MALAYSIA: Bornean Orangutan Conservation at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre

Bornean Orangutan at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, Malaysia

Bornean Orangutan Conservation at

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre


(The following is a guest post from Margherita & Nick Ragg of adventure & nature travel blog The Crowded Planet. Follow their adventures via Facebook and Twitter. If you’re a blogger interested in guest posting on GGT, please email pitches to Editor-In-Chief Bret Love at [email protected])



In The Land Below the Wind, Agness Keith wrote of the Bornean orangutans that used to visit her garden in order to eat fruit from the trees. The book was written in the 1930s, when the country was still covered in primary rainforest, thick and unexplored, providing habitat for a wealth of wildlife. It was said that orangutans could cross the whole of Borneo, swinging from one tree branch to another, without ever touching the ground.


Orangutans are one of four species of great apes, and found only in Borneo and Sumatra. Their affinity with humans was first recognized by the native people of Borneo, the Dayaks, who named them after the Malay-Indonesian words for man of the forest. Dayaks believed orangutans could talk, but chose not to in order to prevent being enslaved and put to work.


Bornean Orangutan at Sepilok Rehab Centre in Malaysia


Orangutans spend their entire lives in trees. They’re foragers, mainly eating fruit and insects. They sleep in nests built with branches, give birth and die in the trees.


In the ‘60s, the palm oil boom reached Borneo. Vast tracts of primary rainforest were felled to make way for palm oil plantations. Driving around Borneo today, you see tiny patches of sparsely grown forest sandwiched between sprawling plantations of palms planted in tidy rows.


Now Bornean Orangutans are listed as endangered, while Sumatran Orangutans are critically endangered. Over the course of the 20th century, their numbers dwindled from several hundred thousand to just over 45,000 in Borneo and around 6,000 in Sumatra.


Bornean Orangutan Yawns at the Sepilok Rehab Centre in Malaysia


Habitat loss is the main reason. The apes are pushed into ever-decreasing areas of rainforest, making it hard for them to survive. Recently, the Daily Mail published a heartbreaking photo series showing a pregnant orangutan clinging to the last remaining tree while bulldozers made way for a palm oil plantation. It was like a tragic scene cut straight from The Lorax.


Poaching is also a major contributing factor. Despite being strictly forbidden, the orangutan trade is still active in Asia. Orangutan lips were considered a delicacy in Imperial China, and their bones are still used in traditional Chinese medicine today.


The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was opened in 1964, not far from Agness Keith’s home in Sandakan, in the Malaysian state of Sabah. The Centre offers care and rehabilitation for orphaned and injured orangutans, housing around 25 individuals in its nurseries at any time.


Baby Bornean Orangutan at Sepilok Rehab Centre in Malaysia


Many orangutans housed at Sepilok are young, and were rescued. Baby orangutans are the main targets of poachers, who sell them into the illegal pet trade or to wildlife parks. They are mistakenly believed to make great pets because they are docile and sweet when young. But, like humans, they often become more aggressive in their teen years.


Open any Southeast Asian newspaper and chances are there will be an orangutan horror story. There are rescued orangs addicted to alcohol or cigarettes. There are baby orangutans wrenched by poachers from their mothers’ dead bodies. I’ve even seen an orangutan for sale in a tiny bamboo cage, when I wandered by mistake into the darkest part of Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market.


Unfortunately the orangutans’ extraordinary intelligence is also their undoing. Reports claim these apes are capable of abstract thought, and learn new behaviors very easily. As such, they’re often captured and trained to entertain tourists. Last year, orangutans were seized from a wildlife park near Bangkok, where they performed in Muay Thai shows.


Bornean Orangutan at Sepilok Rehab Centre in Malaysia


You can’t visit the nurseries at Sepilok, as weak orangutans are highly susceptible to human illness. After being nursed back to health, the animals are eventually released back into the wild. The Centre includes 43 sq km of protected rainforest that is surrounded by palm oil plantations. As a result, most of the orangutans spend the rest of their lives in the area surrounding the Centre, where a total of 60-80 individuals are estimated to live.


Sepilok is among the few forests in the world where you’re virtually guaranteed to see orangutans every day. Released orangutans typically return to the Centre’s feeding platforms daily at 10 am and 3 pm, with the promise of an easy meal. One of Sepilok’s rangers told us that, in his 20-year career, not a single day has gone past without at least one orangutan turning up there.


Baby Bornean Orangutan at Sepilok Rehab Centre in Malaysia


The feeding platform at Sepilok is reached via a short walk through the forest. When we arrived for our visit one muggy summer afternoon, dozens of eyes were scanning the trees and the ropes connecting the feeding area to the forest.


A ranger arrived and placed buckets of fruit and sugar cane around the platform. First, we heard a muffled noise. Then the ropes started to wobble, and an orangutan covered in shaggy orange-brown fur descended from the rope towards the bucket, right on schedule. Everyone watched in utter silence as this decided human-like creature peeled a banana and ate it, just as many of us do every day.


