Published on 26 March 2015
Three USC Environmental Science students recently had the wildlife experience of a lifetime when they spent a month volunteering at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Malaysia as part of their studies.
Hayley Beck, Caitlyn Turner and Emma Hambleton worked at the centre that was established for the care, rehabilitation and release of orphaned and ex-captive sun bears, a species listed as vulnerable due to habitat loss, hunting and live trade.
The trio spent the first two weeks learning about sun bears from staff at the visitor centre and the observation platform, where they could study the different traits and distinct personalities of the individual bears before meeting them up close later on.
“I particularly liked working at the platform where we could watch them play, sleep, eat and roam around in a natural setting,” said Emma, 24, of Rosemount.
“Although they are so adorable and cute, I had to remind myself not to get too attached as they are there to be rehabilitated and hopefully released back into the wild. So it’s a bittersweet feeling knowing that some won’t be there when I go back next time.”
Caitlyn, 20, of Buderim who started volunteering at Australia Zoo when she was in Year 12 at Mountain Creek State High, dreams of working in animal rehabilitation overseas one day. She loved watching the different methods each sun bear used to open coconuts.
“Some throw it on the ground, others try to tap a hole into it, and others patiently wait for another bear to open it and then steal it from them,” she said.
The USC students spent the next fortnight working in the bear house where they cleaned out pens, cooked porridge, prepared other food and made toys out of bamboo materials to stimulate the bears. They also went into the jungle to find termite nests and other treats for the bears.
“There were strict rules about not touching the bears,” said Hayley, 21, of Chermside. “Seeing them close up it was very obvious why. These sun bears are wild animals, with exceptionally large claws and teeth.
“The more human contact the bears have, the less chance they have to survive independently back out in the wild which is the ultimate goal at the centre. So even though they looked so cute and cuddly, we restrained ourselves from giving them a pat.”
USC’s connection with the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre was boosted by University of Wyoming’s Professor of Zoology and Physiology Hank Harlow, who spent five months at USC in 2014 and two months earlier this year. Professor Harlow's work was recently featured on a Brisbane ABC radio program.
Lecturer in Animal Ecology Dr Scott Burnett said Environmental Science, Ecology and Animal Ecology students could assist with research and conservation projects at a game reserve in South Africa, in the Amazon Rainforest, the Andes, coastal Ecuador and sun bear care facilities in Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos.
“This type of field research experience is invaluable because it allow students to put theory into practice and leads to much more robust learning,” said Dr Burnett.
“Conducting field research overseas also fosters resilience in our young researchers who must learn to adapt to cultural and field conditions in unfamiliar environments.”
USC provides these opportunities through its Study Overseas program. Financial assistance is provided by the Australian Department of Education, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and USC International for students selected to undertake formal Work Place Learning in international destinations. For information about overseas study opportunities visit USC's Study Overseas website.
Photos supplied by Emma, Hayley and Caitlyn (pictured left to right). For more information about their experiences, see their blog posts and photos on the BSBCC website.
— Jane Cameron