Life’s always sunny with the Sun Bears

Date: January 19th 2015

Hi my name is Ryan and I am from Melbourne, Australia. I recently volunteered at Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, and what an amazing experience it was. Where do I start?

The People

I have never worked with such a fantastic, smart, dedicated, motivated, helpful and caring group of people before. All the staff at the centre are truly dedicated and passionate about what they are doing. This comes through clearly when you work along side them. You only have to talk to the founder of the centre, Wong, for a few seconds before you see his passion for the Sun Bears and his vision of what they are working towards achieving at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Working with all the other staff you can definitely see Wong’s passion and drive is shared amongst all at the centre.

The BSBCC Crew (Photo by Thye Lim)

My fellow volunteers and myself with BSBCC founder Wong (Photo by Naomi Clark)

The Bears

Next up is the beautiful Sun Bears. My time volunteering at the centre was my first ever encounter with the worlds smallest bears. Working with this unique and amazing animals has definitely left a deep and lasting impression on me.

Each of the bears have their own unique personalities and characters. When I first started working with the bears I thought that I would never be able to tell them apart. But with in a few days working I start to figure out each bears unique traits and personalities. From the aggressive male Bermuda, to the independent female Natalie, to the portly Kuamut, or best friends Cerah and Jelita. Each of the bears also have their own unique chest marking which can be helpful in telling them apart.

One of my favourite experiences with the bears was when we gave them new enrichment. It is so fascinating to watch them trying to figure out how to open up a nest ball or bamboo puzzle. A highlight is definitely coconut time. When the bears get their paws on a coconut this is a sight to behold. They start by grabbing the coconut and tapping around the fruit until they find a weak spot. Once the weakness is exposed they immediately sink a claw in and set at ripping it apart. Within seconds the coconut is down to just the centre. The bears then grab the remainder of the nut and repeatedly throw it against the hard ground until they hear it crack open. Now its time to lie on their back and drizzle the watery contents into their mouths.

For me it is sad that the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre even has to exist in the first place (though I am very happy it does exist to help these Bears in need). From the illegal pet trade, to poaching, and palm plantation deforestation, there are many threats to these amazing animals, which all stem from human greed and carelessness.

The bears are very lucky to have the amazingly people at BSBCC looking after them. It is very satisfying to know that all the hard work and dedicating of the staff and volunteers is leading towards the eventual release of the bears back to the forest where they belong.

They don’t call it a ‘rain’ forest for no reason (Photo by Claire Wynn Jones)

Kuamut relaxing chewing on sugar cane – looks like she is playing the flute (Photo by Ryan Pyne)

Bears fighting over the best position in the tree (Photo by Claire Wynn Jones)

Relaxing in the tree (Photo by Claire Wynn Jones)

The Duties

Working at the BSBCC is a challenging and rewarding experience. The day starts with cleaning. We would set to work on cleaning the bear pens. Scrubbing, brushing, hosing and wheelbarrows full of bear faeces. Good hard tiring work, but enjoyable none the less. Then food preparation. Weighing, washing and cutting of an assortment of different fruits and vegetables (Bananas, Papaya, Sweet Potato, Durian, Coconut, Eggs and Duku)

Next up is the morning feeding of the bears. We started off with feeding the bears that have remained in their cages for the day. We would grab to grab two large handfuls of fruits and throw them to the top of the their cages. This makes the bears climb to the top of their cages, making them have to work for their food and having to try and pull the fruit through the top bars.

Fellow volunteer Naomi feeding the bears (Photo by Ryan Pyne)

We then walked around the Outdoor Enclosure throwing fruit to the active outside bears. We would sit there for a while watching them enjoy their meal before then making our way back to the kitchen to prepare the bears afternoon snack of porridge (I know right… Goldielocks and all).

PORRIDGE TIME! All the bears return to their pens for the night so it is time for their porridge treat. Each bear receives one tray of porridge. The tray is slid into the cage through a slot in the door. The bears know what is going on as they sit at the doors eagerly anticipating their afternoon treat. SLURP. Within seconds the tray is licked completely clean.

Porridge is ready for the bears (Photo by Ryan Pyne)

The afternoon tasks changed daily. From trekking into the forest to collect logs and woods for the bears, to making bear enrichment such as nest balls, or constructing hammocks for the bears to play in. It was always exciting to come back to work after lunch to find out what I would be working on that afternoon.

Other tasks we worked on were decorating the day pen for the young Sun Bear cubs in quarantine with dry leaves, logs and fresh leaves and branches. I also got to assist with installing same sections of electrified fencing in the outdoor enclosure.

Mike and myself bringing in wood for the bear cubs (Photo by Lin May)

Baby Sunbearo enjoying his new playground (Photo by Lin May)

Part of the volunteer program also included working at the visitors viewing platform. Here we talked to the visitors about the bears and I did my best at trying to answer any of the question they had about the bears and the what goes on at the centre. I found this a great opportunity for myself to learn more about Sun Bears and the conservation efforts that are being implemented to help them.

Natalies New Hammock

One definite highlight was they day that my fellow volunteers and myself got to construct a new hammock for Sun Bear Natalie.

Azzry (one of the keepers) lead us to the supply closet were we procured 2 large fire hoses, a drill and a bucket of nuts and bolts. We took all of our supplies out into the yard and rolled out the hoses. The hoses were then cut into sections of equal length, and these lengths were then weaved through each others. At the end we fixed the sections of fire hoses together by drilling holes through them and using nuts and bolts to secure them. Once all of the hose sections had been secured together we drilled holes in each corner and passed rope through them (so we could secure the hammock to the sides of Natalie’s cage).

Lavinia working hard constructing the hammock (Photo by Naomi Clark)

Naomi testing out the hammock (Photo by Naomi Clark)

We dragged our creation inside and into Natalie’s cage. Using a ladder I secured the hammock to the top corners of the cage. Happy with my work I decided to test out my work (I wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t break when Natalie got on it). I jumped into the hammock and to my surprise it was stable and comfortable (and I knew it wouldn’t have any trouble holding the bears weight, as I weigh 2 and bit Natalie’s.

That is one comfortable hammock (Photo by Naomi Clark)

It was now time to get Natalie’s opinion on her new addition to her cage. The keepers secured the door of the cage and let Natalie in so we could get her reaction. The Sun Bear slowly walked into her cage realising that something was different from the last time she was in there. Looking up she immediately noticed the hammock and instantly scaled the side of the cage to get in. Getting in the hammock she sniffed around a little at first, then started rolling and playing on it. This was one of the most satisfying moments of my trip. To see one of these beautiful animals enjoying and playing on something that I worked hard on to build is amazing. It gave me real goosebumps to see her roll around playing on our fire hose construction.

Sad to leave

It has been very hard for me to adjust and return back home to Australia. I miss everything from my time volunteering. I miss Sabah, I miss Sandakan, I miss the rainforest, I miss the constant noises of the forest, I miss the wonderful local people, I miss the wild animals that surround the centre, I really miss the all the Sun Bears, and most of all I miss all the amazing people I had the pleasure of working with at the BSBCC. I am eagerly anticipating the news of the first release from the centre of Sun Bear Natalie.

I will definitely be visiting again soon. Thank you.


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