No trip to Borneo would have been complete for me if I couldn’t fulfill my all-time bucket list experience of seeing the orangutans. I have longed to see these magnificent primates, whom we share 97% of our DNA with for as long as I can remember and to say that our trip to Malaysia was inspired by this would be an understatement.
Being huge on conservation and sustainability, it was pretty sad to hear that these ‘Kings of the jungle’ (the Malay meaning for Orangutans) were declining in numbers due to deforestation. The ultimate wildlife experience for me is to see wildlife in their natural habitat, where they belong and therefore I was absolutely beside myself when I discovered Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
We were based in the city of Kota Kinabalu in North Sabah during our stay in Borneo and the Orangutan rehabilitation centre is located in Sandakan, which is a 45 minute flight away. The centre was founded back in 1964 by Barbara Harrison, to rehabilitate orangutans who were orphaned and is based in a 43 Sq km protected game reserve on the outskirts of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve.
Today it is estimated that 60-80 orangutans are living free in the reserve and around 25 young orphaned orang-utans are looked after in the nurseries at Sepilok.
Our visit to Sepilok started pretty early as we needed to board a domestic flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. Once at Sandakan airport our driver took us to the centre which opened at 08:30 so we were in time to grab a quick coffee and some brekkie at the centre café. The first portion of the experience is optional, however I would thoroughly recommend it, to watch an educational DVD explaining the background of the centre and it’s role. There is also a small museum to mooch around whilst your waiting and learn some interesting orangutan facts.
Following this you make your way through to the forest to a viewing platform where the orangutans congregate during feeding times of 10:00 and 15:00. These orangutans are actually living in the wold reserve and have successfully gone through the rehabilitation programme. Once you are stood on the platform you will be fully immersed into the sounds of the forest and then you will begin to hear rustling getting louder and louder.
Your eye will begin to wonder frantically and then you’ll catch your first glimpse of orange and it will get bigger and bigger and brighter and brighter. Before you know it the Kings of the Forest will be right in front of you, 18 metres away and landing on the feeding platform where a ranger will sit and hand them bananas. The presence of rangers is to ensure that there is no interaction between you and the orangutans. You are told not to touch them as infection can be transferred both ways. Also as these Orangutans are totally wild the staff are on hand to ensure that you are safe and not too close as sometimes the juveniles can become rather playful. We were viewing these friendly giants for around an hour and it really was an incredible experience.
We were told by our guide and driver that we were very lucky as we had viewed 5 adult orangutans and 2 babies as unfortunately many visitors leave not having had a sighting at all. Although this would be quite disappointing, a part of me sees this as a positive. These are wild animals and have learnt to survive in the forest without being dependent on the feeding platform.
5 THINGS I LEARNT ABOUT ORANGUTANS AND WHY I AM IN AWE OF THE CENTRE’S WORK
- In the wild, orangutan babies stay with their mother’s until the age of 6 to learn to climb and forage for food but the centre operate a ‘buddy’ system whereby they learn these basic life skills from an older ape.
- In remote areas of the Borneo, young orang-utans are often kept in captivity as pets and once rescued the rehabilitation process at the centre can take up to 7 years
- The feeding process is intentionally made to be monotonous in order to encourage the orang-utans to go and forage for food themselves.
- Sabah Wildlife board consider Sepilok to be an important tool for the education of deforestation and the consequences for wildlife, however they will not compromise the well-being of the orang-utans and it is for this reason that they have the policy of not touching the orang-utans.
- The orangutans are eventually released into the surrounding reserve to fend for themselves however they do come and grab the odd meal now and then. The staff know them all by name and it’s amazing to think that the whole rehabilitation process can take 10 years or more.
The centre also has a number of trails that you can walk along in the forest and it may be possible to see the orange haired kings up above you and also other animals native to the reserve,
Once you have finished your magical experience with the orangutans, you can opt to do a bit more exploring in the forest along the trails or head back and look at the charity that supports the work that goes on at the centre. Additionally you can adopt an orangutan which you can find details about here.
MY TIPS FOR YOUR VISIT TO SEPILOK
- Don’t wear brightly coloured tops such as red or yellow as the orangutans associate this with food and will become distracted
- Try and arrive by 8:30 so that you have the best chance of seeing the orangutans. It can rain in the rainforest in the afternoon so they may not want to come down to play from the reserve
- The centre is open 08:30-16:00 and costs around RM 30 but there is also a camera fee of RM 10 per camera so you can captures pictures if you wish during feeding.
- Feeding times are at 10:00 and 15:00 The entry ticket actually lasts all day so if you want to go back to the centre for the afternoon feeding time, feel free to do so. If you are on an organised day tour this time may already be incorporated.
As our flight was a little later in the afternoon, we decided to incorporate a visit to the Labuk Probiscus Monkey Sanctuary. The Probiscus monkeys are endemic to Borneo and the males are known for their long noses! You can familiarise yourself with these interesting animals at The Labuk Probiscus Monkey Sanctuary.
LABUK PROBISCUS MONKEY SANCTUARY
A WHISTLE-STOP TOUR OF SANDAKAN CITY
We also chose to incorporate a whistle-stop city tour into our day in Sandakan to see the sights of another Borneon city. The tour company had organised a lovely lunch for us at a cute tea rooms on a hill. If you are touring and want to get an idea of where we went during our city tour, this was our line-up, Sandakan Mosque, Sandakan Market place, largest Buddhist Temple (Pertubuhan Ugama Budda) in Borneo, Fisherman’s houses and the Australian War Memorial Park.
If you are in Borneo and based in Kota Kinabalu, I would thoroughly recommend visiting the centre. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity and a fantastic experience for anyone including the little people in your life.
We booked our day in Sandakan via the concierge at our hotel in Kota Kinabalu. Shangri-la Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa. We paid RM 495.00 per person and this included everything on the day (return transfers, Orangutan Sanctuary, Probiscus Monkey Sanctuary, City tour of Sandakan including free time, lunch at a tea house) Return flights to Sepilok were booked independently via Air Asia.
Exotic Borneo Tours
Suite B, 1F, Lot24 Likas
88400 Kota Kinabalu
Tel: +60 88-245 920
Have a read of what else we got up to in Borneo:
Until the next time…
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