The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre - August 2011
A visit to the BSBCC. in Sandakan, Malaysia.
Buy prints from the gallery here.
All proceeds go to help Lawa and her friends at the BSBCC.
The bear keeper calls out some Malay names and some little black figures shuffle over to investigate. Cerah, and eventually Jelita and Lawa, emerge from the bushes to come and say hello.
These 3 young ladies were sent to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre's fantastic forest habitats where they now spend their days foraging, sleeping and cheerily digging up all the foliage painstakingly planted for them by the team at the BSBCC.
As if on cue, Cerah displays her sun-shaped crest. She is obviously an experienced model and hopes that if she gives the photographer what he wants he'll leave her alone. Nice try Cerah, but not this time!
The BSBCC now has more than 20 bears, most of whom have been rescued from villages, mini zoos or plantations, many of the bears having been kept as pets in tiny cages for their whole lives.
'Lawa' is Malay slang in Sabah for 'beautiful', and it's not hard to see why she was named so. Not as camera shy as her two friends, or maybe just not as sleepy, Lawa braved the relentless afternoon sun to do some exploring and a bit of posing for the camera as well.
The rainforest consists of two main parts: the rain and the forest. Neither of these are great news for a photographer. Narrowly avoiding the afternoon downpour, low light and heavy shadows from the canopy still threatened to waste Lawa's good looks.
Luckily Lawa didn't mind venturing into the sunnier parts of her habitat for a few shots, In fact, all of the bears seemed quite curious and had a fleeting interest in the camera before realising it wasn't food.
Under the watchful eyes of Dr. Siew Te Wong and the BSBCC team, the bears are gradually being introduced to their new forest enclosures, 4 in all, as they are made suitable for living in.
Building a forest enclosure is not as simple as putting up a fence; sun bears love to dig under and sun bears love to climb over. The fence can't be too close to the tall trees in the habitat or the more adventurous chaps might be able to venture out into the wild.
Aside from the dangers they would face if they escaped, including other bears and (of course) mankind, these juveniles are not yet ready to fend for themselves in the forest.
The hope is, however, that one day they will be ready for the wild but this is no easy task and requires a huge amount of resources if it is to be done successfully. In the mean time, to help them remember how to be bears again, things are kept interesting. Project manager Wai Pak Ng is tasked with providing lots of natural enrichment activities in the habitats. Fallen and uprooted trees provide shelter and nesting, the huge vegetation indigenous to the rainforest, as well as newly planted trees, give the bears something to stretch their claws on.
The bears are often a little too good at being bears, and are rotated around the forest enclosures to give the BSBCC team a chance to rebuild the foliage that the bears are so efficient at digging back up.
None of these lazy young girls wanted to climb a tree during my visit, although in that heat I wouldn't have either. They did however forage a lot. Despite being smaller than your average sun bear, the Bornean sub-species is still quite a large mammal to subsist on windfall and insects. To get enough termites for a full stomach takes time.
Once again the BSBCC team lend a helping hand, hiding fruit and vegetables around the enclosures to encourage their natural foraging behavior. Feeding, housing and providing all the care that these feisty animals need take a lot of effort, as well as a lot of funding.
So let's help the Bornean sun bears. The more we can raise for these bears, the more can be rescued, the happier these rescues will be in their great new homes and the better the chance they can one day be released back to the wild, where they belong.