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A new nursery

Our very first project at Sepilok was to improve the conditions for the orphans and build a new enclosure

  • Old Enclosure
  • New Nursery 2001
  • New Nursery with Sue 2001 (2)


The task was to construct a large exercise enclosure for the young orphan orangutans. The existing pen was totally inadequate, too small and cramped. Over the last two months it had become unusable, having rusted and frayed, meaning the orphans had to spend long periods of time in small indoor cages, where exercise and climbing practice was impossible.

Seven of us - two ape keepers and a cage welder from Chester Zoo, two volunteer workers, Belinda (our secretary) and Sue - set off for Borneo in high spirits, eager to complete the job in hand.

However, it was not all plain sailing. Materials, which had been shipped from the UK, were incorrect. Our tools, which had been hired, went missing. The welding machine was less than modern, and the heat wave sweeping the country took its toll.

We were determined not to be beaten though. New materials were ordered, the missing tools located and the welding just had to be done very slowly.

We worked from early morning, breaking during the hottest part of the day and resuming late afternoon. This plan worked well until the next challenge.

The cement arrived at 2pm on Friday, but was unlike our ready mix, which pours out of the shoot, it was of a very dry lumpy consistency and it took all our effort, in 36 degrees of scorching sunshine and high humidity, to spread and level the base.

The next day, the framework started to go up but here came our next hurdle. We seemed to have gained two workers – two rehabilitated orangutans, Sabalin and Lemon Tree. Sabalin, a 5 year old recently released female, and Lemon Tree, who was a little younger, were desperate to help with the digging and Sabalin was not at all impressed when we took the shovel from her. Next she thought the welding machine looked fun but at this point she had to be removed from the site!

It was not until some hours later that we realised Sabalin and Lemon Tree had not returned to the jungle as we thought, but had taken up a bird’s eye view of the proceedings from the roof of the nursery, where they leant on their elbows and quietly watched.

Finally, after numerous other events and mishaps, the exercise enclosure was finished. The two keepers from Chester Zoo set up the ropes and tyres in a complicated fashion, designed to give the youngsters a challenge.

There was not a dry eye in the place, English or Malaysian, male or female, when the baby orangutans tested out their new playground and spent hours in playful rapture, showing us just how well they could swing and climb, now they had been given the chance.

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