“ Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in the Malaysian Sabah District of North Borneo was founded in 1964, to rehabilitate orphan orang utans. The site is 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Today around 60 to 80 orang utans are living free in the reserve. „
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I travelled to Borneo in October 2006. I chose this destination as I am fascinated by animals and this country seemed to offer lots of wildlife trips. Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre was one of the trips I took part in.
Where Is It?
Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre is in a place called Sepilok which is in the Sabah District of Borneo. We had this trip included as part of a three day excursion so all our travel was arranged for us. I think most people that visit this centre do it on some kind of excursion so travel arrangements shouldn't really be a problem
The Rehabilitation Centre consists of 43 square kilometres of the Kabil Sepilok Forest Reserve. This land is protected and there are between 60 and 80 orang-utans which live wildly and free within the reserve.
The Rehabilitation Centre was set up to rehabilitate orphaned and injured orang-utans. The Centre provides medical care for orang-utans as well as rehabilitating them back into the wild where they belong. People in Malaysia can keep orang-utans as pets which is illegal and often results in the young orang-utan becoming malnourished due to incorrect diet and care. The Rehabilitation Centre also rescue orang-utans that are being kept as pets, and nurse them back to help.
I am unable to give an actually price for doing this trip alone as we did this trip as part of a three day excursion which was included in our package holiday. I paid £860 for a 15 night trip which included the
When we arrived at Sepilok, we were told that we would need to pay a 'camera fee' which basically means we got charged for taking our cameras into the centre. We paid 10 ringets which is about £1.40 for each camera which I didn't think was too bad and it meant we could take all the pictures we wanted, plus all the money goes towards the Rehabilitation Centre.
The Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre
The Centre consists of a nursery, a medical and quarantine centre and feeding platforms.
Normally this is not open to the public but we were extremely fortunate to be allowed inside here. Normally the only section open to tourists is where you can go onto the feeding platforms and watch the orang-utans being fed. However, the day before we arrived at the Centre, there had been a large storm which had destroyed the feeding platform. Not wanting to let down their visitors, they opened the Nursery to us.
The Nursery is a fairly large area of land which consists of quite a few trees, with various ropes tied between the trees and also a large wooden platform which is at the base of a large group of trees. The Nursery section of the centre is based around rehabilitating the younger orang-utans.
Quite often, this orang-utans have had no parents to look after then, so their skills are very limited. They need to be taught how to climb so that when they are released into the Forest, they will be able to fend for themselves. The centre pair up the younger orang-utans with slightly older ones to enable the youngsters to copy the older apes and learn how to climb. There is a nursery assistant (a person, not an orang-utan) that sits on the wooden platform and encourages the baby to attempt to climb between the trees and the ropes. Sometimes the babies are extremely reluctant to even attempt climbing and we could see a young orang-utan that kept going back to the nursery assistant and trying to cuddle him because he was scared about climbing. The nursery assistant kept walking the baby back to the ropes and encouraging him to climb.
The Centre focuses on these animals being as wild as possible so they try and limit the amount of human contact they have, but to a certain extent the keeper's become a surrogate Mum for the babies while before they are released.
As I already said, we were very privileged to have seen this section as it is not normally open to the public. We were allowed to watch the orang-utans from around 30 feet away and got lots of chances to take some photos. We were sort of left to our own devices here, the area we were allowed in was cordoned off to make sure no visitors got too close to the orang-utans.
We had chance to witness the orang-utans learning to climb, interacting with other apes and we also saw the keeper showing the orang-utans how to climb.
The Feeding Platform
Although we were actually unable to see this part due to the large storm, I will still give you a brief outline of this as this is the area where all tourists will be taken to.
As part of the Rehabilitation scheme, feeding platforms are erected at various stages throughout the Sepilok reserve. This is so that when orang-utans are first released back into the wild, the have stages where they can come back to and feed while they are still learning to fend for themselves in the protected forest.
At set times throughout the day, the keepers take groups of tourists to the feeding platform which is laden with food for the orang-utans to help themselves to. You are not actually allowed to feed the orang-utans yourself as human contact is kept to a minimum at this stage of Rehabilitation but you can get extremely close to the Oran tangs and watch these beautiful creatures feeding in their natural environment.
My parents have also taken part in this trip (although it was 3 years ago) and they really enjoyed this section as basically the orang-utans are verging on wild by this point and I can imagine it must be incredible to get this close to nature and observe it.
