After the boat arrived in Sandakan, a bunch of us were loaded onto a bus and dropped at Sandakan market to kill a little time before lunch. I had a wander around, looking at all the bright fruit and the fish, fresh at the back of the market and dried on the stalls at the front. On the floor above were clothing stalls selling sarongs and the mandatory baggy trousers, as well as beauty stalls, disturbingly selling skin whitening products. Oh the irony of all the tourists trying to get darker and the locals trying to get lighter. After a quick lunch at a blissfully air conditioned local hotel with a charming Swedish couple I had met at Abai, I had a transfer to Sepilok, about 15 minutes away.
I arrived at Sepilok for the second time just after lunch time. I was very pleased to learn that this time the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre had reopened. Although they had not recovered their fugitive bear, she had moved far enough away from the sanctuary for them to consider it safe to reopen. Having had such nice orangutan viewings on my last trip to Sepilok, I headed straight to the adjacent sun bear conservation centre after settling in instead of going back to the orangutan centre. I am so glad I did, as it was a delight. Well run, with friendly and informative rangers who are obviously passionate about wildlife and the most delightful and photogenic of creatures in the adorable sun bears.
I arrived just as one little bear made its way into a little cave and disappeared from view. While I waited for it to reappear, I started to chat to a Canadian man, Mike, who was struggling with the settings on his camera. I gave him a crash course on using aperture priority to shoot without his flash going off. His kids came over and they spoke with impeccable English accents. It turned out they live near me in London. One of the boys, Ryan, mentioned how much he liked snakes, and said they had not seen any. I showed him some of my snake pictures, and one of the rangers overheard him, and went off to look for snakes for him. She came back to say she had found one, but it was dead, having unfortunately fried itself on the electric fence. They went off to have a look, and the founder of the sanctuary, Siew Te Wong, appeared with a beautiful yellow snake. At least the boys got to pose for pictures with a snake, even if was sadly a dead snake. It was lovely that that the rangers responded so well to a child that was enthusiastic about wildlife. They seemed genuinely disappointed that they could not locate any live snakes for the boys. That said, they did tell Ryan that he could not take the snake home with him, but it was funny when he asked!Bears started to emerge, and we had a nice chat with the rangers, including Te Wong, as they appeared. We watched them climb trees and eat fruit, and one poor bear sat nearby delicately scratching the soles of her feet, avoiding using her big claws. She must have stood in some ants or something. Te Wong told us the story of the bear who could not wait to be freed. All of the bears in the sanctuary have been taken from the illegal pet trade, either from people’s homes or from markets. Although they are incredibly cute, and small for bears, they make terrible pets as they are designed to climb and to forage. They mainly eat fruit, although they also eat insects (particularly termites) and, like most bears, they enjoy honey. Unlike most bears, though, they nest in trees at night, just like orangutans. Those big, pigeon-toed claws which are so good for climbing trees must do terrible damage to a home. The aim is to rehabilitate the bears and then release them back into the wild, but the sanctuary faces the problems of sanctuaries everywhere. First there is the lack of suitable habitat in which to release them, and the sponsors of the sanctuary are concerned about the long term survival rate of the bears in the wild, as once released they are vulnerable to traffic, poaching, and all the other dangers of freedom. One bear had enough of the debate, and made a bid for freedom when a storm brought down a branch which enabled her to climb over the electric fence. She has been eluding them ever since.
One little bear had horrible gashes on his side. The ranger explained that he had been a pet, and was used to regular human contact. In order to prepare him for eventual release into the wild, the rangers have minimised contact, but he scratches himself with his claws so that the rangers would have to treat his injuries, giving him the contact he craves. Poor little fellow.
Another bear appeared, and posed right below us for some photographs. She was easily identified by the ranger as Susie as she is a rather stout bear. We watched her forage for food, eating some fruit and turning over a huge log to look for termites underneath. I could have stayed there all day, looking at bears, but it was closing time so I headed back to the resort.
On the way I passed an orchard of rambutans and took a couple of photos of the fruit. A passing truck stopped to ask me if I knew what fruit they were. I told him I had even tried them. They are delicious but a lot of work to access a small amount of fruit! People in Sabah are really friendly and helpful.Back at the resort, I watched a large monitor lizard swimming around the pond. Then I had curried vegetables and rice, for the umpteenth time since arriving in Borneo. I am trying to focus on the things I will not miss about Borneo as I get towards the end of my trip, like hot food three times a day even though it is hotter than hell. The other thing I won’t miss are the dozens of involuntary blood donations, despite lashings of insect repellent, but I am not sure I am ready yet for my trip to end!
The following day, I wavered between going to the Rainforest Discovery Centre to see if I could spot some birds, and making another visit to the orangutan sanctuary. Eventually I decided that Borneo was all about the ginger apes, so I headed off bright and early to the sanctuary, only to discover that I would have to wait for it to open. Feeding time was not until 10. As there were families arriving in droves owing to the religious holidays, I decided to go straight to the feeding platform and get a good spot.Once again I waited in the hot sun. Next to me some children sulked about the heat while their mother told them in exasperation that they were having an experience they would never get again, so they should just put up with it. The children pouted, the mother looked homicidal, and I thanked my lucky stars I was travelling alone! I entertained myself by taking some pictures of butterflies, of which there are many beautiful ones in Borneo.
Eventually the food was placed on the platform by a ranger with a large basket, and one orangutan arrived and sat at the back of the platform with his back to the crowd, eating. Fortunately he did turn around after a little while. Another one appeared holding a leaf, which she carefully placed in the ranger’s basket before grabbing a banana and heading off.A third orangutan appeared. She too did not linger on the platform, but she climbed the rope over the viewing platform giving the people on that side a close view. People crowded around her, and followed her as she walked along the hand rail towards the exit, followed by a pushing crowd. The rangers struggled to keep people back, and when she stopped near the exit people got very close to her. It was lucky no one lost a phone or a camera, as the orangutans do often grab them when people get too close. The ranger pointed her in the direction of the forest, and after a last superior gaze at her public she swiftly climbed a tree and disappeared.
Sadly I was due to depart from Sandakan back to KK towards my final destination, the resort of Gaya Island on the biggest island off the coast of KK. Resisting the temptation to pop into the sun bear sanctuary for a quick visit with my new favourite creatures, I headed back, packed up and went to the airport. It turned out I was in plenty of time for my flight. I had time for a quick toasted sandwich before heading in to the lounge where I was sorting through my photos and I saw the lovely Canadian family I had met at the sun bear sanctuary the day before. They were on my flight, and it was nice to see them again, with their beautifully behaved kids. I also caught up with Tony and Lisa from Abai, and was pleased to hear they had seen elephants at the Kalibatangan River Lodge, after our fruitless efforts a few days before.
If you have enjoyed these pictures of sun bears and orangutans and feel moved by their plight, you can help the sanctuaries which care for these animals by adopting a bear or an ape. For a sun bear, go to http://www.bsbcc.org.my/adopt-a-bear.html and for an orangutan, go to http://www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk.