And what a month it has been.
It is with a heavy heart that I leave Borneo with. Typing this entry in the steely, air-conditioned interior of the Kota Kinabalu airport, I find a sudden desire to trade all these comforts for another day in the rainforests of Sepilok. This is not an entry meant to gloat about my experience, or brandish the limits of my vocabulary. Rather, this post is meant to do Borneo justice: a post to raise awareness of a precious gem hiding quietly within Southeast Asia. And yet this gem is slowly fading into obscurity, struggling against the many facets of humanity.
I hope this post inspires you to visit Borneo and discover the Eden so close to home. Borneo will speak to you, just like she did to me. And her words are tinged with urgency.
I : The People.
Inspiring: the one word to describe the people I’ve met. It’s one thing to watch conservationists on television, or read about them in the National Geographic - but to watch them get down and dirty really puts things to perspective.
Within Sepilok we witnessed first-hand the mechanisms of a conservation centre. We met Wai Pak, a perky individual, always brimming with enthusiasm - in my 30 days there he’s never taken an off day. I’ve never seen David in a foul mood: if he’s not joking about life, he’s usually occupied with occupying the bears. Sylvia’s a tough cookie: one woman with several men under her charge, and yet she always has time for a smile, even for volunteers. Victor and Jomius hike for 20 minutes to feed the semi-rehabilitated orangutans at platform 4 everyday. And hike another 20 minutes back. They do this twice a day. And the scores of other characters: the foreign volunteers, so displaced in this country, but never letting the culture shock nor heat get to them. We’ve never met Wong personally, but snippets of his life as told from his close friends have created a robust impression.
There are so many more of such individuals, each equally inspiring. You find that it’s never about reputation or glamour. In the conservation arena, it’s mostly selflessness that brings results. And these people I’ve mentioned have all made extensive sacrifices, some more intense than the rest. But whether you’re willing to make that first step into an unstable, foreign world with an unpredictable future - that requires courage of great proportions. They don’t teach you this in school. In Singapore everyone strives to work in a bank.
If and when the time comes, I can only hope I find similar courage to make these sacrifices. I hope I make the right decisions.
And the indigenous people I met at Sukau: I’ve almost always complained about the negativities of eco-tourism, but one thing I strongly advocate is getting locals involved. You need their full support to sustain the industry.
II : The Animals.
The people were inspiring, the animals even more so. And even if we shared no common mode of communication, their presence alone did the talking.
One impactful event still resounding in me would be our afternoon at Platform 4. There we were introduced to Sogo-sogo’s rehabilitated orangutan family, and they had the right to refuse us, to reject strangers into their territory. But they did not.
And it was this benevolence and almost-blind trust that reached me. Sitting down in the middle of a forest with a family of orangutans, and holding hands with one - perhaps one of the most emotional memories I will have. And this memory will serve as a reminder for my direction in life. Strong words, but I intend to fulfill them.
And who could forget the bears? The primary reason for my stay. I got to meet some of the most boisterous personalities of my life at BSBCC: the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. All 12 of them. I’ll be honest: from day one Jelita offered me her paw, and while I’ve always been fair to all the bears, Jelita usually gets an extra snakefruit. Or three. The day I was able to tell the adult females apart, Keningau’s character stood out from the rest, her gentle nature impossible to resist. And the other bears: Manis, Chong, Suria…. it’s impossible to not play favourites, because the bears each have their own personalities.
Within the bears, their individual stories mirror a conservationist’s list of trials and tribulations. Of errant husbandry and captive conditions, of abuse, of Man’s naked power…. Realizing the pain and mishandling some of these bears have gone through makes me ashamed to be human. Manis is a very sweet bear with a very loving personality that she’ll show you - if she’s there. Her past history growing up in a zoo must have been traumatic, and her glazed look she gives you says it all. She spends more than half her day escaping and retreating into her own world, pacing around until her claws crack and her paws bleed. Even now, with a bigger den and plenty of enrichments, she still finds solace and comfort in that dark corner of her conscious. I fear she is unable to distinguish reality.
And it is stories of such that give purpose to what people like Wong, Wai Pak and Sylvia are doing.