The Rehabilitation Centre had a large cinema area which could seat about 100 people. In here, we were shown a video about the work that happens at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre. The video lasts about 30 minutes and I found it very interesting, as we got to see a side of the Rehabilitation Centre that we didn't get to see on our tour.
The Gift Shop
Although the gift shop was small, it was full of lovely souvenirs and the best bit was that all the money spent in the shop, went towards the Rehabilitation Centre. There were many items such as teddies, painting, bookmarks etc and they were all reasonably priced.
There was a fairly large restaurant at Sepilok which was laid out more like a café and served hot and cold drinks, ice creams, snack foods such as sandwiches, pizzas and omelettes.
The prices were very reasonable, we bought 2 milkshakes and a sandwich each (for 2 people) and the total cost was less than £3 which I considered to be good value as many places like this bump up the prices of their food and drinks as there are no other facilities for you to get something to eat.
If you are going to Borneo then I would 100% recommend this trip. I felt that we were really privileged to have got this close to such beautiful animals and see the fantastic work that the keepers carry out at the Centre. Although this trip can only be done on o tour, the tours were very well organised and you were not rushed which meant we could spend as much time as we wanted observing the orang-utans. All the money you pay for the trip and any money you spend while you are there goes towards the centre so it is all money well spent.
Back in England, one week before our wedding and impending subsequent departure to the other side of the world, I decided somewhat foolishly you might think, to carefully read some of the literature sent by Kuoni, our Tour Operator, about the items we should take with us and the health requirements when we visit the Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary in the Sabah region of Borneo.
I already knew intimately well about the extra costs of the recommended injections, we'd been regular visitors to GP clinics to receive our Hepatitis A and B, Tetanus booster, and Typhoid jabs - some of these injections clearly being so complicated that the scientists haven't figure out how to put them into just one dose, so you have to keep going back over a 3 week period whilst a nurse stabs needles in you.
On one long and despondent day, I left with two small holes in my left arm and two in my right. Driving home is challenging when your arms refuse to lift over 45 degrees away from your torso.
These injections were nothing however. Literally nothing.
My National Insurance contributions over the years had supported the NHS sufficiently well for them to feel generous enough to not charge me for the privilege of being a human pin cushion. 10 gratis injections in 3 weeks, all courtesy of 1950's MP Nye Bevan.
Sadly for my battered Maestro card, the NHS point blank refuses to stump up for the Rabies course, and these three injections would involve an extra expenditure of £70 each.
That's £70 for each person, and for each of the 3 injections, delivered with a cup of Lapsang Souchong in the sort of surroundings that only private doctor's practices can afford.
Our contributions, I believe, went to the 2010 subscription to Home and Country Magazine.
£420 of invisible spending pain, notwithstanding the £200 Malaria prescription or the £400 we'd already added to the cost of our trip simply by adding our day long jaunt to see the 'Man of the Forest' followed by a shopping trip to ensure we wouldn't be turned away at the Orang-Utan Sanctuary gates for being under dressed and under prepared.
As day trips go, this one was working out to be quite pricey, and we hadn't even got there yet.
On our list of essentials, as well as a request to wear neutral colours was,
A Bag (Assuming here that they mean a plastic carrier bag immediately reveals your true social status - they mean one with zips and preferably extraneous rubbery cord bits on the pockets)
Insect repellent. (Only England has mini-insects. Insects in Borneo arrive with their own Dambusters theme tune).
Sun Cream. (For the girls)
Camera. (Or brass rubbing set)
Rain Coat. (Like Caravanists, We purchased Pac-a-Mac's. I was sorely disappointed not to be able to find an adult sized Maccapacca Pac-a-Mac, and had to settle for a green one from Black's for £30 instead.)
Hat (Essentially, anything goes. There are no further guidelines provided and it took some persuasion to make me put the Fez down)
Suitable Walking Shoes (Velcro strappy sandals I deemed suitable to walk in)
And finally a Change of clothing for when things got just a little too exciting and self containment was relinquished, or sweat pong overpowered everyone around you.
Fortunately most of this list was already included in our packing plans, apart from the Pac-a-Mac's - an item I honestly believed I'd left behind when I graduated from the Cubs to the Pubs.
Bloodstream boosted and bags bulging, we were finally ready for the Monkeys. And Apes. But no snakes please.
