As my plane landed on that grassy runway, I looked out the windows to see banana trees surrounding rustic village huts and noted quite emphatically to myself, “I am in Borneo!”
Wai pak and Billy met me just outside the Sandakan airport gates with warm, friendly smiles and swooped me off to the local market and clinic for a brief health check.
The visit to the clinic is quite mandatory, I have discovered, when working in such close proximity to the protected wildlife. Wai Pak is the most qualified member of the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre staff that is currently residing in Sabah. He has a great knowledge of the centre and an admirable fatherly relationship to the bears. Billy is the architect’s assistant who is also deeply interested in the welfare of the bears, along with the design and construction of the new bear centre. I have taken the role of not only the onsite conservationist photojournalist, but also the very first official BSBCC volunteer. It’s a very exciting time for the BSBCC. Phase 1 of construction for the new centre is in full swing. I feel privileged to be here to witness the great changes that are occurring. The new centre will provide the ex-captive and orphaned sun bears a more natural environment, in a secure section of the forest reserve, so that they can be safe and outdoors! It’s terribly sad to see these amazing, beautiful wild creatures living behind bars. Although it is better for them to be safe here in these cages, than in life-threatening situations elsewhere, it is not suitable for them to be so confined.
Since Siew Te Wong took over the centre a couple years ago there have been vast improvements in the current bear facilities. The bears have much better living conditions than before, yet the new centre will be optimal. The new centre will be able to accommodate 20 bears (8 more than currently). Thus, there will be space for more bears that may need to be rescued and rehabilitated. Sadly, with the progression of various threats against the safety of the wild sun bears, including habitat loss, pet trade and poaching, there will most likely be many more bears that are in need of rescue.
The BSBCC, with the help of LEAP, has raised enough money to fund the first phase of the building construction; however, to complete the proposed plan quite a bit more funding will be necessary. I am hoping that through my photography I will be able to raise more funding for the construction of the new centre. Unfortunately, the costs of maintaining the facility and sustaining the bears will also increase with the new centre because the small government funding they are currently receiving will cease to exist. This is an even greater incentive to ‘get the ball rolling’ on raising money for the magnificent sun bears and their new home!