Wild encounter: For Ng Bee Yin, 24, seeing orang utans is one of the benefits of volunteering at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, which shares the same forest as the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan, Sabah.
A volunteer’s wild experience at a sun bear rescue and rehabilitating facility.
Malaysians rarely volunteer because it is not a trend, and it is deemed to be unrewarding. This perception is wrong because from the volunteer programmes which I have joined, I have had fun, widened my social network, learnt new skills and, most importantly, gained a sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
I studied conservation and biodiversity management in Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT), so conservation is not new to me. My first volunteering experience was with the Save Our Seahorse programme in Simpang Pulai, Johor, followed by the Sea Turtle Research Unit in Pulau Redang, Terengganu.
After graduating last year, I volunteered for a month in Cambodia where I did biodiversity surveys and proposals for ecotourism for a mangrove forest along the Mekong River.
After that, I spent six weeks with the Asia Youth Volunteering Programme doing public awareness activities for the Kuala Selangor Nature Park, Selangor. I helped make posters, crafts and educational materials for activities with school kids, as well as for a public exhibition. I believe these volunteering stints played a role in my receiving the Royal Education Award and UMT Best Graduate Award.
From these experiences, I knew what I wanted in a volunteer programme: hands-on activity and something that dealt directly with conservation of wildlife. This was why I chose to volunteer at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sandakan, Sabah. I felt that I could achieve my personal objectives in volunteering there.
During my month-long stint at BSBCC which ended on April 12, I started my daily routine by serving rice porridge to the sun bears. After that, I prepared their lunch. This is not as simple as one thinks because there are over 100kg of food to feed 33 sun bears every day. Rinsing, chopping, measuring, sorting and cooking took me two to three hours.
Sometimes, I cleaned the sun bear cages. After finishing these tasks, I would go to the visitor observation platform to talk to visitors. At noon, I helped feed the bears. During my free time, I made ice blocks from fruits for the sun bears’ enrichment. They enjoyed the lollies very much. Once a week or fortnight, the staff collect dried leaves and termite nests to put in the cages, or make hammocks for the bears.
Working in the bear house (where the cages are located) required a lot of physical strength. Just to prepare bananas for the bears, I had to rinse, cut, measure and sort 45kg of the fruit. Although no special skills were needed, it was quite hard handling large and hard fruits or vegetables such as pineapples and pumpkins.
I got small cuts and blisters from doing so. I also got bruises on my legs from carrying heavy loads of food. Having to use so much strength doing my morning routines, I often slept at around 8pm because I was so tired.
I enjoyed being a “guide” on the observation platform the most, as I got to meet locals and foreigners who had come to watch the sun bears. The platform is the only place for visitors to view the bears but sometimes, if the bears are in the forest, they are not visible.
Hence, it is very important for us to “entertain” the tourists when the bears cannot be spotted. I shared with them the stories behind the bears. It is important to spread the message about these sun bears because they are highly threatened and the least-known bear.
There were several memorable incidents at BSBCC. One was the arrival of a rescued cub. In another incident, it was raining and I was astonished to see two orang utans on the roof of the clinic (at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre); one was using a raincoat and the other, a big leaf, to cover themselves from the rain.
One night, we were relaxing and chit-chatting when a figure which looked like Gollum (from the The Lord Of The Rings movies) or a toyol appeared in the dim light. It turned out to be a hairless orang utan which was sleeping nearby. It was a terrifying but hilarious moment.
For this volunteer programme, I only had to pay for my food. It was very nice of BSBCC to provide me accommodation and transport to the centre. I gained knowledge about sun bears and learnt some skills from the experienced staff.
BSBCC provides good welfare for the wildlife that it keeps and I am proud to be a part of it. Getting close to sun bears and seeing free-roaming orang utans every day is definitely a remarkable experience.
- Find out more about volunteering at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre at www.bsbcc.org.my.