III : BSBCC.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre aims to be a primary hub for sun bear rescue, rehab and conservation. They’re only in their initial stages, and need all the help they can get. During our visit here, we shared with them our experiences working in a zoo. I’ve typed one month’s worth of entries regarding these bears, please read the rest of my blog if you want to find out more in-depth descriptions. I urge you to.
Right now, their first phase is completed: dens for 20 bears, and outdoor exercise pens to rehabilitate them into the wild. The second phase is of utmost importance: a visitor centre, where awareness and education can then be focused on. Sun bears are relatively unknown, and given little attention in the conservation spotlight. I would say raising awareness is the most basic anyone can go right now, because once people are aware of these bears existing in their forests, and the plight they face, they would want to be more involved.
Phase Two needs funds. Please visit sunbears.wildlifedirect.org to donate. Once the visitor centre is set up, BSBCC can then be self-sustainable, and then pump funds into research and rehabilitation.
IV : Last Words.
I’ve only covered a small area within Borneo, most of it within Sandakan. I’ve only scratched the surface of this fascinating place.
Borneo is a beautiful country. She holds so much beauty, so many treasures - a lot of them delicate and fragile, most hanging by a thread. And yet She shared all these with me so readily: from the forests of Sepilok, to the nocturnal rainforest world at the RDC, and the great Kinabatangan River with his rich shores that hide a dark secret. I’ve devoted blog posts regarding each and every experience, and I hope that I’ve given adequate representations and illustrations of truly unbelievable experiences. Experiences that may ceast to exist the next time I visit.
From the very get-go, I’ve been dealt one lesson after another. Some of which I wanted to learn about; others I had no intention of knowing.
Ultimately, I’ve a greater appreciation for the natural world, and a deeper understanding for why conservationists do what they do. The challenge of the world today
would be IS that of sustainable development: striving to find a balance between economic growth and maintaining the environment.
2 hours left in Borneo, but so much more required to reflect and make some sense of the past month. I’m probably gonna have several more conclusions over the next few days. Some of the things I’ll probably never fully grasp.
Goodbye, Borneo. Thank you for an enthralling 30 days. I’ll be back for more.
It’s 2.45pm. I have approximately an hour and a half left in the Sepilok grounds. In the morning, Amanda and I did husbandry, then rushed down for the orang utan feeding at 10.30am. At 1.00pm we had lunch, expecting a memorable last meal in the cafeteria. We did have one. Not in an ideal way, but it was memorable. Definitely memorable.
Soon I’ll be going back to see the bears for one last time. We bought loads of treats for them: fruits mostly, and packets of dried papaya and mango. Going to stuff their faces. I pity whoever’s doing husbandry tomorrow. Always wanted to say that, but the past few weeks if I did say it, I’ll be kicking myself the next morning. I can finally say it, and mean it. Probably not feel good for the people cleaning tomorrow, but oh well.
I pity whoever’s doing husbandry tomorrow.
There is so much to be done, and the urgency’s only settling in during my last hours here in Borneo. In 5 minutes I will walk back heavily to the bear house. I will soak in the scent of sun bear poop and relish it. I will scratch Keningau’s nose, feel Jelita’s paws, pat Chong on his fat bum. I will watch Cerah wrinkle and scrunch her nose. I will give Suria an extra snakefruit.
And I will enjoy every second of it, and remember these moments for the rest of my life unless I lose my memory. For they will constantly signify and remind me why the sun bears need saving. And why I’m here in the first place.
The next time I talk to people about sun bears, I will remember the ones I’ve met, who’ve made an impact on me, even if it was a very short stay. And I will mean every single thing I say.
These were probably our last few enrichments for Suria, before we leave on Friday! We added more firehose to her den, because Suria really loves climbing - sometimes she stays on the highest swing and won’t come down for a few hours. It feels like a den constructed for primates!
To bolster and encourage Suria’s climbing, we’ve been suspending various food-based enrichments at the top of her den. The most successful one had to be this green ball with a hole on one side. We stuffed loads of jackfruits in it, and it lasted TWO DAYS!! On Day Two we came in the morning to find Suria still furiously trying to claw a few remaining pieces of jackfruit out. Wonder if she even slept at all! It’s fascinating watching Suria balance so effortlessly on the swing, almost like a human child. (:
I think one of the most distinctive traits about the sun bears have to be their abnormally long tongues - I wasn’t aware of this till I arrived at the centre, and we’ve had lots of uncertainties, trying to figure out the various reasons why they own one in that length!
