Jan 23

Patrick Rouxel is an environmental filmmaker and conservationist whose films include the multi award-winning Green and Alma. Patrick’s most recent film, Life Is One, was nominated for a 2016 Wildscreen Panda Award in the Creative Innovation category and has recently won the Best Wildlife Film Award at the New York Wild Film Festival.  It is the story of a return to life in the wild for three sun bear cubs in Indonesia. Patrick’s encounter with these three cubs has changed his life and he now focuses on improving the welfare of captive sun bears in Indonesia and raising awareness on their plight through his charity Sun Bear Outreach. This is his story.

Patrick Rouxel

I’ve been making films on conservation and animal welfare since 2014, specializing on the Indonesian rainforest, the Congo Basin and the Amazon. In my travels I would often come across animals kept in very bad conditions, I would usually film them and then move on. With the footage I helped raise awareness about animal suffering, but this did not change anything for those animals I had filmed. I had not altered their misery in any way.

In 2010, as I was making fundraising films for a small orangutan rescue centre based in Borneo, Indonesia, we received a small sun bear cub in a wooden box that villagers had brought in from their village. The mother bear must have been shot, but luckily the cub was brought to the rescue centre rather than sold as a pet to some private owner. She was a female that I named Bunbun and I took care of her for the several weeks. I grew very fond of her and I didn’t want her to spend the rest of her life in a cage, so this time, rather than move on, I decided to stay and give her back her freedom.

Sun bear in small cage

It took about nine months before I was actually able to bring Bunbun to the forest. The reintroduction took place in a national park with a remote camp serving as base. It was a progressive adaptation to life in the wild. I was going to stay in the forest with Bunbun until she grew fully independent. Every morning at dawn, I would let her out of her night cage and we would spend the whole day in the forest to play, explore and search for food. But she couldn’t find enough food to satisfy her appetite, and in the late afternoon, she would gladly go back to her night cage close to camp where food awaited her. She made no fuss at being locked in for the night as she knew that she would spend the whole next day in the forest again.

Bunbun

Unfortunately, after just 3 months in the forest, Bunbun disappeared, never to be seen again. She was not yet fully autonomous, so I fear for the worse. I then encountered another 2 sun bear cubs, Bernie and Wawang, in another rescue centre and decided to try another reintroduction with them. This time I had the cubs equipped with implant emitters to be able to track them down. All went very well at first and the cubs learnt a lot from one another, but after just 6 weeks, the male cub, Wawang, was killed in a fight with another wild bear. Luckily, Bernie had been spared. Wawang’s death was a blow but Bernie and I had no choice but to overcome his loss and pursued together her path to adulthood. We spent about a year together in the forest before Bernie was able to find enough food to sustain herself and gradually went off into the forest for longer and longer periods before not coming back to camp anymore.

Bernie and Wawang in the forest

From having spent so much time in the forest with the bears, I have learnt to appreciate how they belong to the tropical rainforest, how energetic and inquisitive they are and how they love to play. There was never a dull moment with the bears in the forest, they were active and on the move from dawn to dusk, and their favourite activity besides eating was playing. Besides a few dogs I know who are always happy, I had never seen an animal express so much joy at the simple fact of being alive. Through Bunbun, Bernie and Wawang, I discovered a magnificent expression of life on earth.

Bernie climbing a tree

There is something wrong about depriving any living creature of its freedom, but keeping a sun bear in a cage is something particularly cruel. I am sure that the degree of joy a sun bear feels when living a free life in the forest matches the extent of pain he feels when locked in a cage. Sun bears hate to be locked up, they’ll go crazy from not being able to express their energy. And in Indonesia there are many sun bears locked in cages. These bears have lost their mothers, their freedom and their habitat. They’ve been so deprived of everything that they wouldn’t even be able to survive in the wild if they were given the opportunity.

Bernie with her friend Bagor, a Bornean orangutan

Strangely, sun bears are mostly unheard of by the international public and there is not a single local or international organisation in Indonesia dedicated to rescuing sun bears and caring for them. So I founded my own charity called Sun Bear Outreach, and through this charity I raise funds that I use to improve the welfare of the bears I encounter, individual by individual. I go to the places where sun bears are kept in poor conditions and I construct bigger cages and large forest enclosures, so that the bears can at least feel the earth under their paws, dig, run and climb trees.

The Life is One film documents these early reintroductions and the trials and tribulations that Patrick endures to save these endangered bears.

Find out more about Patrick Rouxel and watch his films on his website.

Explore the Arkive sun bear species profile and learn more about these beautiful animals.

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