There are some things in life that simply need more than tales and photographs, they need to be seen to be believed, experienced and fully appreciated. Being only one of two places where Orangutans exist in the wild, Sepilok Orangutan sanctuary in Malaysian Borneo is definitely one of these must in a life time experiences.
Found in the east of Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah region just outside of Sandikan, Sepilok was founded in 1964 as a refuge and rehabilitation centre for orphaned orang-utans. These auburn-hued, furry friends are rescued and reared by the centre’s primate experts often from a very young age, many become orphaned during logging incidents, when their habitat was destroyed to make way for palm tree plantations, and some are illegally being kept as pets. Their human mothers and fathers at the sanctuary are with them 24 hours a day, and later older ‘buddy’ orang-utans teach them everything they need to be able to adapt in the wild; playing, feeding, foraging and interacting with other orang-utans.
Once they reach a certain age it’s time to back away, and slowly, day by day they are re-introduced to the forest via a series of feeding platforms spread throughout the canopy. Some see this first glimpse of freedom as their chance to tear off into the undergrowth perhaps never to be seen again, others however, prefer to dip in and out of sanctuary life, wild but ultimately free to do what they wish, with the added bonus of milk and bananas on demand throughout the day.
Men of the forest
The centre isn’t just a place benefiting the apes, it presents one of the world’s only natural sites where humans can see these incredible creatures up close and personal in the wild. The sanctuary is supported by a UK charity but makes a lot of its money from donations and public entry fee, so they’ve adapted their feeding processes to allow visitors to watch and share the experience. Through the 43sq km of protected jungle runs an elevated boardwalk tracing a path through the green to a large viewing platform. Take care to arrive early as the crowds swell around lunchtime and the men of the forest prefer an early meal. Macaques like a free feed too and will often join in the frenzy of banana peel snatching, and although they aren’t afraid to have a gawp at visitors, its abundantly clear that this is wild primate property your walking on, and stroking is not advised.
What to expect
Visitors can expect to see variant numbers of orang-utans depending on the time of year and day, but 5 or more is not an above average estimate. Back at the centre a video lodge has been set up to show the process of finding and rehabilitating the orphans as well as pictures and names of each of the apes the sanctuary has helped. Spotting the eldest member isn’t difficult, Tom is usually the one coveting the banana bucket whilst his younger companions swoop and dangle from the platform ropes.
The current population of orang-utans in the wild is between 45,000 and 69,000, Sepilok hasn’t simply helped increase this figure, it’s given new life and community back to Borneo’s arboreal ape population and allows visitors that exclusive opportunity to gaze open-mouthed into the friendly, deep brown eyes of our closest animal relative. Sepilok is somewhere that really has to be seen to be believed, a must in a lifetime experience like no other.
Author: Geoffery is a freelance travel writer, specialising in writing about holidays to Borneo. When he is not travelling he enjoys reading around the world luxury travel guides.