Orangutan spotting in Borneo Part 1: Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah Malaysia

I used to think Borneo = jungle, jungle = trekking, jungle-trekking = getting tired, bitten, hungry and dirty and none of this = me.  So Borneo had never really resounded in my mind as a suitable destination for me but travel is so much more than leisure – travel is education. And my visit here taught me that Borneo, Asia’s largest island, has about as many facets as the Kohinoor diamond.

Encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, this island will appeal to trekkers and climbers, botanists and animal-lovers, to those who seek out the world’s most beautiful beaches and those who pine to learn about tribal cultures. Of course, this diversity meant that it ticked the boxes for both Pumpkin and my respective wanderlusts but speaking candidly, I, like many, came to this island in search of meeting our endearing, fuzzy-backed, just-off brick-red, evolutionary friends, the primates with whom we share so many similarities – Borneo’s orangutans.



Our orangutan experience began about 25 km away from Sandakan in the state of Sabah, on the north eastern side of the island. We booked a tour through SI Tours. Although you will find orangutan-related tourist spots throughout Borneo, it is Sabah that is home to Borneo’s most renowned and reputable rehabilitation centres. We were fortunate enough to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation centre, a place that encourages and enhances the innate survival instincts of the orangutans in order to be able to equip them with the skills they need to survive in the wild.



Rather like Pumpkin, orangutans are quite independent creatures and you’ll generally see them in the wild either with their babies or on their own…you can see how nicknames evolved on this holiday –  they were slung around carelessly, like pigtails in a playground. One of us was an orangutan, another a Proboscis monkey and so the banter continued. A little bit of name-calling never did a marriage any harm. Or not ours (so far anyway).


Orangutans are also quite shy by nature. They tend not to appear if there is too much noise around, which we were prepped about and as feeding time was about to begin, there was an anxious hush all around. You can imagine the stuttering, intent glances and irritated sighs that ensued, therefore, when an unknowing toddler in the vicinity chose this particular moment to throw his toys out of the pram. We could all see his poor Pops in a predicament about whether to stay or go but fortunately, before we had time to dwell on this any further, we noticed the first of the orangutans grabbing the ropes, one purposeful movement at a time, undeterred by our lights and our cameras, focused intently on their own actions only.

They were acrobats in the making, seeking out their grub, laid out by the rangers, whose affection and devotion for these vulnerable creatures seems boundless. Food is not brought to them in a baby-in-a-high-chair fashion. In the wild, they would need to seek it out themselves and this fundamental principle is emulated here. Food is left out and it’s for the orangutans to come and find it if they’re hungry enough and thus, over a gradual period of time, they learn how to navigate themselves around the grounds for this purpose.


One by one, they start arriving. You don’t have to be a biology graduate to see the similarities. I felt almost voyeuristic watching them – I wouldn’t go to a stranger’s home and take photographs of them eating and this is how it felt. It was lunch time, that’s all it was. They seemed to enjoy it. They ate contentedly, throwing a few scraps away; they peeled and inspected their food, as if checking for blemishes. Much like us, some were sluggish to eat, pausing between bites, chewing slowly, elongating their meals – we all know creatures like that. Others stuffed it down quickly and then made tracks, not interested in waiting for their peers. Table manners are so overrated.


Over the next ten minutes, our eyes flitted as more orangutans started to appear. Some days you may only see one, some days you’ll see 5 or 6. We were lucky I suppose. It’s hard to know where to look – each one has its own personality, its own unique grace. Their intelligence enthralls you. After the meal was done, we spotted one (clearly artistic) orangutan high up in the branches well above our eye-level.

She had something in her hand – to this day, I don’t know what it was. I can only assume it was some type of tree bark or branch but it looked like a lattice of long white threads. Either way, our little friend picked up this unidentifiable white object, wrapped it around her neck twice, much to the baffled amusement of the crowd, as if she was wrapping herself in a scarf and enjoying trying on her new garment, like so many of us women do. These beautiful primates, aside from proving to us how much they can look after themselves, were also revealing their humourous side.


