From pristine beaches to sublime sunsets, Sabah (one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo) has natural beauty in abundance. Although, the travel destination is arguably most famous for its gorgeous soft-bellied, auburn-haired jungle residents the orang-utans. Highly endangered, the easiest place to guarantee a sighting of these cute creatures is at the world-famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. For ethical reasons we’ve never been a fan of zoos, but this place is a genuine sanctuary which offers care and rehabilitation for the orphaned, abused and injured monkeys. It’s also the closest encounter you’re ever likely to get with an uncaged orangutan.
Opened in 1964, the invaluable centre has rehabilitated more than 100 of its residents and the revenue from the sale of tickets and souvenirs is always invested back into the Sepilok Orangutan conservation project. Just like with human babies, caring for orphaned baby orangutans isn’t an easy task and requires 24 hour one-to-one care, and before being released back into the forest orangutans are kept at the centre for an average of seven years. During this time they are taught all the necessary skills for surviving jungle life.
Easily the highlight of the sanctuary is the feeding platform, where twice-daily feeding sessions attract forest apes for a free meal. Apparently not a single day has gone past without at least one orangutan turning up to collect their hearty fruit-based feed. We stood waiting eagerly with dozens of people who had travelled to the sanctuary from all around the world. I’ve never seen so many enthralled wildlife watchers – if someone dared even a whisper they were immediately hushed silent by a fellow visitor. There’s definitely something about these animals that holds a such an incredible fascination for so many people. After a little while, we heard a faint noise, saw a rope wobble and then one resident appeared slowly and tentatively, quickly followed by another.
Intelligent and inquisitive, they are endearingly human-like, only about ten times cuter (and arguably much more adorable)! Although it’s probably their mischievous, playful behaviour which sees them soar so highly in the wildlife popularity stakes. The humidity made standing around in the jungle sticky and uncomfortable but time passed very quickly as we watched the shaggy-haired primates swing delightfully from one rope to another. Then they moved gently and slowly as their long dextrous fingers and toes skilfully wrapped around the rope, contorting them into all kinds of adorable shapes.
After their morning’s exercise routine, delicately (and without a second glance at their eager audience) they both settled on a high wooden platform to tuck into their jungle picnic of banana, papaya and bamboo shoots as dozens of eyes were still fixated on them. Many cameras clicks and cheeky expressions later, they slowly meandered back into the trees, eventually disappearing from sight.
Located near the town of Sandakan, on the north-eastern coast of Borneo, the journey to Sepilok from our accommodation was a fairly arduous van drive, but it was definitely worth it – we all knew how lucky we were to spend a precious few hours in their company. The antics of the sanctuary’s residents are guaranteed to melt the hearts of the hardiest traveller and there wasn’t one person in our group that wouldn’t do it all over again, in a heartbeat.