, as a pharmacist, my favourite moment was the bears’ health checks. We weren’t sure at first that they would happen during our tenure, but after a couple days off we came back to see the bear house set up to receive guests in the form of a veterinary team. I was allowed to help out with Panda, and given she was the fourth and last of the morning, I was going to be super late to lunch. But as hungry as bear den cleaning made me, I didn’t much care. I was going to help with a bear’s health check!


Panda is a big girl. And she’s not a panda; as it turns out, she got the name because she was touted as a “black panda” by her previous (presumably somewhat zoologically challenged) owners. She was also regularly fed chicken in those bad old days, hence her rather large size. But I was always amazed by how much excess skin the bears had, which you never noticed until they were picked up. It’s a defence mechanism, and a damned efficient one at that, but their skins seemed to fit fine otherwise.

As the note taker, I could not touch the bear, but I was that close to her it didn’t feel like it mattered. The darting process is always slightly traumatic for the bears – there’s no easy way to do it with potentially dangerous animals like these – and she seemed restless in her anaesthesia. Being a pharmacist, I had to check out what she’d been given, and ended up reading somewhat extensively on it. The bear’s eyes also remain open during the procedure, so they’re given antibiotic eyedrops to keep them moist and free of infection, and the bear is masked to help keep them calm and still.

Panda was weighed first, and then transferred to the table where measurements and general health observations were made. I loved seeing her teeth up close, and also the remarkable claws the bears have evolved for their arboreal life. Their ears are ridiculously small and cute. I’m not sure why we measure them, specifically, but I didn’t care. I just liked seeing cute ears up close and personal. And their tails!

You try to be professional when you’re privileged enough to get close to one of these guys.

With swift efficiency the team took blood and hair samples, and I helped Azzry and Roger get imprints of her paws. Then Panda was transferred back to the den for a slow and quiet awakening. Most of the bears seemed a bit cranky after their checks, but no worse for wear.

Those claws are amazing up close.

Mamatai, however, became an interest for me because her health check revealed a small infected wound, which might have been taken a few days earlier during integration with Wan-Wan. She proved most recalcitrant about her meals and enrichment in the days that followed. I must have annoyed Thye Lim those days, I think.

He got his revenge through cameras left unattended in the bear house, mind you.

But I really I just loved to watch her being given medication, both oral and topical, and when I could I would try to unobtrusively watch her eating and then report back when she didn’t. (Spiking her porridge with honey always went down well!) She was on the mend when I left, and I hope she’s much better now. Mamatai would have fascinated me anyway, given her distinctively short legs, caused by her early captive life: yet another reminder of how important a place like this really is in the lives of these bears.

This is how it’s supposed to be.

Days at BSBCC were always quick-moving and interesting – and hard work. I left home covered in snow and came to thirty plus degrees centigrade heat and humidity that went to 100%. I drank a lot of water and yet it never seemed enough. I was often hungry but found I couldn’t eat a lot. It’s also hard to sleep when it never gets cold! But Paganakan Dii, despite being simple accommodation, was still more luxurious than other places I’ve stayed during volunteer work. Barring the “Welcome to Sandakan!” incidents, there was always power, for starters! And at the end of a long day, a tall glass of iced lime juice in the common area was heaven. Although, let’s be honest: given how quickly we went through t-shirts and trousers in that heat, our favourite appliance there was the washing machine. And we gave it a workout, that’s for sure.

Take bug spray. Take ten bottles of bug spray.

Speaking of water and washing, on our last day, we all lingered around the bear house, taking our time saying goodbye. Chin was doing her usual sadface act, climbing into her waterbowl and dunking her feet. It was empty, so I kind of eyeballed her a little and said: “This is for drinking, right?” And filled her up as a weird kind of going away present. Except, of course, the first thing that went in wasn’t her tongue. It was her butt.

Panda then looked sadly at me from her own den, and I couldn’t resist one last go round of my favourite thing: making a little puddle on the floor so she could starfish in it. You have to be careful with the water – too much, and it damages their paws – but the bears love puddling in it. And I could never be sure if or when they might overheat, though Wong assured me they pant like dogs to cool themselves down. Still, as I wandered down the corridor, I saw Linggam thumping his paws in his empty waterdish, and had to fill his too. Two seconds later? Empty water dish, and water all over me and the bear. He seemed happy enough. I just had to laugh.

Even when you’re exhausted, they still make you smile.

Volunteering is always worth it. I found – not at all to my surprise – that I wasn’t much use when it came to building things (I am certain David spent a lot of time laughing himself sick at my ineptitude with a hammer, ironwood or not), but I was surprised by how soothing it is to clean out bear dens every morning. Walking around the compound was always made interesting by passing the elephants on their own daily walks, or looking out for the monitor lizard that was (supposedly) stalking my sister. Our last day ended with a barbecue attended by a rogue egg-loving orang-utan. These are experiences you can’t imagine, and that you won’t forget.

You’ll never look at coconuts the same way again.

I just think it’s a good lesson, though, in thinking about what it means to be here. Especially with the medical checks, there was always that urge to touch. Just once. Just a little. And there was always that justification that I may very well never see these animals again. But then, the bears are here because Wong didn’t think they deserved to never see their natural habitats again, to never be bears again. They’re not here for us. We’re here for them. And I am so grateful to have been allowed to come to BSBCC and learn that for myself.

The pure majesty of these creatures cannot be denied

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