Since Palm Oil has become the new Black Gold, and Malaysia provides around 85% of the worlds supply, Borneo has been somewhat forced to turn to the very 'On-Trend' Eco-Tourism trail to make the unspoilt Rainforest area a more valuable cash asset than the very spoilt palm plantations that are being carved out of the habitat at a rate that is so fast that the world media has had to turn to the unit of 'football pitches' to describe.
It's a new industry, and has some way to go if it wants to generate a comparable income for the tax-friendly governments.
Our Eco-Tourist experience would probably have choked Al Gore at breakfast, as at 6am we stepped off our private 24-seater coach at Kinabalu airport, and saw another couple from our Hotel, stepping off their private 24-seater coach, and off we went to catch our half-empty Boeing 737 for the 45 minute flight to Sepilok.
Sepilok Airport is one of those brilliantly tiny airports that reaffirm your faith in the practical uses for Portacabins, and still manages to house all the required elements of a successful airport like controlling of passports and belts for bags.
Outside the Airport we were met by a Volunteer Ranger from the Rehabilitation Centre who explained that our itinerary for the day would be to attend the 10am feeding session, and then it would be off for a buffet lunch and finally a visit to a Buddhist temple before being taken back to the airport to catch our return flight.
Pulling up to the rehabilitation centre after about an hours transfer from the airport, we were immediately instructed to enter the area they call the "Cinema Room" to watch a 30 minute presentation by another Volunteer, this time, a timid student type from the British Charity 'Orang-utan Appeal UK' who spoke at length about the 43km2 Sepilok reserve and the type of work that is carried out in the region.
The majority of the Orang-utans in the centre start out as either orphaned or rescued from being kept as pets and depending on their age and condition, spend an initial period of time in quarantine, before being put into classes and taught how to care for themselves once again.
We then watched a DVD which gave us the benefit of all the information we'd just listened to, only we could also purchase the DVD if we felt like supporting the centre. There were also T-shirts, and a Sponsor-Your-Own-Ape program which seemed to involve getting a baby orang-utan to become your pen pal.
During the video, the room slowly started to fill with fellow eco-types and our intimate encounter with these creatures was starting to feel a bit less intimate and a smidgen more tourist treadmill.
Standing in our carefully chosen Jungle outfits and looking around our fellow Attenborough wannabees, it became apparent that either not everyone had been privy to or not everyone had heeded the advice that we'd been given. There was one woman who clearly never seen any of the Predator films and had chosen to try and blend into the bushes wearing a day-glo cagoule. And the man in the muscle vest was just asking for trouble.
Before we were allowed to start walking along the specially built walkway out to the feeding platform, we were then told about all the things we weren't allowed to take in with us.
Banned Items were:
Bags (regardless of the fact you only brought one because they told you to)
Sun cream (put it in your banned bag)
Insect Repellent (put it in your banned bag)
Add to the fact it wasn't raining, so Pac-a-Macs were still Packed up, and the hat was just making me sweat, and we had had to buy a 10RMB license to bring our camera into the centre, we were glad to see we'd been carefully informed back in the U.K.
A short walk over the elevated platforms, our group, which by now had swelled to around 50 people, joined another group who had already been waiting on one of two huge viewing platforms, and all together there must have been over 100 people all waiting, some patiently, and some irritatingly chattily, for the Man of the Forest to make his appearance.
Regard! A ranger climbing onto a wooden platform some 50 metres away, with a red bucket full of bananas and a blue bucket full of milk, and the ropes that are stretched out between the trees begin to rustle and shake as the first adult sized Orang-utan swings into view, slowly collects a bit of fruit and then sits, perfectly placed, behind a tree stump so that all we can see is a hairy ginger elbow.
Orang-utans are genetically 96.4% the same as us Humans, or 99.9% the same as 3rd generation ginger Welsh Farmers, and are renowned for their high levels of intelligence.
This was ably demonstrated by the detail that they appeared to be fully aware of the 'ooh', 'Aah' and clicking camera shutter sound effects coming from the crowd of people every time they turned around to offer a glimpse of face.
Subsequently, it seems they've learned that they can get more peace and quiet if they just don't look at the people, which dearly upset some of the neon brigade.
The feeding session lasts for a total of 45 minutes, and we saw 5 different adult Orang-utans and one baby, all educated in the ways of being not massively entertaining, and just sort of sitting and not doing too much.
