When you think about native Borneo wildlife, the orangutan is most likely to come to mind.
The state of Sabah in Borneo has to be home to some of the world’s most iconic and rare species. From the elusive pygmy elephant to the proboscis monkey, one of the more infamous animal has to be the orangutan. Orangutans can only been found in the wild in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.
The word orangutan is actually Malay for ‘man of the forest.’ Out of the great ape family, orangutans spend the most time in the trees. They cut a classic, solitary figure in the branches and prefer to spend most of their time alone, apart from mothers and their dependant offspring. Each night they build a nest from branches in which to sleep and can live for up to 30 years.
I was excited to see as many native species as I could on my recent trip to Malaysian Borneo. I knew that my first stop would have to be the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary to get a really good look at these beautiful creatures.
Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary
The sanctuary was established in 1964 by Englishwoman Barbara Harrison as a rehabilitation centre for sick, orphaned or injured Borneo orangutans. The goal is to care for the primates until they are able to be reintroduced into the wild. It is an educational centre for visitors, however the needs of the orangutans come first over those of the visitor who may want to snap their latest animal selfie. As a result, tourists are not allowed to interfere with the rehabilitation process cannot approach, feed or interact with the orangutans.
As baby orangutans depend on their mothers for up to 7 years, the rehabilitation process can take significant time and dedication. Young orangutans are paired up with an older one in a buddy system. It is from their buddy that they learn many of the essential skills they need for survival, such as climbing.
Deforestation, illegal logging and capture of wild animals to use as pets in Borneo are still controversial activities. It is because of these things that there are many orphaned or injured orangutans that need help from the sanctuary.
There are two feeding times during the course of the day: 10am and 3pm.
I arrived at Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary in the morning and headed to the main feeding observation deck. There is a covered viewing platform set across from an area where the rangers lay out a selection of fruit for the orangutans. There were several ropes leading in from the trees that surrounded the feeding platform, encouraging orangutans up in the forest to swing down and grab a snack.
I waited to see who would show up. There is no guarantee that you will see orangutans, of course, as they are not enclosed or forced to be there. These are successfully rehabilitated orangutans who have been released into the wild that pop back occasionally for a free feed.
A few minutes passed and I could see one of the ropes vibrating with the movement of an orangutan. Suddenly it swung into view and an excited murmur went through the crowd. That morning I was lucky enough to see four orangutans, one of which was a mother with a baby in her arms. Mother orangutan was given priority over the feeding platform by the other two orangutans, who lingered on the ropes leading off of the platform to eat their fruit.
At the afternoon session I saw a further three orangutans who sat close together on the platform to munch their fruit. I’ve read a few reviews about Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary on Trip Advisor that suggest the feeding is ‘better’ in the afternoon as it’s less crowded and you see more orangutans. The morning feeding tends to be more popular with larger tour groups who are doing a whistle-stop tour of the Sepilok area. Whilst I agree that there did seem to be a lot of people on the viewing platform in the morning, I don’t think you can be sure whether this directly correlates to the amount of orangutans you are ‘guaranteed’ to see.
It is worth taking a moment to consider that if no orangutans appear then it’s a positive thing. It means that they are not reliant on the feeding to survive and the rehabilitation process has been a success.
The Orangutan Nursery
The nursery is an area that is dedicated to the care of the younger orangutans. As you can imagine, these youngsters have bundles of mischievous energy to expend and their outdoor area reflects that. There are a lot of ropes, platforms and even tyres for them to climb and play on. They are encouraged to interact under the watchful eye of the keepers, who gently reprimand any rough horseplay or exceptionally naughty behaviour as a mother orangutan would.
Babies depend on their mothers to teach them which fruits to eat, how to build nests to sleep in at night and other social skills necessary for their survival in the wild. The orphaned primates now rely on the direction of the rangers at the centre for this basic knowledge.
You can head to the nursery area to see them being fed directly before the adults at the main viewing area. I would suggest arriving at around 2.30pm and you can watch them for half an hour before moving to the feeding platform to watch the adults.
I enjoyed watching the boisterous youngsters swinging around their playground, wrestling each other and munching on tasty pieces of fruit. One inquisitive orangutan climbed on the fence that lined the walkway to the nursery building. It was a chance to see him up close and he reached out and grabbed the lens cap that was dangling from the camera of a lady stood a little too close. Definitely a reminder to take care of your belongings when visiting, as it was remarkable how deftly he snatched it and hustled away with his prize in his hand.
Walking Around The Sanctuary
As well as the daily feedings, there are various nature trails and walks within the reserve. These walks vary from 250m to 5km and are a chance to see wildlife including wild orangutans in their natural habitat of tropical highland rainforest. Once you get to the sanctuary you can pick up information about these walks at the entrance.
Hints and Tips
- The centre costs 30 Malaysian Ringit / £5.30 GBP or $9.30 AU. If you are planning on taking photos with a camera you will also need to pay a camera fee of 10 RM.
- Take care of your belongings. There are free lockers provided for every visitor to the sanctuary. Use these to store your backpacks, bags and any other items you’re carrying. Take only your camera with you. The orangutans and macaque monkeys are very inquisitive and may steal or break your valuables if they get their hands on them.
- Leave your munchies at home – for exactly the above reason! You don’t want to find yourself the irresistible target of a cheeky orangutan who believes your sandwiches are now his lunch.
- Wear flat shoes. The walkways are slippery when wet so I’d advise to wear comfortable shoes suitable for walking.
- Although it’s tempting, please don’t approach, touch or feed any of the animals. Orangutans are susceptible to diseases from humans and it can also delay their rehabilitation. There is plenty of opportunity to admire the orangutans at an appropriate distance.
It’s very easy to get to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary from Sandakan. Head to the bus station at 08.45am to catch the 9am #14 Bas, or ‘tourist bus’, that makes the 14km drive from the town centre to the sanctuary. The drive takes about 45 minutes and costs 6 Malaysian Ringit each way (approximately £1 GBP or $1.80 AU). The bus will pick you up again outside the sanctuary at 4pm to return to Sandakan.
Another option would be to take a taxi from the town centre to the sanctuary, which will give you the freedom to time your journey to suit yourself. There is a taxi rank at the sanctuary for the return journey.
Lastly, you could choose to stay at Sepilok Nature Resort, which is opposite the sanctuary. It is also in a perfect position to visit the Sun Bear Sanctuary and the Rainforest Discovery Centre.
The sanctuary is also:
- 5 hours on a bus from Kota Kinabalu, stopping at ‘Jalan Junction Sepilok’ where it’s a further 2.5km walk to the sanctuary.
- A 45 minute flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. You can get a taxi from the airport to the sanctuary.
Have I tempted you to take a Borneo orangutan holiday? Would you like to visit the Sanctuary? Have you ever had an orangutan encounter? Share your thoughts with me below!
If you enjoyed this, read about a few more of my favourite wildlife experiences:
- Wildlife Spotting On A Kinabatangan River Cruise In Borneo
- The 21 Animals You Will Meet In Australia
- Swimming With Manta Rays on Ningaloo Reef, Australia
- Possibly The Cutest Animal You Will Ever See
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