Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in the Malaysian Sabah District of North Borneo was founded in 1964, to rehabilitate orphan orangutans. The site is 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Today around 60 to 80 orangutans are living free in the reserve.
When Sabah became an independent state in Malaysia in 1963, a Game Branch was created in the Forest Department for the conservation of wild animals in the region.
Consequently, 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve was turned into a rehabilitation site for orangutans, and a centre built to care for the apes. Today around 25 young orphaned orangutans are housed in the nurseries, in addition to those free in the reserve.
The facility provides medical care for orphaned and confiscated orangutans as well as dozens of other wildlife species. Some of the other animals which have been treated at the centre include; sun bears, gibbons, Sumatran rhinos and the occasional injured elephant.
Recently rehabilitated individuals have their diet supplemented by daily feedings of milk and bananas. The additional food supplied by the centre is purposefully designed to be monotonous and boring so as to encourage the apes to start to forage for themselves.
Sepilok is considered by the Wildlife Department to be a useful educational tool with which to educate both the locals and visitors alike, but they are adamant that the education must not interfere with the rehabilitation process. Visitors are restricted to walkways and are not allowed to approach or handle the apes.
In the wild orang utan babies stay with their mothers for up to six years while they are taught the skills they need to survive in the forest, the most important of which is climbing. At Sepilok a buddy system is used to replace a mother’s teaching. A younger ape will be paired up with an older one to help them to develop the skills they need.
The creation of reserve areas minimises the impact of deforestation on orangutans and far fewer young apes become the victim of the illegal pet trade as a result of these ‘sanctuaries’. Babies are often caught during logging or forest clearance or captured by poachers who slaughter the adult apes to reach them. The Malaysian Government has clamped down on illegal trading, outlawing all such practice and imposing prison sentences on anyone caught keeping them as pets.
Youngsters kept in captivity often become sick or suffer neglect which in some cases extends to cruelty. Whilst some of the orangutans raised as pets can never be returned to the wild, others can be rehabilitated; it is a long and expensive process, taking up to seven years but one centres such as Sepilok take on without question.
Q-Where is Sepilok?
A-Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is situated in the State of Sabah in Northern Borneo and sits on the edge of the Kabili forest reserve.
Q-When was it set up?
A-It was set up by an Englishwoman some 50 years ago and was the first Centre in the world to dedicate itself to the rehabilitation of orphaned orang-utans.
Q-How big is the reserve?
A-Sepilok is situated in 43sq km of virgin lowland equatorial rainforest.
Q-What actually happens at Sepilok?
A-The Centre cares for young orangutans orphaned as a result of illegal logging and deforestation and those who have been illegally caught and kept as pets. At Sepilok the new arrivals are given a complete health check before starting on the long road to rehabilitating them back into the wild. This essential process takes up to seven years and requires dedication and commitment for all those involved. Baby orangutans are cared for 24 hours a day, just like a human baby and as they grow older they join their peers in the nursery and at night they are housed indoors for their safety.
Q-What do the baby orangutans need to learn before they are released?
A-One of the most important skill orangutans need to develop is climbing, as they will spend their lives high in the rainforest canopy. Sepilok replaces their natural mother’s teaching by joining the youngsters with older orphans who will show them the skills they themselves have already learnt. It has proved to be a very successful combination.
Once they have developed their climbing and foraging skills, they are eventually released into the surrounding forest reserve to fend for themselves. They spend most of their time in the forest and will sometimes return to the centre for a free meal.
Q-Who run’s Sepilok rehabilitation centre and where do the funds to run it come from?
A-The Centre is now run by the Sabah Wildlife Department, from which it receives some funds. The rest comes from the entrance fee charged to Malaysians and International tourists, who are allowed to visit the centre to witness the feeding times. Funds are limited and, as a result, in past years the Centre has been unable to replace much of its outdated or dilapidated equipment and staffing levels were at a minimum.
Q-Can anyone visit Sepilok?
A-Yes. Sepilok has a popular visitor centre which is open daily to the public.
Q-What time does the centre open?
A-The centre is open from 9am-4pm and tickets are valid for the whole day.
Q-How much is it to go into the centre?
A-It cost 30RM for foreign tourists, the ticket allows you to attend both feedings that day.
Q-What are the feeding times?
A-These are at 10am and 3pm, make sure you get there 15mins before hand so you have time to walk along the boardwalk to feeding.
Q-Am i guaranteed to see an Orangutan?
A-These orangutans are living wild in the reserve and come back for a free feed should they wish - for this reason sightings cannot be guaranteed.
Q-Can we touch the orangutans?
A-'Hands on' contact with the orangutans is not permitted, and is in the best interests of the orangutans.
Orangutans are very susceptible and vulnerable to human diseases, and therefore exposure is strictly regulated to reduce as far as possible any potential infection. In addition, human contact is kept to a minimum, not only for the safety of the orangutans but to avoid unnecessary risks to visitors (orangutans are very strong and as wild animals can be unpredictable)
To ensure their best possible chance of survival once they are eventually released back into the wild, dependence or familiarity with people is discouraged.
Q-Is there anyone who can answer my questions that i have at the centre?
A-We have a Liaison Officer working at the Centre, who may be available to talk to you should you decide to visit, who would be happy to answer any questions and point out various characters from the feeding platform.
Q-If we have adopted one of the babies can we go and see them?
A-No visitors are allowed to see the babies. Sepilok's primary concern is the rehabilitation of orphaned, injured and ex-captive orangutans. It is also able to open a certain proportion of its grounds to the public to encourage conservation and educate others about the plight of this endangered species. For this reason, the nursery area where the young orangutans who are very prone to human illness and at a crucial stage in the rehabilitation process, are not accessible by the visitors. This can be disappointing for those expecting a 'zoo-like' experience. However, the welfare of the apes is always put first.
Q-What can i expect from my experience at Sepilok?
A-The visitors, having seen the educational (although optional) DVD at the centre, make their way through the forest to the viewing platform. From here they can witness the successfully rehabilitated orangutans living wild in the reserve coming for a free feed. It's a magical experience, as the trees begin to shake, and a flash of orange appears. Two rangers will arrive with fruit and sugar cane to place on the feeding platform, approximately 60 feet from the viewing platform. The orangutans that come for this free feed are wild and therefore can be dangerous, so there are staff on hand to make sure interactions do not occur, for the safety of both visitor and orangutan. Because they are wild, it can never be guaranteed that many will come for the feed, if any at all (especially during the fruiting season). This is where some people leave disappointed, but the truth is if no orangutans come, then it is a positive thing - it means they are not reliant upon the feeding to survive. You will however have a magical experience in the forest surrounded by the sights, smells and sounds of Borneo.