Author Archive

Fulong Means Forest: Our Time with Sun Bears

by | January 3rd, 2014

Time with Bears:

Fulong means forest in Lundayieh, a tribal language in Borneo. A tiny sun bear cub, the smallest of all bear species, was found in the forest by a hunter’s dog and brought to the master who gave him the name Fulong.  The man kept the bear in a cage as a pet — but when he found out he could give her a better life, he relinquished her to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, where we sat this morning in rapt attention as Gloria, the head of education, told us the history of some of the beautiful sun bears at the centre.Bear2

Sun bears and the work of Siew Te Wong was our inspiration to embark on a conservation expedition to Borneo in the first place. We have been in full support of his efforts to give a wonderful home to sun bears that all have a different conservation back story. This new center is right next to the Sepilok Orangutan Center and sure to be a hit. Many visitors to Borneo know about Orangutans, and now many will know about this amazing bear.BearGifts

After six years of helping Wong work as the founder and raise funds for this center, it is a THRILL for our group to be here to help them get ready for their soft opening to the public in January. After a survey of our skills and their needs — Gloria and I put together a schedule – and we rolled up our sleeves and got to work!IMG_7531

What a day we are having! In the rain and heat, one group is moving gravel with shovels and wheelbarrows, watching for venomous snakes and tiger leeches. Another is in the bear house, chopping diets of banana, papaya, green beans – and heating an oatmeal-like super nutritious bear meal. Some even enjoy cleaning the night houses in this sparkling new facility.IMG_7523

Carol and Jereld are off with Ling Mai to set up camera traps. We then work with her to create a matrix for observing bears which we will try out this afternoon. Diana then helps create a program to illustrate the data that will be gathered. Carol and Rob sit together at a laptop editing copy for the educational signage for hours and hours, quite happily. Tina then gives her ideas around signage design. We hardly want to break for lunch, but we do, ‘cause it is hot and we have worked up quite an appetite.IMG_7650

After lunch with the bear staff, Lovesong and Mary go off with the bear keepers, exchanging stories and ideas on how to best care for a sun bear. A crew works with Gloria to envision the visitor center’s future displays and interactives. Another crew gathers around Ernie to discuss the gift shop and other ways to bring in extra funds to the program. Apparently t-shirts and postcards are the big sellers, but creativity is flowing. I get to download about education programs, volunteer positions and conservation action and messaging. I also got the pleasure of taking portraits of the staff for their website.
IMG_7658As the afternoon rolls along, I feel so fortunate to have gotten to be here on this day atthis time in the center’s history. What a joy to share what we could with them, and how inspiring to meet this talented and dedicated staff who shared so much with us. We are all lucky, especially bears like Fulong!

 

Deep Dive

by | January 2nd, 2014

I live for a night like this. It is a perfectly warm and still after an evening rain, there was a beautiful sunset and a magnificent full moon, we are on a gorgeous island in the Celebus Sea. How can this be my last night in the wilds of Borneo? Visiting Mabul Island has been the cherry on top of an expedition that went beyond my greatest expectations. Today, we got to truly witness the wonders of the oceans. Some of us went scuba diving, but most of us snorkeled in the reefs and outer islands around Mabul. It is no-wonder this area around Sipidan Island is rated as a world-class dive site.IMG_4907

Some of the group had never seen such underwater wonders and it was a joy to witness the reactions, such as “I’m in a fish tank! “ and “how can this be real?”. Indeed, there were fish of every color, shape and size, like cigar fish that seemed to stand on their tails, bobbing up and down as they moved, parrott fish who you could hear munching on their lunches, lion fish and harlequin sweetlip fish, peacock rabbit fish and even a ray. You cannot help but respect the ocean after you have seen the wild beauty of a coral reef world.

I am so happy that Intrepid Travel, our travel company, chose Scuba Junkie’ Mabul Beach Resort as our place to stay, because on top of the beauty of the habitat, we got to learn about their excellent conservation work. Roan, their conservation manager, gave us an impromptu presentation on the challenges facing sharks due to shark finning and all that they are doing to help with Project AWARE. IMG_4897

We were so inspired, that late this afternoon we spent a few hours combing the beach for garbage. The island is challenged by this issue due to garbage washing in from the open sea, and to the many nomadic people who are currently living on the island. Scuba Junkie is working with them to do better when it comes to throwing away garbage – and it made me think of the challenges on my own street in Oakland, California – not so very different. Joining them in their beach clean-up efforts felt great.IMG_7871 IMG_7849

It is late and most of the group has lumbered off to bed. We spent the night in joyful competition with other divers in a trivia night that raised funds for the victims of the typhoon (we did not win). We also gave toasts to a wonderful expedition.  Toasts were made to the rain, to the orangutans, to the sun bears, to the leeches, to the ocean, to the forest, to our incredible luck at viewing wildlife, to the flying squirrels, to the inspiring people and to the feeling of having been part of something that only happens once in a lifetime. I toasted to Oakland Zoo, for employing me to help wildlife in Borneo and around the world and for allowing me to give others the gift of experiencing the wildlife first hand. It’s been another deep dive conservation expedition that changes lives.

