Seeing an orangutan in the wild has always been on my bucket list, so with that in mind, I booked a four-week trip to Malaysia primarily to visit the world-famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Borneo and observe the Sepilok orangutans who call the forest their home.
I am lucky to have had many amazing animal encounters worldwide, but there was one animal experience I was desperate to have: to see an orangutan in its natural environment.
There are only two places in the world where this can be done: Borneo in Malaysia and Sumatra in Indonesia, so this was to be my once-in-a-lifetime chance to see an orangutan.
So what was visiting Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre like, and did the orangutans come and say hello? Read on to discover how seeing the Sepilok orangutans made all my dreams come true.
Frequently Asked Questions about Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Are you guaranteed to see orangutans at Sepilok?
I will be honest and say that seeing orangutans come swinging through the jungle onto the feeding platform is the luck of the draw.
I visited three times in two days while staying next door at the Sepilok Nature Resort. I only saw six orangutans roaming freely, not including the juvenile orangutans who live in the outdoor nursery, of which I saw quite a few.
One orangutan came to the feeding station each day, and I saw one mother and child along the boardwalk on one of the days and then two orangutan friends on another.
The anticipation of seeing an orangutan is hard to describe. It’s like an adrenaline build-up, and when you see the trees rustling and catch a glimpse of orange, it is the most exciting feeling to experience.
However, you must be prepared not to see an orangutan, as they are wild creatures and live according to their own schedules!
Check out this video!
But guess what? The beautiful thing about the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre is that it is not staged or forced. If the apes don’t want to come along and say hello, then they won’t. They are wild and free to do precisely as they wish.
Of course, it was disappointing, and even I felt a pang of sadness at not seeing any more than I did; however, every cloud has a silver lining, as we found out from one of the rangers that patrol the boardwalks.
Not seeing an orangutan is actually a good thing.
If the orangutans don’t come along at feeding time, it’s a good thing. It means they are coping in the jungle alone and don’t need human intervention.
So even though they know a new stash of bananas and other fruits and vegetables will be waiting for them twice a day, they don’t need it and are happy wherever they are in the forest, which means their rehabilitation has succeeded.
How many orangutans are in the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre?
We were told that the estimated figure is around 85. The rehabilitation centre is in the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve, 43 sq km of virgin lowland equatorial rainforest, so the orangutans have a fair chunk of the jungle to live in.
Why are the orangutans at Sepilok?
When arriving at the Sepilok orangutan centre, the first place to visit is the educational room, which gives you plenty of information about the orang utan (man of the forest) and its plight.
Sepilok is the world’s leading rehabilitation centre for orangutans. It has worked tirelessly for the last 60 years to protect and preserve this ape species, which amazingly shares 97% of its DNA with us.
Most of the Bornean orangutans cared for at Sepilok are orphaned orangutans. They are left without a mother for one of many reasons. Deforestation, trafficking, forest fires, and human population pressures, to name a few. They are often found abandoned, alone, ill, or too young to forage and feed themselves.
Some have been kept as pets, and some are injured or displaced wild orangutans.
This is where the marvellous vets and volunteers at Sepilok step in to aid in the recovery and rehabilitation of the orangutans.
How do young and juvenile orangutans learn how to survive?
When baby orangutans arrive at Sepilok, they enter the indoor nursery, where they are cared for until they are strong and confident enough to be moved outside.
Once they are ready, they are moved to the outdoor nursery, which is open. There, they can choose whether to venture into the edges of the dense jungle. The area has feeding platforms and ropes so the orangutans can play together.
Younger orangutans are paired with an older buddy who can teach them the way of the orangutan, much like a child would be paired up with a friend at a new school.
This orangutan looked like one of the older juveniles with his thick fur coat.
Close bonds are formed, and some orangutans stay close to their buddy for the rest of their lives. We saw this happen with two older orangutans who we saw walking along the boardwalk.
I asked the warden if it was mum and child, and he said no, they were just two best friends helping each other through life. If there was a moment my heart melted, it was then!
I took a short video of the two best friends, and I felt that when the smaller one looked around at me, he was checking me out rather than the other way around; it was magical.
Check out this video!
Can you observe the young orangutans at Sepilok?
Yes, and it is fascinating. You can watch the juveniles through a floor-to-ceiling window in the indoor viewing area. They are outside, and you can observe them interacting with one another, playing, eating and, most of the time, hanging by their toes or fingers from the ropes.
Check out this video!
I visited the nursery viewing area on both days and saw different orangutans each time. To say I was mesmerised by them is an understatement.
I just sat and stared at them for about 30 minutes each time. I had to keep pinching myself, as I couldn’t believe I was in Borneo and finally with the orangutans!
The tiny babies are cared for in the indoor nursery 24 hours daily. This part of the centre is closed to visitors as they are susceptible and vulnerable to human diseases.
How close can you get to an orangutan?
The feeding platform is a fair way away from the viewing deck, so while you can see them clearly, getting close-up shots of the orangutan is tricky unless you have a powerful lens.
I was fortunate to meet up with a lovely couple from Australia staying at our resort who had a zoom lens, and Claire was kind enough to let me use a few of her images for this article.
If you are lucky enough to have an encounter with an orangutan as you move around the boardwalk, you need to keep a healthy distance away.
