Sepilok is one of the best known places in the world to meet the man of the forest – the orangutans of Borneo. These large red haired beasts, so closely related to us, are the only great apes in Asia, and one of the best places to find them is in Borneo.
Orangutans are solitary apes. They don’t like to live in large groups, and especially, dominant males prefer to be left well alone. They enjoy their space and freedom. Despite being less social than humans, the bond between mother and child is undeniable. Babies cling to their mothers for years before taking to the trees on their own, and even then, young orangutans will stay with their mother until they are 8 to 10 years old.
This solitary life style, in conjunction with their slow reproduction rate means that environmental pressures and keenly felt by the man of the forest. The main threat? Palm oil. As forest is cleared for palm oil plantations, the habitat, space and food reserves available for these great apes is quickly decreasing.
Most orangutans choose to stay well away from the noise and chaos of human activity if possible, but sometimes the search for food or the unfortunate reality of poaching and capture for the illegal pet trade brings these red apes face to face with humans.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation centre was founded in 1964 and serves to rehabilitate orphaned orangutans until they are hopefully ready to rejoin the wild or semi-wild population. The centre also has a large focus on education and tourism.
The centre rehabilitates orangutans in several stages. New arrivals are kept in isolation while they are checked medically and ensured that they carry no diseases which may harm the rest of the population. Then, depending on their age and development, they are integrated into the local orangutan community. Rangers take on the role of mother, and teach young orangutans how to climb, swing, and care for themselves.
As the orangutans become more independent, they are, more and more encouraged to fend for themselves. Food is offered twice daily, which tourists can come and watch, but is kept deliberately bland and monotonous. The centre wants to encourage the apes, as much as possible, to find food for themselves in the forest.
We visited during the morning feeding. We arrived early with our guide Robert from Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventures and walked for about five minutes along a pleasant boardwalk to reach the nursery. Here, from a viewing area behind glass, you can watch the youngsters play, eat and practice their climbing skills outside. The orangutans out in the nursery today were around four years old and were just starting to get the hang of climbing and swinging. In the corner of the nursery, a dominant male emerged from the jungle to steal an easy meal while the youngsters cautiously watched on.
Back at the feeding area we waited for about 45 minutes, but only one young adolescent orangutan came for a snack. It was the end of the fruit season, so many orangutans were still having no issues filling their bellies out in the world. Our guide, Robert, told us that this is a good sign. “Tourists might be disappointed to not see any orangutans, but actually the less you see here for feeding time at the centre, the more effective you know the rehabilitation is.”
Visit the Orangutans of Sepilok
Opening hours – Security Gate: Daily from 8.00am till 5.00pm, Reception & Ticketing Counter: Daily from 9.00am till 11.00am and 2.00pm till 3.30pm
- Admission – Adult: Malaysian RM5, Non-Malaysian RM30
- Camera fee – Use of Cameras, camcorders, camera phones etc will be charged RM10.00.
- Feeding times – 10 AM and 3 PM
Where to stay when visiting the Orangutans of Sepilok
Sepilok is a 20 to 30 minute drive from the main town of Sandakan. Staying in Sandakan is an option, but we highly recommend staying at one of the local guesthouses or hotels in the Sepilok area. We stayed at the Sepilok Jungle Resort. This beautiful area is connected by board walks that zig zag across a small creek. All sorts of bird life can be spotted here if you have a keen eye. They even warned us not to leave our balcony doors open, as sometimes wild orangutans might come to visit. That didn’t happen to us though. And best of all, the Sepilok Jungle Resort is only a five minute walk from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation centre.
Thank you to Sabah Tourism for their assistance on this trip.