 

Out to Sea with Sea Turtles

by | December 23rd, 2013

We spent last night in the town of Sandakan which used to be the capitol of North Borneo. It is nice to get needed provisions and have a good sleep. It was especially great that we all got to have dinner with Siew Te Wong, the founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and bombarded him with questions that he answered with humor and grace. We are very excited to spend time at the center later this week.

This morning we had an adventurous boat ride into the Sulu Sea to Turtle Island. Turtle Islands Park is located 40 km north of Sandakan and consist of tree islands, Pulau Selingaan, Pulau Bakkungaan Kecil and Pulau Gulisan. The park is known for its protection of the nesting of two endangered species of the sea turtle, the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the smaller hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata). The two turtle species lay their eggs here year-round.

This afternoon was free beach time and everyone had a ball snorkeling in the clear waters and relaxing in the sand. As only 50 people can come to the conservation island per night, it was a peaceful and relaxing experience. We all got to see one of my favorite sea creatures, the Christmas tree worms, a very bright and colorful polycheates, or marine burrowing worm.IMG_7316

Finally, after dinner and a film about the program, the announcement was made, “It’s Turtle Time!”. We followed the turtle team into the night and onto the beach where a huge mama green turtle had crawled up and dug herself a trench. We watched in awe as she laid around 100 wet, white eggs that looked like ping pong balls.  The staff collected the eggs and took them to a hatchery, where they buried them and labeled the nest. This keeps them safe from feeding reptiles, or other turtle mamas laying their own eggs.IMG_7348

Next, we walked to the edge of the sea and lined up behind a drawn line in the sand, cameras at the ready. In the arms of the staff was a laundry basket filled with a new clutch of hatchlings. They squirmed about all over each other, waiting for the moment when they were let loose. The basket was gently tipped over, and out they scrambled. As a conservationist, I am not allowed to use the word “cute”, but WOW — it was hard not to pick one up and give it a kiss for good luck. Instead, we did get to steer a few wayward ones towards the sea, but in general, the 100 babies knew exactly where they were going.

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I am now writing by headlamp, Lovesong fast asleep. Another big day in Borneo! I can’t help but marvel over the wild miracles of nature. After those babies enter the big sea, they experience the “lost years”, and only 1% will survive long enough to return to lay eggs themselves. We were told they navigate through crystals  in their heads that work as a magnetic compass. These are the mysteries of nature. I couldn’t dream up more miraculous stuff.

Into the Jungle…

by | December 19th, 2013

Another day up before the sun and we sleepily gulp down our cups of tea as we wait for our boats. Our guides from Red Ape Encounters greet us once again, and we push off shore and down the windy, lush tributaries of the Kinabatangan River. I can’t believe we get to do this again! Everywhere, we hear animals – and we decide to just sit a moment and look up at the trees and listen. Someone notices a snake coiled up on a branch directly above us; a gorgeous reticulated python, just minding his own business. As we snap photos and contemplate his age, the snake suddenly springs uncoiled into the river, missing our boat by inches. We are awake now! IMG_4650

 

Ken and our other guides steer our boat through a beautiful stretch of river and to a place where most tourists cannot tread, into the HUTAN-KOCP orang-utan study site. The HUTAN – KOCP’s (Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Project) work in Sabah began in 1998 with the first ever study of wild populations of orang-utans living in previously logged forest (secondary forest).  Our boat drifts slowly under a few very creatively designed rope bridges, made to connect fragmented corridors for orangutans. Orangutans do not swim, nor leap – and the lack of a large tree canopy makes it impossible for them to cross over the river. The bridges are the solution –  and it is a thrill to look up at them and imagine the red apes walking over them, gaining access to the food, shelter and other orangutans on the other side. IMG_4641

 

We pull up to the shore and in small groups, we climb out and into the jungle. Armed with Mosie Guard (bug spray) and leech socks, we are hoping that leeches are not part of the wildlife that we view today. We climb up a steep hill to a hidden cave where birds nest soup has been harvested from swiftlets and marvel at the richness of the forest. After a strenuous hike, we emerge out of the forest to find coffee and snacks laid out for us by the river. Life is good. IMG_4620

 

Seeing animals is a thrill, but meeting people who are heroes for animals is just as exciting and inspiring. It is wonderful to watch our group engage with these fellow-humans. Some of our group is now up in a tree-hide, talking with orangutan researchers as they stay out of the rain and safe from meandering pygmy elephants. IMG_4673Some of our group is out with reforestation workers who are planting trees all over the Kinabatangan River.  How great to meet the people who are part of the on-the-ground solutions. What a morning! As we finally jump back in our boats, we notice that behind much of the beautiful foliage, we can see rows of the palm kernel tree where there was once a diverse forest.  There is a lot to learn about conservation challenges in Borneo…..

