Where to see orangutans in Borneo?
This was one of the most pressing questions before embarking on my trip. You can’t go to Borneo without feeling the need to find these majestic creatures who are so closely related to us and who are facing so much turmoil with the expansion of the palm oil industry.
I am awoken by the call to prayer. It gives me pause to wonder what land I am in and gather my thoughts in the darkness. Before too long, I am flying out of bed. It is the day we are going to an orangutan sanctuary specifically, Sepilok, the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, Borneo.
I have been to the Kinabatangan River twice and have not seen even one Borneo orangutan in the wild. Where to see orangutans in Borneo? Your best bet is at a sanctuary.
Orangutans are only found in the wild on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Their name literally means “forest man.” In Malay, orang means man and (h)utan means forest. Considering they share 97% of our human DNA, I wonder what relative I will be reminded of. Perhaps myself.
Why is visiting an orangutan sanctuary in Borneo necessary? They should abound in the wild. This land is their natural home where they build nests in soaring trees and mothers teach their offspring, often staying together for ten years.
But as Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo continue to destroy pristine, tropical rainforests in favour of palm oil plantations, orangutan habitat is severely reduced and the population is dramatically decreasing.
Bus rides through Sabah province provide a mere glimpse of the reality. Row upon row upon endless row of palm trees. And more palm trees. And more. Plantation signs swing in the breeze. Oil tankers lumber down the roads.
All I can think is why?
I know the almighty dollar is behind this. Economics. Cheap oil. World demand. It is a shocking revelation to trace the rows of palm trees from road’s edge to boundless yonder. Man-made lines of botany, sheer monotony, where wild rainforest should prevail. I have to turn my head away.
Palm oil plantations destroy biodiversity. Insects, reptiles, and mammals both large and small require a natural concoction of trees, plants and flowers for survival. Large mammals, like orangutans, need vast tracts of land to exist. When they inadvertently wander into palm oil plantations, they are often met with a dire fate – poisoned or just shot.
With the destruction of the rainforest, poachers have easier access to animals. The illegal pet trade is a brutal reality for the Borneo orangutan. Mothers are killed and babies are sold for pets.
With this knowledge in mind, there is a glimmer of hope arriving at Sepilok, the orangutan sanctuary It is situated in the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve where the land is protected. The rehabilitation centre, which was started in 1964, protects orangutans in Borneo and teaches young orphans to survive in the wild.
Orangutans swing in at feeding time from the reserve which deliberately keeps the food bland (bananas) in hopes that they will eat a more interesting and varied diet in the protected forest.
Standing on the walkway, near the feeding station, I find myself scanning the trees and the climbing ropes for a hint of activity. I am silently cursing noisy humans. Patience is rewarded, as after a few Borneo orangutans show up, the crowds saunter off to the outdoor nursery. Soon enough there are only 5 people left watching these massive primates.
My heart skips a beat. They are SO human-like.
There is only the sound of the cicadas chirping as these acutely aware creatures
intuitively ignore us,
expertly examine what’s on offer,
and peacefully ponder life.
The outdoor nursery has youngsters that spiritedly wrestle, swing, climb and play. They are buddied up with an adult to learn the skills necessary to survive in the wild. Climbing is the most important of all, as orangutans spend much time in the treetops. But those treetops are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Palm Oil Seems to have Snuck into EVERYTHING
These incredible, red-haired ancestors beg you to read labels.
Find out where palm oil is used.
It is the cheapest vegetable oil and used for cooking, in baked goods, packaged goods, cosmetics and toiletries. You kind of need to be a sleuth. Companies have created a long list of names to hide the use of palm oil. Of course, they don’t want their brand associated with habitat and forest destruction.
Here are ten of the sneaky names…
- vegetable oil ( this is nuts)
- palm kernel
- palm kernel oil
- palm fruit oil
- palmate (in every almond milk I used to buy except Califia Farms. Here is a list of almond milk brands and ingredients)
- sodium lauryl sulfate
- sodium kernelate
- sodium laureth sulfate
I, for one, am committed to reading labels more carefully and refusing anything that contains palm oil because I need to believe that even one person’s choice can effect change on a greater scale.
How Can you Help and Find Out More:
Orangutan Caring Week is every November. This site is full of information on orangutans and the struggle to stay wild.
Are you committed?
For the truth is, we are just one strand in the web.
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”
More Travel Info
Facts About Borneo
- Borneo is the third largest island in the world, after Greenland and New Guinea. It is located in Southeast Asia and is shared by three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia ( with 2 provinces Sabah and Sarawk) and Brunei.
- Borneo is known for its incredible biodiversity, with an estimated 15,000 species of plants, 380 species of birds, and 220 species of mammals. It is home to several endangered species, including the Bornean orangutan, Bornean pygmy elephant, and the Sumatran rhinoceros.
- The island is surrounded by rich coral reefs and is considered one of the world’s top diving destinations. The Coral Triangle, which includes Borneo, has the highest marine biodiversity in the world.
- Borneo is also known for its rich cultural heritage. The island is home to several indigenous groups, including the Dayak people, who have lived in Borneo for thousands of years. Visitors can learn about their traditional way of life and see their intricate woodcarvings and textiles.
- The economy of Borneo is largely driven by natural resources, particularly oil, gas, and timber. The island is home to several large-scale mining operations, which have led to deforestation and the displacement of indigenous communities. Conservation efforts are underway to protect the island’s unique biodiversity and cultural heritage.
Where To See Orangutans in Borneo:
- If you go into the jungle, for example in the Kinabatangan River or the Danum Valley Conservation Area, you may have the lucky experience of seeing an orangutan in the wild.
- If you are in the Malaysian province of Sarawak, there is also an orangutan sanctuary called Semenggoh Nature Reserve. I visited there in 2013 and it was an outstanding experience and an opportunity to see orangutans close up.
- Indonesian Borneo has 5 National Parks where it is possible to see Orangutans in the wild.
Getting to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre:
The closest city to Sepilok is Sandakan. There are daily buses from Sandakan to the rehabilitation centre (about 45 minutes). Hotels and guesthouses can arrange a shuttle or taxi to and from the centre.
There are daily Air Asia flights between Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu which makes Sepilok very accessible. Get a window seat as you fly right by Mount Kinabalu.
There are also buses from Kota Kinabalu to Sepilok. The ride is about 5 hours long and you get dropped at a junction. Taxi drivers wait here and will take you to your accommodation or the centre.
Entrance to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre:
The entrance fee is 30 RM ($9 Cdn) which is good for the entire day. There is also a 10RM ($3 Cdn) camera fee. No other bags are permitted into the centre. Lockers and keys are provided. Just don’t drop the one and only key through the slats of the deck 😉 …. causes great consternation amongst the workers.
Feedings are at 10 am and 3 pm. The afternoon feeding is less busy. We went to three feedings. Two on one day and one the next. You never know what surprises you are in for with wildlife.
There is a restaurant, a Sunbear Conservation Centre, the Rainforest Discovery Centre and walking trails if you are killing time between feedings. Cooling off at your hotel is also a good idea!
Other posts about Borneo: Pygmy Elephants