The plight of the orangutan has been made even more prominent recently with publicity surrounding palm oil. The viral banned advert from British supermarket chain Iceland made a lot of people aware of the issue and start searching for alternatives (watch it here). We were already aware of the negative impact palm oil was having on the rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia but I don’t think it really hit home until we visited Borneo and saw the miles of palm trees for ourselves.
We also visited the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary which was the first of its kind in the world and does some amazing work protecting and rehabilitating the orangutan population on Borneo. Seeing these beautiful creatures up close was such a special experience and it was heart-warming to see such a well-developed project in an area under such threat.
Orangutans on Borneo
The population of orangutans on Borneo is documented to have dropped by 50% over the last 60 years and orangutans have been named as critically endangered. The major cause in population decline is due to deforestation which destroys the natural habitat of the orangutan.
It is believed that up to 80% of Borneo’s rainforest has been destroyed mostly for palm oil plantations and other agriculture. This makes the job of restoring the orangutan population very difficult as forest areas are often isolated or damaged and don’t provide adequate food sources for orangutans to live in the wild.
About Sepilok Orangutan Sanctary
Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary was built in 1964 and is home to 60 to 80 orangutans. The centre is located in 43 sq km of dense rainforest and is not enclosed. This means the orangutans can come and go as they please but know there is always care, protection and food when they need it.
As well as the large outdoor space the centre also has a nursery for the young orangutans to allow them a safe place to play and be fed. The very young ones are nursed like human babies and cared for until they are old enough to become independent. Many of the orangutans who come to the centre are orphans or were pets and have been rescued.
Visiting Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary
Sepilok is located about half an hours drive from Sandakan. It’s possible to travel by public bus, taxi or organised tour to Sepilok but if you have the time we thoroughly recommend staying at one of the jungle resorts located next to the sanctuary. You can sometimes even see the orangutans in the garden! We spotted one from the pool on our first afternoon.
We stayed at Sepilok Jungle Resort which was a great budget friendly option and had a pool which was very welcome on the humid days. The rooms range from basic fan rooms to the nicer and more modern air con rooms. All rooms include a buffet breakfast by the lake.
If you’re looking for something more upmarket Sepilok Nature Resort is really beautiful and has an amazing restaurant/café serving a mix of Western and local food at reasonable prices. They have stylish décor and very friendly staff.
The Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary has two feeding times per day at 10am and 2pm. The centre opens one hour before each feeding for visitors to walk through the jungle paths, visit the nursery and find a place on the viewing platform.
Entrance to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary costs 30 MYR and 10 MYR for a camera. You can’t take anything except a camera with you (including water) but there are free lockers at the entrance.
Is it guaranteed to see orangutans?
Because the sanctuary is open to the rainforest the orangutans are free to come and go as they please. This means that there is no guarantee that you’ll see any although feeding time often attracts at least a couple, particularly the mothers and babies.
We were lucky enough to see four orangutans up close as we walked around the sanctuary and another five or six during feeding time. Our top tip is to enter early, we arrived just before 9 am (easy as we were staying right next door) in order to be some of the first people in. We headed straight to the feeding platform while all the other visitors (mostly tours) went to the nursery first as they had to leave again straight after the feeding time. Just another reason we like to do things independently.
As soon as we turned off from the loud groups we saw two female orangutans right on the path in front of us. The staff were nearby to advise us where to stand but we managed to see them really close up and take some great photos. A little further along the path we saw a huge male sitting on the fence. We kept a safe distance but we were able to see him much closer than if there had been a large group of people around. It was really special and we’re so glad we did it as by the time 10 am rolled around about a hundred people had gathered and the orangutans who came for food avoided coming anywhere near the people.
How to help the orangutans
Adopt an orangutan
You can sign up at the centre or online to adopt one of the gorgeous orangutans at Sepilok Sanctuary. You can choose which one you’d like to sponsor and you receive an adoption certificate and a DVD of your orangutan. This can make a great gift for kids or animal lovers and all the funds go towards the food and medical care for the orangutans at the centre. Have a look at the website here.
Stop using palm oil
Palm oil plantations are the main cause of deforestation on Borneo and Malaysia is one of the world’s largest producers of palm oil. By reducing our consumption of palm oil or being conscious about using sustainable palm oil we can send a message to the production companies that we don’t support their practices. A decrease in demand for palm oil and awareness of how it is produced also encourages the use of alternatives and ethically sourced options.
Unfortunately this is easier said than done as palm oil is in so many products these days and can be listed under many different names in the ingredients. For some more tips and advice on cutting down palm oil use have a read of this article.
Visit the Sanctuary Respectfully
The money raised from visitors to the sanctuary is used to buy food and medical supplies for the orangutans and to rehabilitate them into the wild to regrow the orangutan population on Borneo. By visiting, learning and respectfully observing the orangutans you can support the great work they do at the sanctuary and have an unforgettable experience.
Spread the word
Once we saw these incredible creatures it was very hard not to get behind their cause. By sharing your experiences visiting the sanctuary and sharing the story of what is happening on Borneo (and Sumatra) you can help others to learn about the situation and take steps to help. A little bit of conversation or a few images on social media goes a long way.
If you’re travelling to Borneo make sure you take the time to ethically see some of nature’s most beautiful areas and creatures and do your bit to help make sure they’re still around for future generations to learn about and visit.