The tour of the rehab centre started off with a brief talk from 2 representatives of a charitable organisation known as Orangutan Appeal UK, which provides funding for development of these centres and conservation projects. We watched heart-wrenching footage of baby orangutans who had been abducted, kept as pets in wholly unsuitable conditions and had been rescued by these groups.

After a period of rehabilitation in the centres, which varies in duration based on individual circumstances, the orangutans are released into the wild. You can’t help but wonder how poignant this moment must be for the rangers, that leadened, empty-nest hollow that parents must feel when dropping their children off to university for the first time. Most fare well in the wild, which is testament to the work of the sanctuaries. Sadly though, some don’t. They struggle without the support and guidance of the sanctuary staff and tragically, for those struggling orang-utans, life in the wild may be short-lived.

Part of the #SundayTraveler Link Up



42 thoughts on “Orangutan spotting in Borneo Part 1: Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah Malaysia

  1. The best statement (not in the blog) which brings a smile to my face is- when I asked you if you ‘adopted an orangutan on your visit to the sanctuary. Your reply (with a naughty twinkle in your eyes) — No! I got my own!!

  2. whywasteannualleave January 21, 2014 — 1:47 pm

    Thanks for reading! Yes, they really were cute – these were about adolescent age – wait till I put up the post about the baby orangutans – they are even cuter!

  3. Sounds like a perfect place to me. Playing with orangutans must be a lot of fun, no joke! Weren’t you afraid of touching them? They look massive!

    1. whywasteannualleave January 26, 2014 — 8:37 pm

      Hehe, oops! Did I make it sound like I played with them?? I didn’t actually. They try and discourage visitors from petting the orangutans at the sanctuaries because they’re trying to make it as similar to life in the wild as possible. If we had been allowed to touch them, I definitely would have felt afraid!!

  4. OMG!!! The orangutans are so cute. You got some great shots here.

    1. whywasteannualleave January 28, 2014 — 12:52 am

      Thank you for shopping by! They really are adorable aren’t they?! The baby ones at a different sanctuary were even cuter and I’ll post about them soon (although they were also more shy so I didn’t get quite as many pics!)

    2. whywasteannualleave January 28, 2014 — 12:53 am

      *stopping by* I meant!

  5. whywasteannualleave January 28, 2014 — 12:48 am

    Thanks for reading Emma! It really was a once in a lifetime experience so I’m very grateful to them for showing their faces 🙂 I think what was most fascinating was just how similar they are to us & how incredibly intelligent!

  6. Thank you for your beautiful story 🙂 My daughter is at the same place volunteering for 2 months, so it is nice to see some photos

    1. whywasteannualleave February 1, 2014 — 10:13 pm

      Thank you so much for reading this and for your kind comments 🙂 the volunteers do such an important job out there so you must be very proud of your daughter! Hope she’s enjoying it!

  7. Brilliant post on our favourite animals & favourite country Borneo. Photos are fab 🙂

    1. whywasteannualleave February 8, 2014 — 5:35 pm

      Hi! Thanks so much for reading! They really are intriguing animals aren’t they? We just tried to capture a few shots in between staring at them in amazement! Great to hear you enjoyed borneo so much too 🙂

  8. What a cool experience, I’d love to see the orangatans

    1. whywasteannualleave March 27, 2014 — 12:02 am

      Thanks Brianna – yeh they are such intelligent animals that it’s so easy to just sit and watch them (plus so so cute!!) Hope you get a chance to see them one day 🙂

  9. What a special experience (and an amazing set of photos)!! This is something I would love to do! Anything with wildlife encounters is high up on my bucketlist. I’m going to have to start researching out to get there from Malaysia 🙂

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 14, 2014 — 11:08 am

      Thanks so much 🙂 It really is worth a visit if you can – the orangutans are just so endearing! And I completely agree about wildlife encounters – I’m a big fan of trips like that! Hope you make it there!