We met with an orangutan on two occasions, and a keeper made sure we kept moving along in time with the orangutan’s speed.
He made us aware that an orangutan, especially one with an infant, could react quickly if feeling threatened and that the ape’s strength could severely injure a human, and by the tone of his voice, he wasn’t joking!
Useful information about Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
Where is the rehabilitation centre?
In Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia.
It is a 30-minute drive from Sandakan to Sepilok, so most independent visitors try to book themselves into one of several jungle resort hotels near Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. Tours around Borneo, which include visiting Sepilok, are also available with many local travel companies.
That said, if you are planning a quick visit after landing at Sandakan airport, a taxi can take you to the centre, or a bus from Sandakan runs around four times a day and takes around 45 minutes.
I stayed at Sepilok Nature Resort, which was next door to the centre. Not only was it a slice of jungle heaven, but because it was so close, we were fortunate to see two orangutans swing in while we were having breakfast. Watching wild Sepilok orangutans having breakfast in the trees while we watched from the ground was a dream come true!
When is the best time of year to visit Borneo?
Sepilok Orangutan Centre is open all year round. If you want favourable weather conditions in Borneo for your visit, the best time is in the summer months, June, July and August, when it is dry with only light showers.
That said, I visited Borneo in June and had quite a bit of rain to contend with, some even torrential.
I checked with the locals to see if this was normal, and they assured me it wasn’t. Unlike mainland Malaysia, where rain is almost always guaranteed during summer, in Borneo, it is the opposite, and the summer months should be the best time to visit.
When is the Sepilok feeding time?
Twice a day at 10 am and 3.00 pm. There is no real rush, as orangutans are slow eaters, so even if you arrive after those times, you will probably still get to see some action (if the orangutans show up).
However, it is best to arrive early to see the 30-minute presentation; visit the outdoor nursery first and then proceed to the feeding platform, which is about a 10-minute walk from reception.
How much does it cost to see the orangutans?
Your ticket will cost 30RM (£5) / ($6) for foreign tourists and will allow you to attend both feedings that day.
When is the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary open?
The centre opens at 8:30 a.m., and tickets go on sale at 9:00 a.m. for the morning session, which is 9:00 a.m.- 12:00 p.m., and again at 2:00 p.m. for the afternoon session, which is 2:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m.
The centre closes for lunch each day between 12:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. If you arrive during these times, you won’t get in.
Can I take my belongings to the centre with me?
No. Before you are allowed to enter the jungle, you must put your bags, food, and water in a free, secure locker.
Can I take a camera with me?
Yes. However, if you are using a professional camera and lens, a fee is payable in addition to your entry ticket. Phone cameras can be used without a charge.
Are there any facilities at the centre?
There is a cafe, toilets and a car park close to the reception area.
How do I adopt a Sepilok orangutan?
During their rehabilitation, the animals rely heavily on the help of volunteers who work at the centre and also on donations from visitors. During my visit, I chatted with one of the volunteers, an English girl who had worked out there before and returned because she just loved the work the centre was doing.
After my visit and chatting with her, I adopted an orangutan called Archie, whom I had seen in the outside nursery. He was a juvenile who loved walking upright, just like a human!
He also had a habit of crossing his arms across his body, which made him look a bit like a boy band member; all he needed was a baseball cap with its peak turned to the back, and he’d be ready to go!
You can support the amazing work at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre in conjunction with the Sabah Wildlife Department. You can adopt a Sepilok orangutan by clicking the Orangutan Appeal UK adoption link. Strangely, its HQ is in Hampshire in the UK, not the Borneo jungle, as might be expected.
I am proud that my home country supports these incredible creatures living so far away.
Meet Archie, my adopted orangutan.
After you have been a sponsor for six months, you receive an update on your orangutan and some new photographs. It seems Archie is doing well and fending for himself in the jungle. Look how he has grown!
Are there any other animals at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre?
While visiting the orangutans, you will see plenty of macaques who love to pinch the food put out for the orangutans. The two ape species seem to live in harmony, and even though we watched the macaques eat all the bananas before the orangutan had even looked at them, there were no hard feelings.
Sepilok is also a rehabilitation centre for other threatened and injured wild animals; however, you won’t be able to see them.
While we were there, we heard the trumpeting of an animal and were told a large elephant was being looked after by the centre but wasn’t too happy at the moment because he was poorly. To say his trumpet sounded like a dinosaur roar was an understatement!
Across the road from the centre is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. This is another place doing incredibly vital work in rescuing and rehabilitating beautiful but vulnerable sun bears and giving them space to roam around the jungle.
Check out this video!
Is Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre worth visiting?
My answer is a big fat YES! Seeing Sepilok orangutans living out their best lives in a jungle environment is a bucket list experience I recommend to anyone travelling to Malaysia.
It is a privilege to see these mighty orange forest dwellers in one of the only places left in the world to see orangutans in the wild, and I am so happy that I could learn more about them and be in their company.
Of course, some organised Borneo trips take you deeper into the jungle along the Kinabatangan River to see Borneo’s wild animals. Still, we felt we were happy enough just to see the orangutan at the Sepilok Centre, as there is no guarantee that you will see any more on a river safari. Also, a lot of travelling is required to get deep into the Borneo jungle.
I hope this post has inspired you to visit Sabah and see the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre yourself.
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