Orange apes are Borneo’s big drawcard, and possibly why you’re in Sabah. Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre cares for “people of the forest” who have been orphaned or injured due to deforestation or previously illegally kept as pets.
The centre was the first of its kind in the world, and is now one of several in Malaysia and Indonesia, the countries where the apes are endemic. It’s also one of Sabah’s most popular tourist attractions—you will not be the only one keen on seeing our furry cousins, so expect crowds.
At Sepilok, the orangutans are divided into youngsters who are still learning to climb and live independently, and more independent older primates who are released into the centre's forest, some 4,300 hectares of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. They still need a bit of help and are fed milk and bananas to supplement their diet, and you, and hundreds of others, can observe them during feeding time.
This can seem very zoo-like at times, particularly when there are several tour buses of people there. However, just because a crowd has shown up to see them doesn’t mean the animals will be there. Sightings are not guaranteed, especially during the fruiting season, when they easily find enough to eat themselves, or if it’s raining. Although disappointing, this is a positive as far as rehabilitation of the animals is concerned.
The feeding times are twice daily, at 10:00 and 15:00. It’s recommended to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to feeding, as the ticket booth is often busy. Visitors are not permitted to take bags, water or anything beside your camera (for which there is a fee) as the naughty orangutans are keen to get their hands an anything, and you may be carrying something potentially harmful to them. You can leave your bags at the free lockers at the entrance.
From the ticket booth, it’s a 10-minute walk along wooden boardwalks to the feeding platform. Sometimes aggressive pigtail macaques frequent the path. Don’t make eye contact (this is seen as a form of aggression) and wait for a ranger—they have very sharp teeth (the monkeys, not the rangers). You may also encounter a curious orangutan. As cute as they are, they are wild animals, so don’t get close. Also you are just as much a threat to them and may be carrying a disease they are not immune to.
At the feeding platform, look up in the trees around, and you may see orangutan nests or catch a flash of orange fur swinging in along the ropes. The feeding is all over in about 30 minutes, and as touristy as it may seem, it can be quite magical. Afterwards you can head to the observation area at the nursery, following a 300-metre boardwalk (well, following the crowds) to see the (cute as a button) wee babies learning how to climb at an outdoor gym (open 09:00-11:00; 14:30-16:00).
Your ticket is valid for both feeding times, and the afternoon feeding is often less crowded. An interesting 30-minute film screens at 09:00; 09:30; 11:00; 12:00; 14:00 and 14:30. You can further support the work at the centre and “adopt an orangutan” starting at 200 ringgit. Paid volunteer programmes are run by Travellers Worldwide. A gift shop is next to the ticket office and a cafeteria is near the carpark. Several nature trails and walks around the reserve are usually open 09:00-14:00. You’ll need to register at the ticket office, however the trails were all closed until further notice at the time of our research in mid-2016. If you’re keen on a walk, and trails are still closed when you visit, head down to the Rainforest Discovery Centre 1.5 kilometres away.
Obviously seeing wild orangutan not in the sanctuary is more impressive, and if you visit the Kinabatangan or Danum Valley, or a number of other areas in Sabah, you may have that opportunity, but supporting the work of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is important, too—don’t give it a miss because it’s not an “authentic experience”.
The ticket booth is open 09:00-11:00 and 14:00-15:30. Visiting hours are 09:00-12:00 and 14:00-16:00 except Fridays, when they are 09:00-11:30 and 14:00-16:00. Tickets are available on day of purchase only, and valid for both feedings. Between feedings you’ll have time to visit the excellent Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre next door.
Several guesthouses and hotels are walking distance to the centre, with a few good places to eat nearby too.
How to get there
To get to Sepilok from Sandakan, public buses pass the turnoff to Jalan Sepilok, then you will have to walk a further 2.5 kilometres. A taxi from Sandakan is about 50 ringgit one way or 100 ringgit return including waiting time.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 13th November, 2016.