Orangutans in Sepilok

On Sunday 10th June 2018 we got a taxi to the bus station to get the next bus going from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. The hostel had been pretty hopeless in helping us book a bus and booking one online isn’t really a thing in Borneo so we just had to hope that we could get one when we arrived at the bus station. We had arrived at Inanam Bus Terminal in time for the 12:30pm bus but this was fully booked so it wasn’t until 2pm that we were able to get on a bus to Sandakan.

Thankfully the bus terminal had a breeze flowing through it so it wasn’t too hot whilst we waited. The journey was meant to take 6 hours so we weren’t going to get there until late and it ended up being quite a boring journey as there was loud music playing on the radio and our devices ran out of battery. We arrived at 9:40pm and checked into our hostel, Harbourside Backpackers. This was a good hostel aside from having very bad WiFi which was a shame as it ticked all the other boxes.

The next day, we went to the local bus station to get the 9am bus to the Sepilok Orangutan Santuary. The bus was fun as it had a TV playing throwback music from the 80s and 90s and was kitted out with lots of Liverpool Football Club signs and scarfs. The bus cost 6 MYR (£1.15) each so wasn’t very expensive at all and took us right to the entrance of the sanctuary.

To get into the sanctuary you had to register and buy a ticket which cost 30 MYR (£5.70) but lasted the entire day so you could leave and come back for both of the feedings they have each day. The sanctuary’s aim is to return orphaned, injured and displaced orangutans back into the wild. The centre is in the Kabili-Sepilok Forest which is 4294 hectares of virgin jungle reserve rich in tropical rainforest and mangrove swamps. The centre has rehabilitated many orphans to fend for themselves back in the forest reserve. The centre has a health facility and nursery both of which are off limits to the public. This is the first step for the orphans who are placed in quarantine to avoid the spread of diseases and given a thorough examination. They are then housed in the nursery where they’ll be nursed back to health and start to be taught the skills needed for life as an orangutan such as finding food and building a nest. Once they have learnt how to climb and find food, they’re released into the outdoor nursery which is a larger area with a viewing platform for us to see when they get fed. This is when they start to give the orangutans more freedom and less of a dependence on humans. Finally, the majority of the orangutans will be released into the wild orangutan population to live a happy and safe life. It’s really great work and the centre being open for feeding helps them to fund what they’re doing so it’s worth every penny.

We arrived just in time for the first feeding at 10am but unfortunately no orangutans came for any of the food. We were lucky enough to see a couple in the distance swinging from trees so we at least we knew they were nearby and just had to hope they’d come closer later on for us to see them. Apparently the food left out for the orangutans is always the same each day in the hope that the orangutans will get bored of it meaning they’ll go out and look for food themselves – it’s obviously working! As these orangutans are rehabilitated, the food is only there as a backup for orangutans finding it a bit harder than others to find enough food or for if they’re having a lazy day (maybe it’s like us ordering a takeaway?)

After waiting around for an hour we headed to the nursery to see if we’d see orangutans there but got waylaid by a huge pack of macaques that didn’t like that we were walking towards them on the boardwalk and so ran at us. The macaques were massive and, I’m not going to lie, it was quite scary being charged at by them. A sanctuary worker ended up chasing them off for us so that we could pass but this meant we missed feeding time at the nursery. It’s no wonder we aren’t fans of macaques!

We left the centre but would be returning in the afternoon when the centre opened again at 2pm for the second feeding. Across the road from the orangutan rehabilitation centre is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Malaysian sun bears are the smallest species of bear in the world and are threatened due to deforestation, illegal hunting for bear parts (popular for medicine in countries such as China) and poaching of bear cubs for the pet trade. The conservation has 43 rescued bears in its facility.

The centre was good with high viewing walkways so that you could see the sun bears below as they dug and foraged for food but also allowed you to see the bears sleeping in the trees as they’re very good climbers and spend a lot of their time looking for honey or staying away from their predators like tigers and snakes. The viewing platform also had telescopes set up where the staff had spotted a bear asleep in a tree so that we could get a good look at it which was really good and they even helped you get a good picture thorough the telescopes. The centre was also 30 MYR and is also doing great work to save the bears there so it’s money well spent. Plus, the bears are really cute!

Whilst we stopped for a snack at the restaurant outside of the two animal centres, someone spotted an orangutan who had come to have a look at the edge of the jungle right by the restaurant. It was incredible as the orangutan was right on the edge of the clearing and very interested in everyone so we were all able to get pictures and be quite close to it without scaring it. Eventually a worker at the centre came to try and get the orangutan back inside the jungle as it wasn’t good for it to be so near the car park where it could get hurt – plus human contact is meant to be limited for proper rehabilitation.