I did start to hum Hoppipolla by Sigur Ros to remind myself I wasn't actually just at Chester Zoo as the encounter didn't feel all that special, thanks mostly to the crowds of nattering Australians.
Soon it was time to leave the platform, and we were taken through the obligatory gift shop - which was much smaller than I'd expected given the numbers of people attracted - and off for the lunch and time-filling Buddhist temple.
When you've spent 10 days in China, exploring monasteries and temples of the highest orders, a simple Buddhist temple on a hill loses its wow-factor in comparison and so I resorted to taking photos of the garden, where they'd planted shrubs in the shape of a massive swastika, just to show the Nazis who's really boss.
For our full day excursion, we'd actually only been in the rehab centre for a total of around 2 hours before being whisked away for lunch, including the 60 minutes of indoctrination before we entered, which we felt wasn't really long enough considering the other activities like the elevated jungle walks, baby Orang-Utan Nursery (not open to Joe Public) and café that was also on the site
Had our experience of the Orang-utans ended at the Sepilok Rehab centre, there would be the possibility that I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it.
However, on our flight back to Kinabalu, we heard about the stage two rehabilitation centre that was housed in the grounds of the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Hotel, the sister accommodation to our own Hotel.
For 10RMB (£2) each we could jump aboard the hotel shuttle coach and be taken for the 45 minute journey for a second encounter, and this time the entry fee was a much more reasonable 60RMB (£12).
The video was the same and the rules about clothing and baggage was the same, but this is pretty much where the similarities ended.
The Rasa Ria centre works in conjunction with the Sepilok reserve, caring for just a handful of Orang-utans, and prepare to collectively exhale an 'Aaaah', they are all aged between 4 and 6 years of age.
The premise is the same, where a group are taken to a platform to watch one of the 2 feeding sessions in the day - we went again to the 10am session - but our group on this occasion started out at about 30, and that quickly dwindled when a collection of Russians quickly got bored and left, leaving only 10 of us to watch the much more active and mischievous Orang-utans fling themselves from tree branch to tree branch, occasionally missing their targets and resulting in a crunch of undergrowth, before they would re-appear and play fight with one another no more than 5 or 6 feet away from us.
Sporadically, one wayward youth would try and climb into the platform with us, leaving the fellow tourists literally queuing up to have their legs groped, whilst at the same time trying to look reluctant and disapproving at anyone who is being seen trying to encourage them.
One young girl of about 11 years of age, along with her sister and parents, managed to park herself directly in front of one of the most mischievous apes, paused silently for a brief moment, before the Orang-utan came in for a giant furry hug, and prompted her to release an almighty screech that did nothing at all to remove her from her new huggable friends grasp.
She seemed deeply traumatised by the experience, but her parents and the Rangers were undeniably highly amused.
The Rasa Ria experience was more entertaining than the one at Sepilok - not just because the travelling, costs and groups involved were a fraction in comparison, but mostly because the Orang-utans are younger and more lively, and therefore they do more memorable and funny things than the Adults at Sepilok, who are just happy to be fed and need little more in the way of stimulation.
We were delighted to have seen both the adults and youths of the endangered species, and especially to have seen them in their natural habitat, without a concrete moat in sight, but had we known how tremendous the Rasa Ria would be before we set out from the UK, we probably wouldn't have paid the extra for the Sepilok encounter.
Overall, if I had the choice again I'd do both, but if I had to do just one, the Rasa Ria would win out every time.
I first went here a couple of years ago, and will be going back later on this year. My dad lives near Kota Kinabalu and we drove to Sandakan where this centre is, it was a VERY long drive but totally worth it. I was quite surprised that you can only see the orangutans at set "feeding times", which there is one in the morning and one in the afternoon, for about 45 minutes each time. You get to stand on a viewing platform and watch the orangutans come for their food, which was milk and bananas! It was amazing to see these beautiful creatures in the flesh, and they swing on ropes to the feeding platform and a lot of them stopped halfway to look at all the people that had come to have a look at them! You have to pay to take your camera in - its not much but its worth it as I got some great pictures. Once the feeding is over there is plenty of other things to keep you occupied. Theres a couple of trails that you can walk through the jungle, exhibitions to look at and a gift shop where you can buy lovely things to remind you of your visit there. You can even set up a donation to adopt one of the orangutans. If you like these creatures then there is no better place to go to see them in their natural habitat.