Photo from BSBCC.
We know for a fact that the bears definitely use their tongues to probe for honey in bee hives. All other potential applications aside, we’ve been trying to figure out various enrichment methods to keep the bears busy using both their tongues and claws.
For this enrichment, we split a hole along one side of a short piece of bamboo, smeared blueberry jam within its walls, then tied it outside the den of the young females. It was impossible to break the bamboo this way, so they could only utilize their claws and tongues to get to the jam.
Cerah showing you how it’s done.
It’s easy to assume that enrichments are mere playthings for the bears, like how people baby and spoil their domestic pets with the most elaborate toys. Anyone could do that, you say. Sure, anyone could construct an enrichment, but whether it effectively stimulates and entertains the animal is a different thing altogether. Bears spend more than half their daily lives foraging. In captivity we automatically take this behaviour away with scheduled feeding sessions. It’s this void we have to fill: with all the spare time, and no real need to forage, they start inventing ways to entertain themselves. We classify them as stereotypic behaviour.
A good enrichment does not just entertain. It has to enable the bears to optimally utilize their natural skills, whether it be fishing or climbing - or in this case, licking.
During our second visit to the Kinabatangan, we met Felicity, a woman doing research on wild orang utans. It was interesting talking to her, as conversations between conservationists usually are. A few noteworthy topics were brought up, and she also shared many personal experiences, some regarding the wildlife in Sukau. The current plight of the pygmy elephants living there struck a chord with me, because the restraints this particular species face and the subsequent implications are not exclusive to them alone.
I’ve talked about the “authenticity” behind the Kinabatangan River before: in essence, there’s nothing completely natural about a strip of land encompassed by plantations on all sides, leaving the wildlife concentrated within this very narrow piece of land. It gets very crowded, which explains the extraordinarily high success rate when spotting wildlife - when there’s really nothing extraordinary about this at all. Nor is it natural for an ecosystem to be so…. condensed, for lack of a better word. This land that stretches for miles along the Kinabatangan River, is known as the Sukau Reserve or the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (correct me if I’m mistaken about the names). And like all reserves, there are boundaries and fences. Once you have wildlife secluded within an area, you have to start managing them.
According to Felicity, the population of the elephants have hit over 100: but what disturbed me is that they are still travelling together as one herd. It’s easy to deduce that the Sukau Reserve (all 26, 103 hectares of it) is insufficient for such large pack animals. Elephants don’t have territories, so I can only presume that even if there are individuals within the herd willing to leave this natal group – there really is nowhere far enough to go.
Because of this, the WWF has employees monitoring the elephant’s movements on a daily basis. Sukau is a small town that has thrived on the eco-tourism derived from the wildlife watching – what happens when the elephants decide to visit town? Felicity told us that the elephants decided to turn up at the village graveyard one day. Not cool. Even with the best efforts of these employees to divert the direction of the elephants, there’s only so much a handful of people can do against 100 pachyderms.
In Africa, probably the world’s most marketed place as the “to-go” for wildlife watching, there is no Nature anymore, just miles and miles of reserves with fences. The numbers of animals have to be managed, too: African elephants are often relocated to other reserves once their numbers exceed the capacity and sustainability of the reserve’s habitat. When water is scarce, irrigation facilities are installed to lure animals to other parts of the park.
What I’m trying to say is: Human development has encroached into natural environments to the extent that they are barely self-sustainable anymore. Nature is not natural, not after humans have to step in and manage it.
Today as I took the public bus to Sandakan Town, there were multiple plots of land in various states of construction, their multi-levelled storeys sticking out like sore thumbs against the relatively flat surrounding architecture. And it occurred to me how ironic Development actually is. The poorer countries with rich, untouched biodiversities constantly face a struggle to attain higher levels of development, only seeing the benefits that come with it. And yet it is the developed world that is hindering this process, trying to put a stopper to the evils of Development, attempting to undo and abort a creation that is out of control. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We have all had distorted misinterpretations of an untouched world, independent of Man. But it did once exist, not too long ago. And with careful planning, we just might be able to bring it back. Probably not in this lifetime, but within the next few generations. Scientists may scoff at the unrealistic expectations of conservationists (“statistics don’t lie!”) and label us dreamers, but there are things in the world that statistics cannot account for.
