A story written 13 years ago… (damn, am I that old already 😛 )
I remember, the first thing I asked my colleague when I was offered to conduct a study about bear cuscus was: “Do they bite?” “Can I hug them ?”, hoping that I wouldn’t just observe them from a distance but also had a chance to touch the animal. And I never imagine that it could really happen to me. Instead of just touching them, I could really hug one of that cutest creatures I’ve ever known…
It was mid may 1995. It was the second month of my field work and I began to feel homesick and a little bit lonely when a friend gave me a surprise gift. A special one in fact, because it turned to be my most unforgettable memory.
It was put in a closed basket. I knew it was an animal but I did not have any idea of what it was. My friend opened the basket for me and said “Surprise.!!!”, but oops.. nothing there, and I saw a panic face in front of me instead. Then I also began to panic, disappointed and there was a big question mark in my head, what was going on? But before we could think of something, we suddenly heard some strange harsh screeches sound from across the room. “There it is!” said my friend, and I found my surprise gift.
I saw a baby cuscus wandering in the floor, stuck the tail on a sticky mouse trap, panic and crying. Very careful I lifted it from the floor and removed the sticky trap from its tail. I could take a look closer at it now. But that female baby cuscus was just so small and so ugly: skinny little thing with coarse short furs and naked prehensile tail, not mention the big protrude eyes. With such an ugly look like that, it was hard to tell what species of cuscus it was: the bear cuscus or the Sulawesi dwarf cuscus.
I conducted my research in Tangkoko-Duasudara Nature Reserve which lies on the Northernmost tip of Sulawesi Island, Indonesia. Tangkoko is a small reserve of only 8867 ha area. However, it has many habitats; from beach forest, lowland and montane forest, and cloud forest up in the peak of Mount Tangkoko and Mount Duasudara. Those divers habitats hold a wide variety of animals, mostly endemic to where it lives. Tangkoko-Duasudara itself is regarded as the most representative place for habitat types in Sulawesi. It contains many habitats from beach forest, lowland forest, montane forest and moss forest on the peaks of Mt. Tangkoko and Mt. Duasudara. In that special place on earth, we can easily found wildlife. A troop of black macaque that visits you almost every day in the camp. The amazing red-knobbed hornbill flying over your head with its huge wing and their sound that like a barking dog. And when the sunset comes, one by one, the night creatures will replace the diurnal kingdom. The most striking animal among them is the tiny tarsiers, hopping from tree to tree looking for insect. We also can find the two endemic species of cuscus, the bear cuscus and the nocturnal Sulawesi dwarf cuscus.
The bear cuscus, Auilurops ursinus, belongs to the family Phalangeridae, the most widespread family of any marsupial families in Australasia. The Phalangeridae occurs in Australia, Tasmania, Papua Nugini, and in the islands east of Wallace’s line as far as the Solomon Islands. Sulawesi of where the bear cuscus can be found, is the northwestern limit of marsupial distribution. The bear cuscus and the Sulawesi dwarf cuscus Strigocuscus celebensis live simpatricly throughout the island of Sulawesi and its surrounding islands, except in Peleng Island. In Peleng Island the bear cuscus lives simpatricly with another cuscus species, the Peleng Island cuscus S. pelengensis.
Although known to European zoologists as early as eigtheenth century, the Phalangeridae has remained poorly understood. The diets and habits of all species except two species from Australia: the Australian brush-tailed possum Trichosurus vulpecula, and the Australian mountain possum T. caninus, are also poorly understood. That’s why I did a research about bear cuscus, trying to get the first information about their diet and feeding preferences, in hopes of contributing towards a better understanding of the highly unknown species.
My little bear cuscus was only about 250 grams when she first came. With the size of a rat, she was so little and fragile. Of course she was, because usually on that size bear cuscus wouldl still be in their mother pouch, warm and save. Baby cuscus on that size were just weaned and still need about another 8 months to be independent. But that poor little cuscus was lost her mother by hunting. That was what I knew about how she could get to our camp at the first place. She was brought by an Australian guy who said that he got the bear cuscus as a gift from local people. They said the mother was hunted and they saved the baby from the pouch. Until now, people in North Sulawesi are still hunting in the forest to fill their consume habit of bush meat and it causes a huge decreasing of bird and mammal population in north Sulawesi. Especially for bear cuscus, their population in Tangkoko-Duasudara has been decreasing 95% in 15 years. And one of their victims was that little baby cuscus.
I named her after a Sangir name of bear cuscus: Si Kuse.
