Orangutans and feeding time in Borneo
A visit to a forest sanctuary where the big ape rules
The cracking of tree branches echoed through the forest as a sudden flurry of leaves drifted down from the canopy above. They were on their way. Waiting with bated breath and straining to see what we knew was already there, we all stood silent and still, cameras at the ready. And then there she was. Swinging out of the jungle with the ease of a seasoned acrobat came this giant of the ape world – all red fur, endlessly long arms, and those famous big, brown eyes. She moved effortlessly through the dense jungle, her thick dexterous fingers and toes carrying her from branch to branch. The wild excitement I felt in that moment watching a wild orangutan crashing through the jungle is something that will live long into my memory. There is nothing that compares to seeing these graceful, intelligent, and iconic animals living and thriving in their natural environment, unencumbered by cages.
Me and my fellow orangutan enthusiasts were visitors to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre just outside Sandakan in northern Borneo, one of the last forest sanctuaries left for orangutans in the country and a place where displaced orangutans learn how to survive in the wild.
We watched intently as she approached the wooden feeding platform just in front of where we stood. Minutes before, a ranger had arrived with a mountain of fruit, a feeding practice which takes place twice a day, intended as a supplement to the food naturally found and eaten by the orangutans inside the forest. The selection on offer is intentionally dull and repetitive, in an attempt to bore the orangutans and encourage them to find their own food. But this girl didn’t seem bored at all. She sat down heavily, legs spread wide and began to peel and munch on bananas and mangoes, occasionally glancing up at her audience as we snapped photos and spoke excitedly to each other in hushed tones. Just then came the sound of more branches breaking under an unseen giant weight, as another three orangutans came swinging out from different corners of the forest, heading for their daily fruit and leaving us all dumbstruck and thrilled at their presence.
Sepilok is arguably the most important forest sanctuary in the country for the orangutan. Opened back in 1964, this world-class education center has provided a haven for orphaned orangutans ever since, many the victims of brutal logging practices common in Malaysia. Babies are often caught up in forest clearing exercises and either sold illegally as pets or left for dead. Sepilok is a 43sq km area of protected land which houses many of these orphans at its onsite nursery, providing sanctuary to many more graduates of the programme living free in the forest. It’s also a popular spot with tourists and locals alike, and a fantastic example of responsible tourism that benefits not just the orangutans and local community, but the land itself; land protected in the sanctuary is also protected from loggers’ chainsaws.
There are around 25 baby orangutans living in the nurseries and an estimated 200 living wild in the forest, though only a few are regular visitors to the feeding platform. The entire center, including the nursery, is open to visitors, and I spent the day wandering its grounds learning more about how orangutans live and the seemingly insurmountable threats they face from deforestation and the illegal pet trade. But Sepilok and other sanctuaries like them provide a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak future for these beautiful creatures. Being able to see them first hand, safe and protected, is a true privilege and something every visitor to this part of the world should do.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Sepilok is around 25km from Sandakan in the east of Sabah, North Borneo. Sandakan is easily reached by plane from the capital Kota Kinabalu in about 45 minutes or by bus in 5 hours. Flights are cheap, costing from as little as £20. Once in Sandakan, it’s an easy public bus ride directly to the center, with many departures every day of the week. Taxis are available on every street.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Stay – Accommodation
Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat – This simple retreat is composed of six rooms and three traditional longhouses all set on a spectacular forest ridge just a 10-minute drive from Sepilok. The views are stunning, and the emphasis is very much on living harmoniously with the forest and escaping the world.
Nature Lodge Sepilok – A (very) short walk from Sepilok, the Nature Lodge is an excellent spot for cheap, comfortable rooms with hot showers and good food. There are both private and dorm rooms available.
Sandakan Backpackers Hostel – In the middle of bustling Sandakan and still within easy reach of Sepilok, this clean, friendly hostel has great sea views and is conveniently located near to bars, restaurants, and ATMs.
Eat – Restaurants
Curries and laksa – a spicy soup – are common in Borneo and are always delicately spiced and flavourful. Fresh seafood is easy to find in Sandakan and around the country. Something you’re not likely to find anywhere else is stir-fried jungle fern – small plants which are fried in shrimp paste and garlic. Tasty, crispy, and salty, these little morsels will become your new favorite snack while you’re here.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
Borneo experiences rain throughout the year, but just how drenched you’ll get varies by month. June to September are the best months to visit the eastern side of Sabah – where Sandakan is located – with generally dry conditions. Visiting during the low season of October to March does have its advantages though, with cheaper accommodation and fewer crowds. There is also a good chance of blue skies after any downpour.
Sepilok is popular year-round and open 365 days a year. A ticket is issued on entry for 30RM, and the ticket office is open between 9 am, and 11 am, then from 2 pm to 3.30pm. Feeding takes place twice a day, at 10am and 3pm.
Visit in the afternoon to avoid the tour bus crowds.
Safety – Possible risks
Your biggest concern will be the hot, humid jungle climate. Take plenty of water and keep out of the sun. The wooden walkways at the center can become slippery after rain, so wear decent boots or shoes with a good grip. You’ve got nothing to fear from the orangutans themselves.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Bus rides from Sandakan cost around 6RM, and a taxi won’t set you back more than £10 at the very most. It’s 30RM to enter the center, and another 10RM if you want to bring your camera (highly recommended). Borneo is an inexpensive place to travel in general, and internal flights are extremely affordable – think £30 or less.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Visiting sanctuaries such as Sepilok is practicing responsible tourism at its best. Well organized and with a clear objective of education and an eco-conscious travel experience, you’d be hard pressed to find a better way to travel responsibly.
The devastating effects of palm oil are evident throughout the country, so a vow to avoid buying products containing palm oil is one of the most enduring ways you can travel and consume responsibly.
Reality Check – Be Aware
Bear in mind that the orangutans are wild and therefore sightings are not guaranteed, though you’d be very unlucky not to see any during a whole day. If you think you’ll be able to touch one of the orangutans, you’ll be sorely disappointed – as cute as they are, any kind of physical contact is dangerous for both human and ape.
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