Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre by Herman (April 2006)

Short: The Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok (ca 30 minutes from Sandakan) is maybe your best chance at seeing those close cousins of ours in their natural habitat. Orphaned and pet orang utans are taught to live an independent life and the semi-wild apes are best observed during their daily feeding times at 10 am and 2 pm.



The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre goes back to a project proposed in 1961 by P F Burgess, then the Deputy Conservator of Forests in North Borneo. The present site of the centre is the Kaibili Forest Reserve, already gazetted as such in 1934.

In 1962, with the backing of the newly formed World Wildlife Fund, the Curator of the Sarawak Museum Tom Harrisson visited Sabah (then North Borneo) and reported that orang utan were rare and threatened with extinction (already then!). Soon afterwards his wife Barbara began collecting young orang utans that were kept as pets. The idea was to train the apes so that they would be able to fend for themselves in the wild.

The Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre was finally established in 1964. The centre falls under the administration of the wildlife section of the Forestry Department which in 1988 was upgraded to a full department under the Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Development (now Ministry of Tourism, Culture & Environment).

The objectives of the project have expanded in recent years. While orang utan rehabilitation is still the primary goal at Sepilok, present aims include public education on conservation, research and assistance to other endangered species such as captive breeding of the rare and endangered rhinoceros.

Sepilok, renowned for its orangutan rehabilitation project, has stimulated a greater local and international awareness of the protection laws for endangered species, and the centre has resulted in an increase in detection and confiscation of illegally held captive animals.

In Sabah the orang utan is a totally protected animal under the Fauna Conservation Ordinance, 1963.

Visit of the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre

The centre has a reception and information centre, a cafeteria, public washrooms, parking and also offices for wildlife staff, an animal clinic, quarantine area and enclosures for various animals such as the rhinoceros.

The orang utan project is roughly divided into four stages: quarantine, indoor kindergarten or nursery, outdoor nursery, and free roaming forest reserve. The regular visitor will only be allowed to the free roaming forest reserve and most only visits the feeding plat form, easily accessible over boardwalks, at 10 am or 2 pm during the feeding time. This is your best chance at getting a glimpse of this otherwise elusive and in solitude living ape! The centre must not be confused with a zoo though, and although extremely rare there have been instances when even during the feeding time there were no orang utans in sight. After all, the animals are trained to live an independent life in their natural habitat, and look for foods for themselves. During the fruiting season when there is ample food available in the reserve not many or even none at all might come to the platform. But usually there are at least some animals, usually those that have not long ago left the outdoor nursery in favour of a semi-wild life. Mother animals, with their young one in tow (borne at the reserve) can also be observed. The animals know there is nothing to fear from humans at the platform...

The orang utan is not only a highly endangered species, with maybe some 10,000 animals left in Sabah (a hundred years ago there might have been as many as one million!), but also a close cousin of us. In recent years the ape has become Sabah's mascot, and many travellers come to 'the Land Below the Wind' to see them. But how does their future look, with their natural habitat still being 'developed' at an alarmingly fast rate? It is estimated that there are only around 30,000 animals still left in Borneo, and in as little as 50 years this species, so highly adapted and thus highly dependable on its virgin forests habitat might be extinct.

Unlike other monkeys or animals that breed fast and adapt to an environment changed by humans the orang utan only reproduce very slowly and at long intervals: after having lived up to six years with their mother and learned how to live in the forest (and making daily a nest for the night, for example...), it takes another three years to maturity. But in the wild orang utan females usually won't have any offspring until the age of about 14. With an expected life span of around 30-35 years in the wild, a female orang utan normally only produces around four babies! As orang utans live a solitary life and only meet during mating season the increasingly vast tracks of palm oil plantations between inadequately small nature reserves is only one big problem they face. More often than not the natural habitat 'leftovers' such as river reserves are too narrow and don't contain enough fruit trees, for example, to sustain an orang utan. The animal is forced to raid plantations and gardens creating human-animal conflicts on the way, besides being unable to see a mate in an other reserve cut off by plantations, roads or even natural obstacles such as rivers.

I have seen many wild orang utan over the past five years, usually in the area of Sukau. More than five years ago it was virtually impossible to see orang utan there, except with lots of patience, and luck. The sudden change and seeming multitude of orang utan along the Kinabatangan River is an eloquent testimony that natural habitats are dwindling and the apes are forced to settle in the meagre forests along the banks of the rivers, fighting for a space to live, and eventually fighting for foods with other primates. Though the Sabah Government is serious in its conservation efforts concessions for vast development schemes, usually palm oil plantations, are still granted, and Sabah's jungles are now mostly reduced to those in national parks and wildlife reserves. This in the long run might not be sufficient for the survival of this species, though in Sabah we keep our hopes high and wish to ensure that future generations can also observe orang utan - the men of the forest - in the wild. To this end already three major palm oil firms have joined hands with WWF in a project called 'Corridor of Life'. Land earmarked for development is spared and left intact for elephants, orang utan and other animals to roam about freely. 

How to Get to Sepilok & Accommodation

It is possible to visit the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre in a day tour ex Kota Kinabalu. However, a lot of travelling is involved and I would never suggest it. If you travel all the way to Borneo, take time to visit not only Sepilok, but profit of Sandakan - Sabah's gateway to nature - and also visit the Turtle Island Park, Sukau and Gomantong to name a few. The 'shortest' visit I normally propose is at least 4 days / 3 nights! However, you will still have to get to Sandakan and most commonly this is by air: MH2042 0700-0740 hrs BKI-SDK, and back by MH2065 1730-1810 hrs SDK-BKI (in August 2006 Air Asia will take over this link and flight schedules might change, we will try to update the site by then...). If you go for a day tour these will be your two flights, and you obviously won't need any accommodation. However, if you wish to stay longer but you don't wish to involve a travel agent you find easily accommodation within walking distance from the centre: the Sepilok Jungle Resort and the Sepilok Nature Resort are our first choices. Sandakan has a wide variety of hotels to choose from, and taxis are easily available (ca RM 35 per way). All tour operators in Sabah naturally offer the visit of Sepilok, too. If you are a bit more adventurous and would like to experience Sabah's rainforests we highly recommend Uncle Tan.

Entrance fee to Sepilok is RM 30 per person, which is valid for a full day and one can go for the feeding at 10 am and 2 pm; the forest reserve is also great for trekking along well maintained paths. Since very few visitors do this you are virtually guaranteed to be able to experience the tropical rainforest in pristine and undisturbed conditions.


Reception & Information Centre

Young orang utan near the feeding platform

Wild orang utan near Sukau, feeding on figs

Orang utan spotted while on tour with Uncle Tan Wildlife

Sandakan is Sabah's Gateway to Nature - trekking with Uncle Tan you might spot rarities such as the White Crested Hornbill...

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Note: while every care has been taken in compiling the above information the Flying Dusun Sdn Bhd, its authors and associates cannot be held responsible for any inaccuracy, omission or alteration that may occur. Please contact us or the respective authors for further details and confirmation of facts and figures. The Flying Dusun Sdn Bhd, 2005-2006; all rights reserved; reproduction in whole or in part without written permission strictly prohibited. 


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