A few minutes later, another orangutan arrived. This one was smaller and scruffier, with a shock of hair covering his face. A teenager, I thought. Some Long-Tailed Macaques scurried back and forth in hopes that they’d be getting a meal, too. The two orangutans spent some time nibbling on fruit from the bucket, surrounded by watchful eyes and camera clicks, before wandering back off into the trees.


Long-Tailed Macaques at Sepilok Rehab Centre in Malaysia


The revenue from the sale of tickets and souvenirs is ultimately invested back into the Sepilok Orangutan conservation project. Caring for orphaned baby orangutans is a tremendous effort, requiring 24 hours of one-on-one contact, just like with human babies. Before being released back into the forest, orangutans are kept in the Centre for an average of seven years, during which they are taught to feed themselves and, the most important skill for survival, climbing.


A few days after leaving Sepilok, I saw two Bornean Orangutans– a mother and child– on top of a tree in a patch of rainforest along the Kinabatangan River. I wondered how long they were going to survive there. Not far down-river, I heard the whirr of saws and the thumping of a bulldozer. ­–by Margherita Ragg; photos by Nick Ragg


If you enjoyed our post on Bornean Orangutan Conservation at Sepilok, you might also like: 

GO GREEN TIP #112: How to Avoid Products With Palm Oil

ENDANGERED SPECIES SPOTLIGHT: Bornean Orangutan & Sumatran Orangutan

MALAYSIA: The Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre

10 Eco Lessons We Can Learn From The Lorax


INTERVIEW: Lek Chailert, the Elephant Whisperer of Elephant Nature Park, Thailand


26 Weird Animals Around the World

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  1. Hi Margherita, I can only support your idea to ban those products from my diet and to spread the voice about experiences like yours.
    We were in Sepilok last May and what we saw from the road, kilometers and kilometers of palm oil plantations, that was really sad and scary at the same time!
    But, we’ve got info a few days ago that the NGO Bring the Elephant Home, together with local Malaysian non-profit organization Hutan, have planted 2500 trees near Kinabatangan river and more of them are on the schedule 🙂
    The things will take time to get better and all we, travellers, can do, is to raise the awereness among others.
    Ivana recently posted..The Unseen Africa TV Series – An Interview with Francis TaponMy Profile

  2. That’s what you call eco-tourism done well ! They have similar reserves in Thailand for elephants, where they are treated well

  3. Thank you so much for this! I first saw orangutans in the wild in Sumatra about 10 years ago, and was immediately struck by the intelligence in their eyes, and how closely so many of their mannerisms mirror those of humans. There’s no way you could come face to face with an orangutan and convincingly argue that it’s just a dumb, unfeeling animal. I love to see organizations like the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre introduce others to these amazing animals.
    Micki recently posted..Walk With Us Through The Small Turkish Town Of PamukkaleMy Profile

  4. Great article! Thanks for sharing. This is a spot I’ve always wanted to visit. Thanks so much for this article which raises a lot of awareness about these beautiful animals.

  5. I think the Dayaks had it right. Orangutans are so crazy smart and weirdly human-like. This is a sad story, like so many other endangered species. Thanks for bringing this issue front and center. Love this site!

  6. Great, informative article. We’ve stop using products that contain palm oil, but unfortunately I think so many people are still unaware of the issue. It’s articles like this that we need more of. Would love to visit Sepilok one day and see the orangutans for myself, hopefully one day when there won’t be a need for a rehabilitation center.
    Casey @ A Cruising Couple recently posted..Photos of Brazil During the FIFA World Cup 2014 – Part 1My Profile

  7. Janice has visited this sanctuary in Borneo. They’re doing a great job at looking after the orangutans and helping to rehabilitate them. It’s just so incredibly sad that as our human population expands, we’re cutting into territory needed by wild animals. Hopefully the day doesn’t come when the only orangutans or elephants or rhinos people see are those in zoos.
    Sand In My Suitcase recently posted..Easy beach days at Viceroy ZihuatanejoMy Profile

  8. I only recently learned about the impact palm oil has had on orangutan habitat. I have made a commitment to avoid palm oil, however I feel that’s not enough. I’m not sure what else I can do, but at the very least I plan to spread the word.
    hilary recently posted..CSA Week 3My Profile

  9. I was so happy to have had a chance to visit this same sanctuary last year. They do such an amazing and important role in rehabilitating these adorable little guys and it was wonderful to get an insight into that. Your photos are fantastic though – mine were OK but I certainly didn’t manage to capture expressions like you have done!! Loved seeing this post and re-living those memories 🙂
    Shikha recently posted..Honeymoon Beach Lunching in Romantic ZanzibarMy Profile

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  14. Hi,
    Thanks you so much Bret and Margherita for posting this article. it’s very helpful good work i really like it.

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