Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

A young female orangutan eating breakfast

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center was established in 1964 shortly after Sabah became an independent state in Malaysia.  The center has 43 square kilometers of land on the edge of the Kabili Sepolik Forest Preserve, which is about 5529 hectares (29 square miles)

Orangutans are the only great ape to live outside Africa.  Historically their range was great.  Fossil remains show evidence of Orangutans ranging from China, India, and Laos and throughout Indonesia and Malaysia.  However, now they exist only on Sumatra and Borneo.  Both populations are critically endangered.  Sharing 96.7% DNA as humans, they live a mostly solitary life as an arboreal mammal.  Rarely do they decent from the canopy, which is good, as the forest floor is where most the parasite and diseases are.  They have a diverse diet eating a wide array of fruit, leaves, and bark.  As Borneo boasts over 12,000 identified different types of flora and fauna, learning about what is edible is important for their existence.

A child Orangutan stays with its mother for six to eight years before becoming independent.  So if anything happened to it’s mother, or if they were separated for any reason, a child Orangutan would not know enough about survival skills.  The independent state of Sabah recognized that a facility was needed to rehabilitate Orangutans.  So in 1964, it created this center.

It was intended as a half-way house for orphaned or injured Orangutans.  The center would get a call about an orphaned or sick Orangutan and spring into action.  They would assess the situation, bring the Orangutan back to the center and give it proper medical attention, feeding, and check ups.  The process of educating the Orangutan follows.  In a clever move, they partner the new and young Orangutans with older and more experienced ones.  Thus, they explore the rainforest together, learning about which foods they can eat, how to climb, and what is dangerous.  Gradually, as they become older, they reduce feeding and move the feeding farther and farther into the forest.  Eventually some Orangutans wander off on their own, or are relocated altogether to a different part of the K-S preserve.

I had been looking forward to sharing this experience with Alyssa and Kylie for a long time.  We tried to find an opportunity for volunteering and contributing to the salvation of this species, but it didn’t work out.  Visiting this center was as close as we were going to get.

Usually, when humans want to see animals they cage them or confine them in some way to guarantee human safety while humans move about unrestricted.  In this facility’s genius design, the orangutans roamed free and humans were confined to boardwalks or viewing areas.

They have a morning and an afternoon feeding time everyday.  During the afternoons there is less of a chance to see the Orangutans, as they may have started with building a nest for the night.  Also during fruiting season, there is more food in the forest and they are less likely to come get food from the platform.

Aside from being four times stronger than humans, the hip joints of Orangutans have the same mobility as their shoulder joints, making them extremely flexible.

This young male shows off his flexibility as he climbs away.

A natural consequence: a high density of people along the boardwalks and viewing platforms.  Because the Orangutans are free to come and go as they please, many people are there right around feeding time, and then leave.  On our visit most of those people were jockeying for their picture perfect moment of the orangutans.  Even though there were signs to observe silence, the crowd got pretty loud and obnoxious.  They were either unable to contain their excitement or did not care enough to contain their chatter and use their quiet voices.  Some tourists rode buses from Sandakan to the center.  They piled out, rushed in and around, and then left.

A throng of onlookers watch orangutans that came out of the forest to supplement their diet with food offered by the rehabilitation center.

This next series of shots illustrates part of the problem with irresponsible wildlife viewing.

An orangutan left the feeding area and decided to walk on the boardwalk railing.
It saw something tasty and thought about climbing down to get it.  It did in fact reach out and start to climb down.
Except a group of photo-frenzied onlookers trying to get closer look ended up chasing it away.

I was proud that Kylie and Alyssa both used their quiet voices and were respectful of the Orangutan’s space and the space of other people.  To be fair, there were a lot of people who were quiet and respectful, but when you get a crowd of 75-100 people in a small area, it becomes more and more difficult.  Walking along the few boardwalks in the area, there are a lot of informational placards.  The flora and fauna is amazing.  There are even some opportunities to see some of the other wildlife in the park.  Kylie spotted a Giant Pale Squirrel.

Giant flying squirrel (The head and body alone are about two feet long).

We also saw several Orangutan nests.  There were quite a few as Orangutans build new nests every night.

Orangutan Nest

Another highlight of the center is the nursery.  Here they bring growing Orangutans to a jungle-gym like climbing structure with ropes and platforms.  The young Orangutans are encouraged to climb and stay up off the ground.  It was very clear that these apes were getting used to their bodies as they were not quite graceful and would fall and miss their target.

This youngster stops for a bite to eat while playing on the jungle gym as all visiting onlookers are kept in their cage in the visitor viewing station.

Rehabilitating Orangutans is expensive, costing about $600-$800 per month.  There were about 15 Orangutans currently being rehabilitated and nearly 80 in the extended preserve.  Even though the center is owned and operated by the Malaysian government, it partners with The United Kingdom’s NGO Orangutan Appeal to help with fund raising.

Overall the program has an amazing success rate with nearly 800 orangutans rescued and an 86% success rate on rehabilitation and release.  This program is a model for how to act responsibly towards an endangered species, especially one as vulnerable as the orangutan.

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