At first, we didn’t know anything about raising a cuscus. Yet we were lucky because she gave us alarm by giving harsh screeches and clicking sound when she was hungry. At least we knew when we had to feed her. Because of that crying, for the first couple of week, I woke up many times in the middle of the night just to feed her. We gave her milk four times a day: in the morning around 5.30 before I went to the forest to take cuscus data, at 12.00-1.00 P.M. when I came back for lunch, in the afteernoon, and at night before she went to sleep. We used a plastic pipet to feed her and kept her on a walker pack that we put on a basket. We used cloths and towels to warm her. Sometimes I just hugged her or wore the walker pack on my waist and acted like a mother cuscus with its pouch. And it’s all worked for her, for a week at least, before we change the milk and caused her a diarrhea; a very bad one that made me thinks I would lose her for good. Luckily it only lasts for three days after we stopped giving her the milk, and she was fine again. Then I thought I would never change the milk again.
Kuse had diarrhea not just because we changed the milk. She got one too when she stressed. It happened when too many people touching or hug or hold her too long. One day, we had a group of guests in our research station. They were all very nice people, came from the city to see our work in the field. We showed them si Kuse and of course they fall in love with her immediately. Kuse just round and round from hand to hand that night. I was worry, and my worry came to reality, she got diarrhea once again, made me busy to worry and try to cure her. We are Indonesian, in particular Javanese, has a traditional medicine to stop diarrhea: bitter thick plain tea. Gambling, hoping it would help, I gave Kuse the tradiotional medecine, and thanks God she was fine again.
Week by week at the station, she kept growing and gain weight from 250 grams to 300 grams, 450, and more. The furs became thicker and thicker, gray brown in color with pale tips giving a grizzled appearance. She was just so cute and bulky, and started to look like a real bear cuscus.
An adult bear cuscus can reach a total length of 1200 mm. They are monomorphic animals which mean male and female have the same size and color. The pelage is coarse and wiry. Their color varies with age and geographical location. It may be brown, grey or black with pale tips. Not like the dwarf cuscus, bear cuscus don’t have a dorsal stripe. The bear cuscus has short snout and short ears that well furred internally. Bear cuscus is an arboreal folivore, eat mainly on young leaves. They are careful, deliberate climbers that live in the upper canopy of lowland forest. While they are moving from branches to branches, they use the strong prehensile tail as a “fifth hand”. The tail has a funny looking. It has no fur from half to the end and it has “finger prints” in order to increase the friction and brace the grasping. Like any other cuscus when they walked on the tree branches, Kuse would grasp everything she could grasp with the tail while she walked, including your arm or neck if necessary.
Even though she was no longer an infant, we kept giving her milk. In the mean time, we also started to introduce leaves to her. Little Kuse began to eat leaves after four weeks in the camp. We gave her plant leaves based on my study about bear cuscus feeding behavior. In the field, bear cuscus mainly feed on young leaves of kayu kambing (Garuga floribunda). They also eat leaf buds, mature leaves, flower, and fruit, ripe and unripe. They eat wide variety of plants including lianas and mistletoes, but they tend to select particular species like kayu kambing Garuga floribunda, rao Dracontolum dao, and kayu bugis Melia azedarach, which comprised more than 50% of their diets. But Kuse did not really like Garuga. She preferred figs and mistletoes. She changed her favorite menu very easily. For instance, she was very fond of Nantu (Palaquium amboinense) for two days, but then the next day, she just sniffed it and left. Kuse also took cookies, chocolate and cakes, or cooked vegetables. I did not really like that kind of feeding preference. I think it was not good for Kuse when she returns to the wild; she wouldn’t find chocolate there. But at least it made us easier to feed Kuse if she took a wide variety of food. Maybe bear cuscus are like human, they have their own favorite meals.
Bear cuscus have been reported as a diurnal animal, active during the day. But during our observation in the field, they have a less well defined active period. They spend most of their time resting and active both during the day and night. If we found them sleeping during the day, they will start active and looking for food around 6:30 P.M.. And so did little Kuse. She was active in the morning, took a nap and woke up again when the sunset came. Then she would play around after superb, tried to climb everything. That’s why we made her some climbing branches in our verandah so she could practice her climbing skill that was very important for her if we finally release her back to the forest.
In August her weight reached 1kg. She’s a big cuscus now. And we let her play around in the yard. She was afraid at first and kept going back to our safe verandah. But we encouraged her to climb the fig tree in our front yard, so she could try looking for her own food; pretend if she was in the forest. We kept giving her milk, but we didnt need a pipette any longer to feed her. By this time, she could drink by herself and we put the milk on a cup, a red cup.
Kuse could remember things quite well. She recognized the color of her cup and where her basket was. Once, she just came right after a red coffee cup in the table, she must thought that it was her milk cup. She also always came back to her basket to take a sleep. Observing that special habits of Kuse made me think that in the field bear cuscus must have territory or something similar. To find out about it, we still needed a further study about the species.
In September, I’ve already been with Kuse for five months. It was quite a long time and it was hard for me to say goodbye. But I had to. My field study was finished and it’s time for writing now. I had to come back to the University in the city of Jakarta, a place far away from where I spent my days with Kuse for the past five months. She’s really big now, tame and lovely. After gave Kuse my last big hug, I left Tangkoko. But this is not yet the end of Kuse’s story. She still stayed in the research station for about another two months before released back to the wild.