Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Borneo

Our next destination was the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, 30 kilometres from Sandakan. The entrance fee to the Centre was 30 ringgits (AUD$10) per person for foreigners, and was part of the tour cost.  You also have to pay a ‘camera fee’ of 10 ringgits for each camera you intend to use in the Centre. The Centre opens at 9am with the main tourist attraction ‘feeding time’ commencing at 10am.

The Centre was set up 50 years ago to rehabilitate orangutans who had been orphaned from hunting, logging, taken as pets or illegally traded. The orangutans are trained to survive in the wild and are allowed to leave the Centre when they choose to do so. This occurs as the Centre blends in with the rainforest and the orangutans, as they grow, can explore the wilderness and choose to stay there, until they are ready to leave though they can remain in the Centre.

From 9am visitors have access to the nursery and can watch the juvenile orangutans eat and play. The nursery is viewed through a large glass viewing area. We were very fortunate to see at least a dozen of them in the nursery who entertained us with their antics climbing and wrestling. These juvenile orangutans are orphans and are kept separate from the main Centre until they are old enough and able to look after themselves.

‘Feeding time’ of course is the most popular time for tourists at the Rehabilitation Centre and occurs twice a day at 10am and 3pm. The walk through the rainforest to the ‘feeding platform’ is on a wooden boardwalk that weaves through the trees. It is possible to see the orangutans here but the couple we saw were off in the distance and hard to see clearly. The viewing platform for the feeding is very large and there is a lot of space to view the orangutans. The food is meant to supplement their diet and not their sole source of food. Hence with about 70 orangutans in the Centre you will be lucky to see one or two of them come to feeding time. The food supplied is always the same and will become monotonous if an orangutan chooses to rely only on feeding time as their source of food. This encourages them to seek alternative food sources found in the rainforest and ensures they learn the skills to survive without feeding time.

When the food is placed on the feeding platform a hush descends on the gathered tourists. A quick look around and you will see a sea of expectant faces gazing intently at the canopy above and, of course, a wide and varied array of cameras are poised ………ready to shoot!!!!! There is, of course, no guarantee that an orangutan will actually come to feed and the guide did warn us not to be disappointed if none showed up.

The first sign you are going to be lucky is when one of the large ropes leading to the feeding platform starts to shake. When this happens you can see, and hear, the big sigh of relief among the numerous guides, the clients will not be disappointed. The rope shakes harder and harder as the orangutan emerges from the trees and climbs down to the platform. There is then an explosion of clicking as holiday snap after holiday snap is taken – all I can say is thank god for the delete button after such a clicking frenzy, and all this camera clicking mayhem without a Chinese tourist in sight!

The twenty minutes we were at the viewing platform three orangutans came to the feeding platform and all were mothers with young babies. The first to arrive actually came with a juvenile of about three years old and a tiny baby. When she left a second female with a baby came down but hardly stayed a few minutes and then left – sick of the same old menu probably!!

There was a lull for about 5 minutes before the third female came swinging down the rope directly above our heads. With this female we got the best view of simply how strong and human-like the orangutan is. Again, the female was carrying a small baby with her to feed. The guide said it is more common for mother apes to bring their offspring to feed than it is for a large male to come to the feeding platform.

The word orangutan literally means ‘man of the forest’ – it was easy to see why. The DNA of the Orangutan is nearly 97% the same as humans.

Di was sitting next to a professional photographer on the viewing platform and he said he gets his best shots when all the tourists leave – so perhaps if you are not on a tour and have time, let us tourist riff raff go and you may get the money shot!

After leaving the feeding platform, and I may add we were well satisfied seeing seven orangutans on the platform, we headed to a theatre at the Centre for a twenty minute documentary on the Centre and how it rehabilitates the orphans so they can fend for themselves. I guess this is a difficult task for the carers who become very attached to the baby orangutans only to have to eventually ween the baby from them so that it can return to the wild.

