5 Swedes in Borneo

Text by Ludwig Gassner 
Photos by Ludwig Gassner, APE Malaysia & Chiew Lin May

Hi! This is my short story about my trip and work at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). I am Ludwig Gassner and I´m 18 years old. I live in Sweden and I am currently in my last year of studying to become an animal caretaker. When the opportunity arose that I could have an internship here in Borneo I could not turn it down. This was supposed to be an experience of a lifetime and it really was. We have been through and learnt so much, so I do not even know where to begin.

We are 5 volunteers that came here from Sweden. We are all in the same class at school, so we were good friends even from the beginning. We all flew here together, and the flight was very long because we are from Sweden so it took about 24 hours to get here. I believe that was the longest any of us had ever flown before. But eventually we got here, and we were, as most of the volunteers here, staying at Paganakan dii. Our first day when we got here, we got to rest. It was much needed after the jetlag and the long trip. The next day we got to follow our two volunteer coordinators and they helped us to get a small introduction of the BSBCC and all the staff. They helped us to get settled and went grocery shopping with us. The first week of working you really had a lot to take in. All the routines, names of the bears and staff was a great deal of information to memorize and remember. We all got our own keeper and mine was Adneen. He was the one that was going to keep an extra eye on me and to give me different tasks that we needed to do.

A normal day in the bear house usually looked like this:

In the morning you always prepare the food for the bears and clean their cages. You need to feed the bears 3 times a day and you clean the cages once every morning. In the afternoons we usually feed the bears and make enrichments.

The founder of the centre is Wong Siew Te (Dr. Wong) and lucky for me I got to meet him, and not only that but we had sessions with him every week where we could ask him questions and he told us about the centre, the project and how it all started. He was extremely nice and incredibly down to earth, and it has been a pleasure listening to him talking about his work here. A true inspiration.
He told us all about why he keeps the bears the way he does and how it all works, and this is what I learnt:

The point of the centre is to conserve and increase the Bornean Sun Bear population. There are two subspecies of sun bear and the Bornean sun bear is one of them, and they only exist here in Borneo. That is a big reason why the species is so threatened by extinction and that is a reason why the BSBCC was founded in the first place. The purpose of the centre is to conserve the sun bears by rehabilitating them so they can get reintroduced into the wild. Wild Sun bears live in the rainforests of Borneo and it´s difficult for the bears to survive because of the competition of other animals and all the threats they may face. Bornean Sun bears suffer from poachers, pet keeping, deforestation, gallbladder extraction and other natural predators. The Sun bears that exist at the BSBCC have either suffered from people keeping them as pets or poachers killing their mothers when they were cubs. Sometimes people find these orphaned cubs and keep them as pets, and that´s when the problems start. Most of the bears at the center have been kept in a small cage their whole life so they don´t know about the outside world or the forest. That´s when something called stereotypical behaviours start. They are predators so they naturally have big territories that they patrol. Then when they are locked up in small cages that are not even close to the size they need, they pace. Pacing is a common stereotypical behaviour that the bears do when they cannot express their natural behaviours for example, having large territories. So that´s where the centre comes in. They can´t just put a pet kept bear that has spent it´s whole life in a cage directly into a big rainforest environment. The bear wouldn´t know what to do and it would get extremely stressed and do all kinds of unpredictable behaviours. That’s why the bears get to live in a pretty small cage first and move up to bigger ones once they show signs that they are ready for it. Then after they have shown in the big rainforest enclosure that they have all the right attributes and skills that a bear needs to survive, they can be released into the wild.

And that is what I have learnt during my time here at the BSBCC.

Thanks to all the staff and the people that made this possible. And a special thanks to Dr. Wong for letting us come here and giving us the chance to help his centre. Also, a special thanks to my buddy Adneen and for my second buddy Roger.

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