In Search of Orangutans

by | December 17th, 2013

It’s 4:00  in the morning and the rain is pounding. This is not California rain. This is rainforest rain –the sky has unleashed water and just when you thought it could not rain harder, it does. My alarm goes off and Lovesong, my co-leader and I arise. Amazingly, as the sun comes up, the downpour subsides, and yellow rays come through our bungalow window at the Proboscis Lodge on the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo. It is an honor to be leading an Oakland Zoo Conservation Expedition to this fascinating part of the planet.

Lovesong, our 13 expedition participants and I have a quick tea and step carefully into the boats awaiting us. We are spending the day with Red Ape Encounters, and are armed with bird books, mammal guides, cameras and binoculars. Our lead guide Ken greets us with a big smile.IMG_7293

First, we listen. The sound of the rainforest in the morning is incredible: such a variety of calls echo across the river. One of our guides can identify the bird species by sound and delights our bird-loving crew. Looking around, we see tall and lacy fig trees, lush vines dripping down 90 feet and light purple flowers blooming high on treetops.  There are so many shades of green.

There, high up in a tree, we spot three white-crowned hornbills. These birds are huge and beautiful, and resemble rock stars with their fancy white feathers poofing from their heads. Two sit on a branch and one swings merrily from a vine, seemingly for the sheer fun of it.

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A large group of Proboscis Monkeys has alighted on a few trees right in front of us and we sit for at least an hour and watch them. Only found in Borneo, these primates are quite unique with their protruding noses, pot bellies and comical sounds. They leap about, always respecting the obviously dominant male.

As the morning heats up, we see silver languar (silver leaf) monkeys, long-tail macaques, a variety of hornbills, and a bird called a jerdon’s baza with a whole rat in his talons.

Our guides steer us to our ultimate hope: an orangutan. In a fig tree, casually snacking we see a mother and her baby, and a fully flanged (with cheek pads) male. We learn that Orang means “man” and Hutan means “forest” in Malay, and we can see why they are named as such. We are now living the dream, and watching these magnificent apes, their red hair lit by the equatorial sun, just being animals in the habitat they were born in. What an amazing day. And it is only 9:00 am.

 

 

Hope for Chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest

by | September 12th, 2013

The Budongo Forest in Uganda teems with a wild variety of living beings, from trees to birds to butterflies to primates. Being there is like being in a jungle dream, where the­­­­­­­­­ musical sounds of the forest seem beyond imagination. One of the best things about being the Conservation Director at Oakland Zoo, is the occasional privilege of visiting such places on our planet.

Along with this privilege comes the knowledge gained around the challenges of sharing our planet. Deep within this lush forest habitat of blue monkeys, chimpanzees, baboons and hornbills- are people, who also need shelter, space and food.

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Amy Gotliffe (far left)

Some people living near the Budongo Forest seek their protein from bushmeat, illegally snaring a pig or deer. The snares, made from a thin wire, are nearly invisible against the foliage, and as chimpanzees walk through the corridors, their hands or feet can become trapped in the snares. In two of the forests where chimpanzees are studied, researchers have observed up to 30 percent of chimpanzees are maimed due to snare injuries. More die.

Researchers in the forest name the chimps that they observe: Flora is missing their right hands at the wrist. Kigare, his right foot. Zig’s right hand is badly deformed by snares. Kigere’s name literally means ‘missing foot’ in Kinyoro and refers to an old snare injury which removed her foot at the ankle.

Human-wildlife conflict is an issue here, and all over the world, from chimpanzees and humans in Uganda to mountain lions and humans here in our own habitat in California. The challenges that many species face can feel overwhelming.

Now for the best part of my job: hope. The Budongo Snare Removal Project gives me great hope that compassion and creativity can still reign in the human heart and mind. This project sends teams of two men (anti-snare teams) to locate and remove snares and mark the spot with a GPS devise. An education center reaches out to the local community and provides education around ecology, wildlife and the treasure that is the chimpanzees. A nanny goat program rounds out the project, offering ex-poachers an opportunity to raise milk, meat and money for their families in exchange for a promise to cease the use of snares.

When our Oakland Zoo team of intrepid travelers last visited the project in 2011, we got to experience hope the size of Africa herself. Speaking to an anti-snare team, I learn that Ofen now owns land for his family, as well as 20 goats, and Moses feels he has more knowledge of the forest and sees this work is a source of survival. We spent an exuberant day helping the veterinarian team de-worm over 100 goats that are now owned by sworn anti-poachers, and best of all, we saw chimpanzees. They hooted and called as they searched for fruit and built nests above us for sleeping. Despite some of their injuries, they lived in a forest where people are trying to live in balance with wildlife. They lived in a forest where people, trees, chimps and hope are alive and thriving. Please watch our short video about our chimpanzees at the Zoo and our conservation work in Budongo.

The Oakland Zoo adopted this project in 2001 and the support covers the salaries for four field assistants, two educators, two eco-guards, the nanny goat program and allowances for transportation, bike repair, gum boots, rain gear, backpacks, and compasses. The zoo is the only supporter of this project. We are proud of its compassion and respect for animals, people and the entire ecosystem.

Funds raised at an annual fall lecture and silent auction go toward this project. This year’s event will feature author Virginia Morell on September 26th