Coconuts for the adult females today. Was trying to figure out a creative way to use our large stash of coconuts which was collecting dust and harvesting ants; eventually Amanda and I somehow concluded to suspend it in unreachable places. Manis got her own personal alone time with her coconut, because we were afraid her group-mates would steal it from her.
Trying to figure out the best route to the coconut. Perhaps her former situation at the zoo had an adverse impact on her calculation skills: took a while, but she got there eventually!
Manis managed to tear the coconut off the rope, and proceeded to rip it apart with ease. Watch those claws and teeth!
Very quickly, she attacked the white pulp of the coconut.
Next door, Keningau gave me a dirty look, upset that Manis was getting all the treats.
…. And the rest of the group each received their own coconuts.
We were talking about how enrichments that successfully occupy Manis gives us a personal sense of satisfaction. Manis has this perpetual glazed, distant look, which is probably another manifestation of the psychological damage derived from her time in the zoo. To bring her back, to make her do normal “bear” things, means so much more.
Random photos of us at work. Saylin and Yuru returned home this morning, which serves as a reminder that I only have one week left. Already feeling withdrawal symptoms, and I’m not even home yet. Over the next few days we’ll have more volunteers arriving and a few vet tech students dropping by for an attachment, looking forward to meeting new people. And I’ve a huge backlog of blog entries to clear, gonna try to complete them tonight!
Eco-tourism plays a large part in the economies of many regions, like Africa, Brazil and even here in Sabah - usually it’s a poor country, exploiting its natural resources to get profit in the form of tourist dollars. The people learn that there are economic benefits to be derived from Nature, and even if they don’t love it, they still sustain it to get money.
It’s fascinating to study the relationship between the locals and the natural environment from a sociological perspective. I’ve mentioned how values and beliefs differ in every society, and how we must learn to acknowledge these differences, and make changes respectfully (if any need to be made) for areas such as conservation. This relationship determines the health of the eco-tourist industry: how the locals perceive the wildlife, for example, will affect the success of a reserve. Tourist dollars and foreign interest may sway the direction of conservation funds, but the support of the locals play a crucial role in the efficacy of this money, i.e. how much bang each buck gets.
I find it extremely comforting that the locals I’ve met here in Sabah are seeing the wildlife beyond their economic value: if you enjoy and love your work, you’ll work harder. The orang utans are looked after by extremely passionate people - some of their keepers have been with them for 20 years, and counting. Elis is always seen delivering fresh banana shoots and leaves to Kartis, the pygmy elephant. The younger pygmy elephant sticks to Pa Jomius like glue when he takes him for walks - she’s adopted him as a mother.
Even at the sun bears: David is an exemplary worker, constantly checking into each den a few times an hour, ensuring the bears get enough water and enrichment. Daniel’s only been working here for a few weeks, but whenever the weather gets too hot he takes the initiative to get the sun bears ice blocks.
Of course, I’ve met the occasional
idiot rebel, but that’s not surprising.
Today Yuru and I were unable to spot this odd-looking tortoise in the murky streams of the Rainforest Discovery Centre on our night walk. Our guide took a huge piece of stick, and for a while I thought he would push the tortoise out of its hiding spot. Instead, he traced its head out for us, refusing to disturb it. Goes to show the level of respect they have for nature. And it is these relationships that also need research and focus on. As Amanda put it nicely last night: even if a place has a lot of conservation potential, it won’t make a difference if its people are not ready. I can’t say that the employees in Sepilok represent the larger demographic. I’ve heard a lot about indiscriminate hunting, poaching, etc by the locals. But from what I have seen from these staff alone, if the trend continues, it will bode well for the wildlife of Sabah, and with it, its people.
I don’t think any of us were extremely surprised to find ourselves back at Sukau. This time we did a homestay, where we met an incredible, welcoming family. We played badminton with the children, had a home-cooked dinner, and even watched a nonsensical japanese movie with rubbish subtitiles for the heck of it. I especially loved conversing with them in a common language, which helped break down a lot of barriers, and we quickly assimilated into their routine. A pity we only stayed for one night: I can’t explain it but Sukau has managed to steal a piece of me. There is so much of the place to love, so much that reminds me of Jakarta.