We were so happy to have seen an orangutan so up close as it made our trip to the centre worth it. We finished our snack and then headed back into the park at 2pm when the gates opened again. As we went back into the centre we saw a bunch of orangutans swinging from trees right next to the walkways! It was amazing to watch them swing around and you could see just how strong their arms were as they would stretch them far to new branches and swing their full bodies as if it weighed nothing. What we found particularly funny though was how often they would miscalculate the strength of a branch and have it snap, making them fall out of the trees. They were never too high so it didn’t seem to hurt them but it was very funny. At one point an orangutan tried to swing from the branch onto the railings of the boardwalk and the branch snapped just before he made it making him fall just before he could get a grip of the railing. It was very funny and you could imagine the orangutan blushing with embarrassment as it climbed back up!

We had heard some commotion from further along the boardwalk so had gone to see what it was but it turned out to be nothing so we had headed back to see the orangutans swinging in the trees some more to find that they were right behind us! We were told to remain still and the orangutans walked right past us less than a meter away! It was amazing to see these incredible apes so close to us and the temptation to try and touch one of them was hard to resist (we managed to though – just)!We then followed the orangutans and headed to the nursery as the feeding here started at 2:30pm before the main feeding which was at 3pm. What you’re able to see in the nursery is a big outdoor recreational feeding area which is a platform with ropes connecting it. This is where the food is put out and the orangutans that are being rehabilitated are brought out to here to eat and play. You view this area from an air conditioned room with large windows which is cool as it’s like we’re in the cage and not the orangutans!

When the young orangutans were getting brought out and fed, we found a lone young orangutan in the corner outside at the back of the viewing building messing around with the metal grate on the air conditioning unit. He would cling onto the grate and have the air flow into its face. It was adorable and, when it saw me at the window it came over to have a look and we just hit it off from there. I would put my hands to the glass and it would stick out it’s tongue trying to lick my hand and press its face up against the glass pulling silly faces. It was so funny and would keep coming back when it saw I was at the window again. What was really great about this was that no one else was around so me and Niall were able to enjoy the funny, human like qualities of the orangutan uninterrupted. Every now and again we saw a worker trying to get it to come down from the window but it was obviously having too much fun. It didn’t come to the window when anyone else was around so naturally I now consider myself to have a deep connection with orangutans and have contemplated a change in my life choices to spend all of my time with them (a logical conclusion I’m sure you’ll agree).

We then went to feeding station that we had been to in the morning and, this time, one orangutan was already waiting for the food. Soon after the food had been put out, another orangutan joined it and they ate the fruit together before a mum and baby came to the feeding station. The other two orangutans took food with them and left the platform, hanging out on ropes high up connecting the platform to trees to give the mother some space. The baby went after the orangutans and tried to get their food or to play with them and they were both super patient with it. The mother was always keeping an eye on the baby but was very relaxed in letting it wander off quite far away from her with the other orangutans.

Around half an hour before the centre closed, one orangutan came onto the viewing platform where a handful of us had been watching them and sat on the bench posing and looking at us all. It had such personality and did try and get near to people sometimes by sliding slyly across the bench towards those who were sitting down. The rangers were there to make sure no one got too close and just in case something happened but they didn’t interfere as no one, including the orangutan, was in any danger. The rangers know the orangutans and sometimes tell them off when they’re being naughty and it’s always funny when they do as the oranguatans just look at them like a naughty child and pretend like they haven’t heard them. Watching this orangutan sitting on the bench or on the platform floor was amazing as it posed and did funny facial expressions just like a human would. You could see the human similarities so clearly and it just made you respect them even more as they’re obviously incredibly intelligent creatures.

At 4pm the last bus was waiting to take us back to Sandakan. It was the best day and we’re really glad we stuck around for the afternoon feeding as this was when the orangutans were a lot more inquisitive and social. We’re so glad we went to the Sepilok Orangutan Centre and also really enjoyed the sun bear centre. This was probably one of our favourite days in Borneo and was the start a lot of wildlife experiences that we had planned for the rest of our time on the island.

That night, we tried to get some food at a local restaurant on the harbour. Loads of people had food and drinks on their table and weren’t eating. We realised it was because the day’s Ramadan fasting was about to end and so everyone had their food and drinks ready to be able to eat. In unison, an entire restaurant started eating and drinking at the same time once the sun had officially set which was quite a surreal experience especially if you hadn’t realised it was for Ramadan. We waited for over an hour and still hadn’t got our food and were so hungry we just had to leave and go to McDonalds instead which was a shame as we had really enjoyed Malaysian food when we had been on the mainland and didn’t want to be eating fast food all the time.

Our next stop was to a lodge along the Kinabatangan River to go on river cruises in the search of wildlife. If it was even half as good as the day we’d just had then it was going to be good!

Sending love x

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