Currently, the biggest danger to the orangutan in the wild is the destruction of the rainforest by commercial logging and the palm oil industry.

It was now time to say goodbye to the lovely Jasmine and Jill as their part in the tour now ended and we wish them luck in their further travels. Our guide then came to us and said the other three people who had just joined us on the tour, Jane, Dominique and John all wanted to go and see the Sun Bears and fortunately the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre is right next door to the orangutan Centre – lucky that!!! This was not part of the tour and Di said ‘well if they are going, why not us to’, so off we went. Unbeknown to us, Jane et al, were having second thoughts about going but because they saw we went then they went too – just love communication – I was glad I went though.

Fortunately, it was also feeding time with the sun bears. To enter the Centre was again 30 Ringgits and 10 Ringgits for each camera – call it all a donation to a worthy cause. This centre was only opened in 2008 and the purpose is to rehabilitate orphaned and ex-captive bears back into the wild.

The sun bear is the smallest bear in the world. It is also known as a ‘Honey Bear’ and it is found throughout Borneo Malaysia and Indonesia – yep, these are the Winnie the Pooh bears! These bears also have the longest tongues of all the bears – honey is just that good! The sun bear is a keystone species and their loss can dramatically alter an ecosystem. Just like the orangutan, the sun bear is threatened by logging and the growth of the palm oil industry.

The biggest threat, though, is in the traditional medicine industry. The Chinese, in particular, use bile found in the bears to treat a long list of ailments, sore throats, sprains, fevers, etc. Thus commercial farming of them has occurred for many years in China, often in horrific conditions. It is a growing industry in Laos and Thailand with illegal ‘farming’ o the increase. Products made from the bile – along with other body parts like claws – are exported and sold illegally throughout South East Asia.

I was not aware of the poor little sun bear’s plight and it seems the more I travel the more I become dismayed at how careless and reckless some people of the world can be, not only to the planet itself, but to animals and to each other – I think I better tell my daughter, Charlotte, that I am beginning to see the world the way she does. It was time to leave the Sun Bear Centre and, I think, I was touched emotionally more with the dilemma facing the Sun Bears than I was with the orangutans – it’s good to learn something new.

I experienced WOW moments at both the Orangutan and Sun Bear Centres – that is why we travel.

Both the Centres have volunteer programs where travellers can come and work with the animals. I feel for a Gap Year or an end of school celebration, rather than going to Bali or Thailand to get drunk, coming and volunteering in Borneo would be so much more rewarding.

It was now time to eat and get to know our new travelling chums over a buffet lunch. John and Dominique are from London and have been travelling for over two months in Australia and New Zealand. John initially said they were going to travel for another few months in Asia, but as our discussion of where we have been tempted them with more must see places – The Philippines and Myanmar for example, their travels went from ending in June to July to August to the end of August to ‘well we will see’, Dom just laughed.

Jane is John’s sister and came out from England to travel through Borneo with John and Dom. Again, these three were half our age but we got on so well with them, even though John sadly supports Arsenal.

We were back in the minivan and a change of guide occurred. This guide, Jonathon, was one of the best guides we have encountered on our travels, definitely in the top three. We were now headed to the Kinabatangan River Lodge in the heart of the Borneo jungle. There we hoped to see orangutans and other exotic animals and birds in the wild. The river lodge is a two hour drive from Sepilok and we got to know Jane, Dom and John and their quirks much better during this time.

We arrived at the Kinabatangan River and gazed out at another swirling swollen brown flooded river – just right for Di to fall into!!

There was a lot of debris floating down the river and I made a joke about Di has a habit (okay once) of falling into such rivers. Jonathon replied, ‘I hope not, these are crocodile infested waters’. Well I thought if Di falls in the river again, ‘God help any crocodile that wants to take a bite out of her iPhone!!!!’

You will be pleased to note Di and her iPhone made it unscathed across the river to our next wow location the Kinabatangan River Lodge.

The adventure is continuing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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