And of course, the animals: this morning our neighbour woke us up - he’s a Bornean Gibbon living in the tree next to the house, and his loud, whooping calls pretty much dissolved all need for an alarm clock. Only problem is that this alarm can’t be turned off, which may be a problem if you plan to sleep in past 6am. But I wouldn’t mind having him as a permanent neighbour, anytime.
We took a boat ride again, an evening one this time. Saw several species of owls, a few sleeping kingfishers, baby crocodiles, and the eye-shines of civets: this annoyed me the most, because these creatures are very nimble, disappearing before we could take a closer look. Saylin, Amanda and Wai Pak saw a common palm civet crossing the road earlier this evening outside Sepilok, but unfortunately I wasn’t with them. Lucky buggers.
And the highlight of all the wildlife spotting? A family of asian small-clawed otters crossing the road as we were making our way back to Sandakan.
We woke up at 5.45am today, but no regrets.
Picture taken from here.
The above shows one of many feeding platforms here at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehab Centre. Twice a day, the rangers bring a variety of fruits for the orangs, and visitors arrive at the stipulated feeding times where large numbers of orangs congregate and feast.
The orangs I’m talking about are considered newly-rehabilitated: they still rely heavily on the rangers as their main supply of food. Today we had the unique opportunity to visit a platform closed to the public, where the orangs are higher up the rehabilitation ladder. Food is also provided here, but the orangs in the vicinity are almost fully independent. They’ve learnt to forage for themselves, and are relatively happy to avoid human contact.
Wai Pak pulled a few strings and after lunch we found ourselves trudging through the forest led by an orang utan research assistant and his charge, a 5 year old girl by the name of Sogo-sogo. Not quite knowing what we got ourselves into, we followed them, and were slowly introduced to Sogo-sogo’s many clan members.
Initially it was the juveniles that gathered for the free flow of bananas and milk - probably still learning and unable to forage properly on their own. Then the mothers and their babies came. One mom had a baby the size of my palm clinging on to her; it was only a few days old. These feeding sessions also help ensure the survival of these newborns.
After the huge basket of bananas was emptied, and the desire to feed off the list, the orangs, dominant (and very horny, I might add) male included, slowly revealed their world to us. We’ve seen orangs countless of times: back home at the zoo, and here around the visitor and staff centres. But it’s a completely different experience sitting in the middle of a forest, holding the hand of an orang utan, watching several more swinging on vines, making tree nests, and indulging in their social behaviours. Watching them in a place they truly belong.
I’ve always been extremely wary of primates, because their intelligence and capacity to outwit us, plus their sheer strength and ability to break us physically, scares me a little. But today as I sat down watching Sogo-sogo and her friends who so readily accepted us strangers into their home, I gained a whole new perspective into the lives of these beautiful creatures. We are so alike, and yet so different, in so many ways. And yet their lives are changing each and every day, as we slowly destroy their rainforests.
Thank you for the lessons you’ve taught us today. You got yourselves a new group of advocates.
I talked about Manis before, and today we bombarded her with enrichments - bamboo pieces stuffed with dates and popcorn, and wooden blocks smeared with banana, peanut butter and honey. Wai Pak even made the decision to leave her alone overnight to enjoy the enrichments - her groupmates couldn’t have been too happy, watching Manis helping herself to the treats from the adjacent den.
Up until now our enrichments have had various degrees of success. Well, here’s one that failed! The moment Wai Pak made the above-mentioned decision, Manis started to do her usual evening pacing again, ignoring the pieces of popcorn strewn all over the floor. Back to the drawing board.
Here’s a very nice photo of Manis demonstrating her incredibly strong back and hind legs. I was very surprised when I saw this photo - didn’t realise they could stand in such a straight position!
To sidetrack a bit: Red Indians in America believed that certain animals provided a link to the world of the dead, and bears were highly regarded because they shared many similarities with humans (the more similarities an animal has, the more powerful the bridge) - the ability to stand and walk on two feet was especially significant. They even believed that the birth of twins was a result of a woman copulating with a bear in her dreams.