I had a two-week gap between guiding trips in China and Borneo for Natural Habitat Adventures this past April and I could think of no better to spend the time than to support the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC.). The founder of the program, Wong Siew Te, is one of the great conservation champions of today. Click here to read about Wong, The Sun Bear Hero of Sabah.
Wong was actually in my freshman class at the University of Montana Wildlife Biology program in the mid 90’s, and we remember each other, but I transferred to the University of Alaska Fairbanks before I really got to know him. He went on to become the first sun bear biologist and founder of the BSBCC, which focuses on public outreach and education, rescuing orphaned bears, or those confiscated by local authorities from the illegal pet trade, and rehabilitating them through introduction into semi wild enclosures. The final goal is to release rehabilitated bears that have regained wild instincts back into the wild to bolster numbers and genetic health of existing wild populations.
Wong took me as a volunteer and my duties were diverse. I cleaned the bear house daily, prepared and dispersed meals of rice, fruits, vegetables and eggs, collected treats such as fresh leaves and insects from the surrounding jungle, photographed the bears for the center’s use, and set up an Instagram account to supplement their social media campaign – check it out and subscribe! I learned so much and it felt so good to work up a sweat every day to help care for these orphaned sun bears and take some pressure of the dedicated staff.
During dinner one night I asked Wong what I could do to help the sun bears the most and he said he needed funding for the release of a nine year old female bear named Lawa, who was rescued as an orphaned cub and rehabilitated at the BSBCC. Lawa is an excellent climber, builds nests in trees to sleep, forages for termites and other insects, and shows a healthy dissociation and avoidance of humans, which is a crucial behavior for released bears. She has been a candidate for release for a year, but the funding wasn’t there. It costs around $13,000 USD to charter helicopters for Lawa and the staff to reach a safe wilderness zone, and pay for the radio collar equipment to track Lawa after her release. Monitoring and documenting the status of a released bear is crucial for biologists to learn how rehabilitated sun bears adjust to the wilderness. This will be the second release of a sun bear into the wild in history.
I decided to try a GoFundMe campaign to see if I could help with the financial constraints. A few days later I received an email from Natural Habitat Adventures saying that they would like to sponsor the campaign with an impressive $5,000! I was so proud of my company, but not surprised since we are the most conservation focused travel company in the world.
After 10 days around 40 generous donors put up $5,000 into the GoFundMe campaign, including one of my high school friends, Ben Bourne, who gave $1,000. Tim Brown, one of the travelers I guided on my May 2016 expedition, pulled me aside during our visit to the BSBCC and told me that he wanted to donate as much as was needed to finish the campaign- $3,000!. It was done in three weeks. Lawa will be a wild bear again before this summer is over.
My time volunteering at BSBCC was among the most rewarding things I have done in many years. I learned that sun bears are a species unknown to the world, and are in dire circumstances as a species due to poaching and habitat loss. Building a rapport with the bears, and with the dedicated workers specializing in sun bear conservation was an amazing experience. I would recommend this program to anyone who is passionate about wildlife conservation, and can withstand hard work in an oppressive tropical climate. I hope to return again to support this program, as it needs lots and lots more help. In the meantime, not a day will go by when I do not think of Lawa roaming free in the wilds of Borneo.