Near the town of Sandakan, Sabah lies the Sepilak Orangutan Sanctuary, a “must see” for families traveling with kids. This 43 sq. mi. rehabilitation reserve in lowland rainforest was established in 1964 as a refuge for orphaned and injured orangutans living only in Borneo’s wilderness or in Sumatra. Here, allowed to roam free, these lovable animals are protected from logging and hunters, and are trained to live in their natural surroundings. Over the last 20 years, orangutans have become an endangered species on their way to extinction with over 90% of their habitat having been destroyed by logging and deforestation in favor of palm oil plantations.
A visit to Sepilak starts wit a video detailing the plight of orangutans. The scenes of traumatized orangutans are heart wrenching, and the rehabilitation efforts of the sanctuary are uplifting! From here, a walk on a series of boardwalks leads to the orangutans’ natural habitat. The walk through the virgin rainforest with its dense undergrowth, its towering trees and the cries of animals and other jungle sounds is awesome. High up in the trees, we spotted a group of macaques and were reminded to hold fast to our bags and cameras and anything loose, as these monkeys are notorious thieves! The screeching birds, perhaps hornbills, accompanied us on our way to the viewing areas.
As these primates clamber toward the feeding area, swinging through the branches, their movement and noise herald their appearance. While the park rangers make their way to the feeding platform, the orangutans congregate in groups of two or three. Some come hand in hand and cling to each other. We are told that often the newer members of the group have a partner to guide them until they feel secure enough to venture out on their own.
From the viewing area, we watch as the rangers pour out fruit and milk and all hell breaks loose! The orangutans, who aren’t used to scavenging in the forest for their food, are fairly well-behaved, but the monkeys are comical in their antics as they try to steal the food. The shy orangutans, who run a constant battle to keep the monkeys away, are no match for these crafty thieves.
All this activity happens just in front of us, making not only for a spectacular show but endearing these charming and lovable creatures to all of us. These “orange men” (indeed, they are our closest relatives with 96% DNA of humans) are both lovely and lovable. Shy, rare, astoundingly gentle and solitary, orangutans made great fans of all the adults, and more so, made a grand and lasting impression on children, who were excited to see them at close quarters and were ready, on the spot, to join the “adopt an orangutan” program!