Malaysia: Borneo (Sabah) – A visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary
The beautiful, intelligent and gentle “Man of the Forest”
For as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with orangutans. so a trip to Borneo has long been on my bucket list. I felt the urgent need to do this visit sooner rather than later because of the threat to primary rain forests from the ravages of the timber trade (50% of tropical timber procurement comes from Borneo) and the rapid growth of palm oil plantations, with large tracts of rain forest are being cleared for palm planting.
Borneo is the third biggest island in the world and is divided by three political jurisdictions: Malaysia (about 26% of the landmass), Indonesia (73%) and the independent state of Brunei (1%). The island sits approximately 50% in the northern and southern hemispheres. Around 21 million people call Borneo home.
It is difficult to describe how excited I was when we landed in Sandakan, which is located in the North East of the Malaysian part of Borneo, in the region of Sabah. The airport is tiny with just a few flights a day but nonetheless took an age for our bags to appear at baggage collection. I think things get complicated as our flight came from Kuala Lumpur and the flight was full of local people who had visited or were visiting – so they had bought back with the boxes of stuff – from paper to ceiling fans!
From the airport, we transferred to our base for the next couple of days the Sepilok Nature Resort (you can also book this through online booking companies such as hotels.co), which is located right next door to the Orangutan sanctuary. We would strongly recommend this place if you are looking to spend a few days in Sepilok to see the orangutans.
As we checked in we were offered the chance to go on a nighttime walk through the jungle – without hesitation, we signed up. We had just about had enough time to settle into our room before heading out on the jungle walk.
The walk itself started close the main lodge. Being in a rain forest means that the area gets more than its fair share of rain, so they have wellington boots you can borrow (I am a US size 13 … which proved to be challenging) as well as some very poor flashlights (or torches as our fellow Brits would say). As we waited for our group to gather we had a very unexpected treat, a young orangutan decided to build its nest in the tree right above our heads. We were told the attraction of this particular tree was its fruits, which were now fully ripe. It is obvious that orangutans don’t have any natural threats (apart from man) as they make one hell of a racket whilst building their bed for the night.
By the time we set-off, it was pitch black. The dense jungle means that there is no natural light so having flashlights with you is pretty much essential. The thing that really hits you the most is not the darkness but how really noisy the jungle is at night – there is a true cacophony of sounds emanating from all directions. If you are a light sleeper forget getting a good nights rest! During the tour, we got to see insects (pill millipedes and stick insects), invertebrates (leeches!), frogs and some small roosting tailorbirds.
At the end of the tour we did a leech check, and much to her horror Karen has two latched to her. One was on her jacket and other had managed to work its way on to her cleavage – I thought this was hilarious … she didn’t quite see the funny side.
After our tour we headed to the restaurant. The menu catered for western visitors which did not work so well for our vegan diet – but they did have some Malay vegetarian options which were perfect for us (we relax the strictness of our vegan diet when travelling)
In the morning, still suffering from the effects, we were awake at the crack of dawn so we got up and headed out hoping to see the orangutan who had nested by close by. Sadly he or she had left already, so we instead explored the boardwalks around the resort. At this early hour, there is a changing of the guard from the nocturnal night shift and day time crew. The variety of birdlife was incredible even in the narrow confines of the resort.
After breakfast we were heading back to our room we had one of the staff waving their hands wildly at us to follow her. We were just in time to see an orangutan wandering calmly along the boardwalk before disappearing into the jungle. As we walked back Karen got talking to one of the other guests and apparently she had seen this orangutan on the deck of her chalet get frustrated whilst trying on her husband’s t-shirt. When the orangutan saw her they bared their teeth which not surprisingly spooked her.
Our first visit of the day was to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. These beautiful creatures spend most of their time swinging high up in the canopy of the rain forest. As they get older they become less mobile and will be found wandering around the floor of the jungle. The word orangutan means “man of the forest” and it is believed this name resulted from the indigenous people seeing the older, large apes lumbering around the forest.
The Centre was founded in 1964, to rehabilitate orphan orangutans. The site is 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Today around 60 to 80 orangutans are living free in the reserve. They claim to have had 740 orangutans through their doors many of which have been returned to the wild throughout Sabah. Most of the rescued apes are found orphaned in the jungle, their parents killed by hunters or more often than not farmers or loggers. These orphans are trained over several years to fend for themselves and are hopefully returned to the wild, either in the reserve around Sepilok or further afield in other parts of Sabah. The Centre is officially administered by the Sabah Wildlife Department, who provide limited funding, the large balance of financial support comes from the fees from visitors and also a considerable amount of support comes from the Orangutan Appeal UK.
The Rehabilitation Centre is open all year round. The peak visitor times are during the feeding times at the platforms at 10 a.m and 3 p.m. There are two feeding platforms; one is in the nursery observation area where some of the younger orangutans are bought out. The second feeding station is further out in the reserve and is visited by apes who have been released as well as some other local primates, such as pig-tailed and long-tailed macaque monkeys.
It was wonderful to see the orangutans close-up, and especially to see them swinging carefree through the trees around the reserves. Truly an awe-inspiring experience!