The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysian Borneo is one of the best-known places to see orangutans.
While it is possible to see orangutans in the wild – and no doubt rewarding – it is of course much more difficult. Unfortunately, I only had five days in Borneo. After flying into Kota Kinabalu in Sabah I realised I’d have to take either a long bus or another, internal, flight just to get to the rainforests populated by the great apes; my main motivation for visiting the island. I had just enough time to visit the centre, but sadly not enough to wander freely into the jungle.
Although I planned to see the orangutans in partial captivity, I was careful to research the facility beforehand and ensure that it is a genuine sanctuary that rehabilitates orangutans, rather than functioning entirely as a tourist trap. Satisfied, I went to visit the centre in Sepilok.
It certainly appeared that the centre was well run and ethical. Seeing orangutans in their natural habitat is something that features on the bucket list of many, and it was an experience that didn’t disappoint this animal lover. I like their unique, human-like faces and gentle, graceful movements, and they looked so at home in the rainforest, a mystical and magical environment to me.
I settled for a long bus to Sandakan and a flight back to Kota Kinabalu due to the time constraints, and stayed for two nights in a dorm within a resort. Chalets and lodges in Sepilok are affordable, and you’re just a walk or a very short drive from the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) and the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC), all of which are well worth a visit. Perched right on the edge of a vast rainforest inhabited by wild orangutans and all kinds of exceptional wildlife, it’s also an awe-inspiring place to stay.
The orangutan sanctuary holds twice-daily feedings; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. One ticket gives you access to both, and the sun bear centre directly opposite is a great activity for in-between. Most of the tour buses visit the orangutan sanctuary in the morning; I was one of just a few solo visitors at that time. There were fewer visitors in the afternoon, but I also saw fewer orangutans.
The feeding platform is usually visited by several orangutans. Visitors are situated on the walkway nearby, where you can watch the orangutans emerge from the tall, leafy trees and pass by overhead. It is possible to get pretty close to the animals. I only wished I had a better camera!
The orangutans who come to feed are often ex-domesticated and rehabilitated. In addition, the public can now visit the onsite nursery, which houses infants who are still being schooled in the ways of the wild. Through glass, visitors can view the young orangutans playing in the unfenced nursery area. It is, as you would imagine, totally adorable and captivating.
The nursery and the feeding platform are connected by rainforest walkaways. From them I was lucky enough to spot young pygmy elephants who were being housed and cared for by the centre. They were barely discernible through the trees, making their way through the forest accompanied by a staff member.
The whole experience didn’t last more than a couple of hours, and I was happy to do it all again in the afternoon after an enjoyable visit to the equally responsibly run, but less rehabilitation-focused bear sanctuary. All the bears are rescued, but a member of staff informed me that the rate of rehabilitation was low. However, the bears have very large enclosures and, despite being fenced-in, are difficult to spot. Young conservationists positioned around the centre with telescopes helped me to see the bears more clearly, and shared interesting facts.
Despite the regrettably rushed nature of the trip to Sepilok, it was more than worthwhile to see the orangutans alone. The bear sanctuary and rainforest centre are great in their own right; providing education on the unique rainforest environment, and its flora and fauna.
Staying in the lodges was also a luxurious experience with a budget price tag, and the orangutan sanctuary ticket itself was RM30 (around £6). The dorm room was a similar price. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to go back one day, and stay longer; in Sabah and Borneo as well as among the orangutans in Sepilok and Sandakan.