  10. malaysianmeanders May 13, 2014 — 3:55 pm

    You got some fantastic photos, and it sounds like you really enjoyed your visit to Sepilok. I visited a similar orangutan sanctuary in Sarawak. Like you, I fondly look back at my up close encounter with these animals. On the other hand, I was just speaking to a friend whose kid was there on a school visit when an orangutan attacked a guide and bit off his finger. Now, I think I would be staying much further back.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 14, 2014 — 11:17 am

      Oh my goodness! That does sound scary for that guide. What a shame. But so glad to hear you enjoyed your time with the orangutans at Sarawak and thank you so much for reading 🙂

  11. It really is how fascinatingly similar these animals are to our actions and rituals. I would love to see this all for myself one day.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 14, 2014 — 11:18 am

      Thanks Adelina, that was exactly what I found most intriguing too! Hope you get a chance to see them one day 🙂

  12. How cute are they??????? SO glad these fellows have a safe place to call home. Big thanks for linking up with us for #SundayTraveler.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 14, 2014 — 11:19 am

      Thank you! They’re just so adorable aren’t they?! The work of the rehabilitation centres is really inspiring and worthwhile and I can’t imagine what would happen to these little guys with out! Love taking part in the #SundayTraveler link up – always some great reads!

  13. We visited Sepilok in January, and loved it. We also took one of their night safaris…which was interesting. Great write up and photos!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 15, 2014 — 11:15 am

      I didn’t even know about the night safaris – that sounds wonderful! Hope you managed to spot some interesting creatures! Thank you for reading and for the kind comments – so glad you liked Borneo as much as I did 🙂

  14. lol, I like your introduction sentence – it’s like describing me. It’s interesting how the rangers try to prepare orangutans to live in a wild, to preserve their instincts, and emulate fundamental principles of the life in the wild.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 16, 2014 — 6:26 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment! I’m glad you could relate to my first sentence! 😀 yes the rangers do an amazing job and without this kind of input, it would be so difficult for them to get back out in the wild.

  15. Can’t wait to see these guys on my upcoming SEA trip! Great photos! Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler 🙂

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 16, 2014 — 6:27 pm

      So exciting for you Ashley! Hope you have a wonderful time out there & looking forward to seeing your updates!

  16. Sounds like a real unique experience. Would love to meet these orangutans myself, they look so cute! I’m always supportive of projects where animals are prepared to go back into wildlife, that’s so important. But of course, like you said, no all of them make in into the wild. Hard to deal with, but I think there’s no alternative if we want to preserve wildlife.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 17, 2014 — 7:12 pm

      I completely agree Nina – it’s one of those sad realities but it is great to see the conservation groups doing their best to prevent that outcome. Hope you get a chance to see them one day – they are so adorable 🙂

  17. Love trips that include wildlife. Sounds like I would like Borneo for hiking as well. Great photos.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 18, 2014 — 7:53 am

      If you love wildlife & hiking holidays Angela, then Borneo is most definitely the place to go – lots of both on offer! Thanks so much for commenting 🙂

  18. Great post. I want to go to Borneo – do you need permits to do such a safari?

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) June 25, 2014 — 10:44 pm

      That’s great! I hope you get a chance to visit as it’s such a beautiful and varied part of the world. The jungle river safari doesn’t need a permit but because the lodges are quite remote and difficult to get to so it usually needs to booked with a lodge and then they arrange the river safari. For the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary, you just need to purchase an entrance ticket but no permit needed.Thanks for commenting Sonia 🙂

  19. Awesome! I loved Sepilok. Did you visit Sarawak too? I thought both orangutan experiences were amazing!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) September 15, 2020 — 6:46 am

      We didn’t get time to make it to Sarawak unfortunately but I would definitely do that if I’m able to return to Borneo again one day!

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