Bay woman is Dr Dooplenty when it comes to helping

Amanda French is committed to animal conservation and protection.
Amanda French is committed to animal conservation and protection. Robyne Cuerel

LEFT alone in a cramped 1m x 2m cage with little to no shade to protect him, his black fur absorbing the heat of the Sumatran sun, Johnny the captured sun bear could have been excused for shying away from Hervey Bay's Amanda French in fear.

Instead, to her surprise, the bear allowed her to scratch his back and cool him with water from a nearby hose.

Amanda, Murray Munro and Bruce Levick, all committed to animal conservation and protection, were in Sumatra to visit another animal they had rescued, Bona, a baby elephant who had been orphaned and was severely malnourished.

Together they started fundraising to give her a second chance at life.

Amanda said the three cried when they first saw the bear, which had been taken from a nearby village where people had been illegally raising him.

Sun bears are a protected species and cannot be kept as pets in Indonesia.

Johnny was confiscated by rangers, only to end up in an even worse situation.

The bear was kept in a cage so small he could barely stand. He had no water and the bottom of his cage consisted just of a wire grille.

Johnny had endured that life for three long years before Amanda and the others found him.

In her online blog Amanda wrote: "Johnny touched all of our hearts instantly. He is absolutely huge and has an incredibly warm nature.

Johnny, the Sumatran Sun Bear, saved by Team Bona.
Johnny, the Sumatran Sun Bear, saved by Team Bona. Contributed

As a cub, Johnny was taken on a leash to the market in his village and used for entertainment.

When he grew too big and was discovered by the rangers, they tried to release him back into the wild.

But Johnny wandered back to the village where he had grown up and was taken to the conservation centre.

The group that had saved Bona knew they had a new challenge on their hands - to improve the quality of Johnny's life.

The story of Bona was also heartbreaking.

The orphaned female elephant calf wandered into Seblat Camp, an Indonesian conservation area, in April 2011.

During the previous week six elephants had been killed, believed to have been poisoned by poachers, on one of the neighbouring plantations.

It is believed Bona's mother may have been among the dead.

Aged between six and eight months of age, Bona was still dependent on her mother's milk and after a year in care, she was failing to thrive, suffering calcium and protein deficiencies.

Murray told Amanda the conservation centre did not have the money to take care of the baby elephant.

Amanda French, Bruce Levick and Murray Munro with Bona the baby elephant they helped rescue.
Amanda French, Bruce Levick and Murray Munro with Bona the baby elephant they helped rescue. ABC publicity

"What can we do?" she asked Murray.

"I knew you'd say that," he replied.

Through Amanda Gillet, a vet at Australia Zoo, Amanda learned Bona needed about 25kg of protein a month, 4kg of calcium and 28 big tubs of soy baby formula milk.

The elephant also needed plenty of coconut milk and watermelons.

Fundraising efforts got underway and Amanda set up a Facebook page called Save Bona to raise awareness.

Within hours, pledges started coming in and by the end of the week, the site had raised $500, which would buy enough protein to last Bona for a month.

Bob Irwin, father of famed conservationist Steve Irwin, was told of their cause and agreed to put out an appeal for Bona through his website.

By mid-April $2000 had been raised, but the group was faced with a fresh problem - Sumatran contacts warned corruption could prevent the supplements from reaching Bona.

Amanda French on the beach in Hervey Bay.
Amanda French on the beach in Hervey Bay. Robyne Cuerel

Amanda started making plans to go to Indonesia, but when her mum Debra became sick, those plans were left in doubt.

Despite being on life support with a twisted bowel, Amanda's mum would not allow her illness to stop Amanda from going where she was needed.

"I know you. You have to do this," Debra told her daughter.

Arriving in the Sumatran city of Benkulu with Bruce, they had a further four-hour trek ahead of them.

It was dark when the group arrived at the centre, which was a small clearing housing eight huts on the edge of the jungle.

As Amanda peered through the gloom, she gasped.

Out of the darkness, a small elephant emerged, no taller than her hip.

Bona's spine was deformed due to calcium deficiency; her skin was dry and her eyes dull and weepy.

But to Amanda, she was beautiful.

On four feeds a day, Bona regained her strength and became playful.

Amanda and her fellow Team Bona mates, Bruce and Murray, agreed that at least one of them would always be with Bona at the conservation park to make sure money donated went directly to helping her, as well as to help restock her food and monitor her progress.

Amanda said one day she might bring her grandchildren to visit the elephant she saved and she hoped Bona would also one day become a mother and have a family of her own.

While the group was able to make things happen relatively quickly for Bona, with Johnny they realised they would have to be much more patient to achieve a positive outcome.

The government office that had confiscated Johnny was not willing to hand over the bear.

Amanda soon realised her standards of animal welfare differed greatly to those of the authorities involved.

"We realised we needed to help, not hinder," she said.

Observing Johnny's life in the cage brought Amanda a great deal of pain.

"He paces up and down from boredom," she wrote on her blog.

"Sometimes he gets so frustrated he throws himself head first up against one end of the cage.

"The only water he gets is when people remember to stick the hose in the cage a few times a day.

The bottom of his cage is uneven wire bars so his feet do not get a solid flat surface to sit or walk around on."

Amanda noticed that Johnny was also frightened, with people having loud conversations near him, smoking cigarettes and driving loud trucks.

A large female tiger was rescued from the forest and Johnny had to hear her roaring next to his cage - an animal, Amanda noted, he would naturally be fearful of.

"Johnny has nowhere to hide. Not anywhere to put his head when all this unfamiliarity is too much," she wrote.

The group did not expect it to take long to free Johnny, thinking it would be a simple case of combining their funds and relocating Johnny.

Johnny, the Sumatran sun bear gets some water.
Johnny, the Sumatran sun bear gets some water. Contributed

Johnny couldn't go to Borneo to another sun bear facility due to red tape that didn't allow him out of the country.

A growing legion of people across the world began to get behind the effort to rescue Johnny.

Then one night Amanda was watching a documentary about French environmentalist Aurelien Brule, better known by his nickname Chanee (Thai for gibbon).

The documentary touched on one of his sanctuaries called Kalaweit in Indonesia where he was looking after three rescued sun bears.

"I couldn't get to the computer fast enough to get in touch with him," Amanda said.

Chanee told her he would take the sun bear, but he would need help to fund an enclosure extension.

In exchange, he would organise for Johnny to be relocated to his new home.

After two months of negotiation, permission to move the sun bear was granted.

Then the only obstacle was finding the funds for Johnny's new enclosure.

A donor from New Zealand had been fundraising for two years and her efforts, combined with help from several private donors, enabled the enclosure to be built.

Because of his life of isolation, it was unclear if Johnny would ever adapt to life with other bears.

But happily he now shares an enclosure with three female bears - his girlfriends, Amanda jokes.

Amanda is not done making a difference and one feels that another animal, perhaps near death, perhaps also living out life trapped in a cage, is just patiently waiting for her to find it.

On four feeds a day, Bona regained her strength and became playful.
On four feeds a day, Bona regained her strength and became playful.

Topics:  bear, bona, elephant, hervey bay, sumatra

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