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 elephants.
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 orangutan 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.
Where is Sepilok?
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is situated in the State of Sabah in Northern Borneo and sits on the edge of the Kabili forest reserve.
How do I get to the Centre?
From Sandakan: There are five public buses which come directly to Sepilok (at 9:00am, 10:30am 11:30am, 1:00pm and 2:00pm) and five returning back to Sandakan (at 10:30am, 11:30am, 12:30pm, 2:00pm and 4:00pm). The bus journey takes 45 minutes and costs 4RM per person. Many of the hotels nearby can also arrange a shuttle service and it is very easy to take a taxi too.
From Kota Kinabalu: The journey takes 5 hours by bus stopping at junction ‘Jalan Sepilok’, a 2.5 km walk from the centre. However, there are frequent flights from KK to Sandakan which take approx. 45 minutes with return prices starting from as little £20 GBP.
When was the centre established?
It was set up by an Englishwoman called Barbara Harrison in 1964 and was the first centre in the world to dedicate itself to the rehabilitation of orphaned orangutans.
How big is the reserve?
Sepilok is situated in 43sq km of virgin lowland equatorial rainforest.
What actually happens at Sepilok?
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.
The Centre also cares for injured and displaced wild orangutans, as well as other wildlife including the endangered Bornean Pygmy elephant.
What do the baby orangutans need to learn before they are released?
One of the most important skills 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.
Who runs Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre and where do the funds to run it come from?
The Centre is owned and run by the Sabah Wildlife Department, from which it receives some funds. Additional funding comes from the entrance fee charged to tourists. 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. Orangutan Appeal UK funds projects at the centre including the renovation of enclosures and equipment, as well as funding five members of the care team, including a veterinary nurse.
Can anyone visit Sepilok?
Yes. Sepilok has a popular visitor centre which is open daily to the public.
What time does the centre open?
The centre is open from 9am-4pm and tickets are valid for the whole day.
How much is it to go into the centre?
It cost 30RM for foreign tourists, the ticket allows you to attend both feedings that day.
There is also a camera fee of RM10 (approximately £2) should you wish to take your camera to the feedings with you.
What are the feeding times?
These are at 10am and 3pm
We recommend arriving at the centre around 8:45am or 1:45pm for the morning and afternoon feedings. This will allow you enough time to purchase a ticket and also see the Orangutan Appeal UK presentation and video detailing some of our projects here at the Centre. The presentation and video showings take place at 9:00am and 2:00pm and run for approximately 30 minutes, giving you enough time to make your way down to the feeding platform after which is located just a short 10 minute walk away from the main reception. The video also shows at various other intervals throughout the day should you miss either of these times.
As well as the feedings, the outdoor nursery is also open from 9:00am till 11:00am and again in the afternoon from 2:30pm till 4:00pm where you can observe some of the young orangutans on their final stage of rehabilitation through protected specialist facilities.
Am I guaranteed to see an orangutan?
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.
The numbers of orangutans which come to the feedings differs on a daily basis and as they are wild and free to travel in the reserve it can never be guaranteed that any will come for the feed at all, especially during the fruiting season when naturally growing food is in abundance. Although this can be disappointing for those hoping to see the orangutans, the truth is if no orangutans come, then it is a positive thing - it means they are not reliant upon the feeding and to survive and are living a free and natural existence in the reserve.
Although sightings at the feeding platform are not guaranteed, visitors also have the opportunity to observe some of the adolescent orangutans currently on their final stage of rehabilitation. Here, people can watch through specialist protected facilities as the young orangutans train on the ropes and trees as they begin transitioning back into the wild. However, if it is raining the orangutans at the outdoor nursery may have to be kept indoors, this is to prevent the spread of diseases such as Melioidosis, which is found in soil and water. The health and wellbeing of the orangutans is paramount.
Can we touch the orangutans?
'Hands on' contact with the orangutans is not permitted, and is in the best interest 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.
Is there anyone who can answer my questions that I have at the centre?
We have a Liaison Officer based at the Centre, who should be available to talk to you should you decide to visit, and will be happy to answer any questions and point out various characters from the feeding platform.
If we have adopted one of the babies can we go and see them?
No visitors are allowed to see the babies in the indoor nursery, which is where the younger orangutans on our adoption scheme live. Sepilok's primary concern is the rehabilitation of orphaned, injured and ex-captive orangutans. For this reason, the indoor 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.
However, the recently renovated outdoor nursery is available for public viewing through specialised facilities which prevent the risk of contact between visitors and the orangutans. The outdoor nursery is where the juvenile orangutans on their final stage of rehabilitation before release are situated; here the public are able to observe their daily training sessions.
What can I expect from my experience at Sepilok?
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.
There are also various nature trails and walks within the reserve; from tropical highland rainforest, to lowland mangrove swamps where wildlife can be seen including orangutans and nocturnal animals on the night walk. The walks vary from 250 m to 5 km.
How can I donate towards the care of the orangutans at the centre and orangutan conservation?
Please visit either our Donations page or why not adopt one of the orphaned orangutans before you go. You may even get to see your adopted baby when you visit. Adopting one of the young orangutans is an excellent way to help us raise funds for our current projects and get something back in return for your support. Visit our Adoptions page for further details or give us a call on +44 (0)1590 610683.
You can also adopt or give a donation when you are at the Centre. Please speak to our Liaison Officer who will be happy to help you. If she is not available please complete an adoption leaflet from the desk in reception area and place it in the slot on the desk along with your donation.
Can I buy food at the Centre?
Yes, there is a cafeteria on site where you can buy breakfast, lunch, snacks and drinks
Can I buy souveniers at the Centre?
Yes, you can buy souveniers from the Orangutan Appeal UK Liaison Officer, with all of the proceeds reinvested back into orangutan conservation. We also have a larger range of items in our online shop.
There is also a small independent gift shop on site.
Is there anywhere to store luggage at the centre?
Yes, there are lockers available for the use of visitors; there are two sizes and the larger one will hold a large backpack
Can I volunteer at the Centre?
Orangutan Appeal UK does not have the jurisdiction to place volunteers at the centre or to arrange work placements. There is however volunteer programme is run by a separate organisation called Travellers Worldwide. The programme is self-funded and lasts eight weeks. More information about this programme can be found on their website.
In exceptional circumstances Sepilok may take volunteers outside of this programme. If you feel you have a skill set that may be desirable or beneficial to Sepilok you should contact Sabah Wildlife Department directly - http://www.wildlife.sabah.gov.my/
To take a virtual tour of Sepilok and the surrouding area with Google Street View click here
Sabah Wildlife Department : http://www.wildlife.sabah.gov.my/?q=en/content/sepilok-orangutan-rehabilitation-centre