Orang-utans, native only to Borneo and Sumatra, are endangered due to habitat loss (because of logging and palm oil plantations), poaching, and the illegal pet trade. Until it’s seven to ten years old, an orang-utan baby depends heavily on its mother and if the mother dies, the baby is likely to perish as well.
All over Borneo, several orang-utan sanctuaries exist where orphaned baby orang-utans are taken in and where they learn all the necessary skills for their survival in the forest. As soon as they are ready, they’re released into the wild. However, not all apes can be released successfully; especially orang-utans raised as pets (poachers kill the mother to get to the young one and sell it as a pet) often cannot be rehabilitated and therefore stay at the sanctuary.
The Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre
Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitaion Centre is located in a forest reserve; around 80 orang-utans live there. The younger ones are paired up with an older one to learn skills like finding food, climbing and moving in the trees (orang-utans spend most of their time in the trees), and building nests for sleeping. There’s a section in the rehabilitation center where visitors can watch the young orang-utans play – and learn to climb and swing from tree to tree – from inside a building in order not to disturb the animals. It’s hilarious to watch them: They tease and chase each other and jump from rope to rope; they’re so playful and funny and each ape has its own personality; I could have watched them for hours.
Twice a day the older orang-utans who live free in the forest receive food such as bananas and vegetables. The food is supposed to be monotonous and boring so to encourage the animals to find their own food. And apparently it’s working; from the dozens of apes living in the forest, only three or four come to the platform at feeding time. It’s fun to watch them eat: they don’t like to be on the ground so some of them eat upside down, dangling from a branch, munching bananas.
Human contact is kept to a minimum but obviously it’s inevitable with all the tourists coming to watch the orang-utans every day. Especially the males can be aggressive and inflict serious injuries so it’s important to stay away from them (if you want a close-up of a male orang-utan you better buy a postcard) and to listen to the park rangers who shoo away the people as soon as an orang-utan gets too close.
What to do in Sepilok
Sepilok is not really a town and apart from the Recovery Centre’s cafeteria we didn’t see any restaurants. All hotels serve food though; some probably have better cooks than others. But it’s most likely much more convenient to stay at Sepilok than in the (not so nice, from what we’ve heard) town of Sandakan, from where you’d have to take a bus.
Apart from the Orang-Utan Recovery Centre there’s a sun bear sanctuary and the so-called Rainforest Discovery Centre. It’s also located in the forest reserve, where there are some trails and a pretty long (but not very high) canopy walk, so there’s plenty to do and see in Sepilok. The Rainforest Discovery Centre is supposedly great for birdwatching (even the trails are named after birds). Many species such as kingfisher, hornbills, and birds of paradise live there. We went in the early morning but didn’t see almost any birds (bad luck?). What we did see though, was many birdwatchers with enviably huge telephoto lenses.