This was an amazing adventure within the region of Sabah in Malaysia with my twin for our 50th birthday (an early present as we probably won’t see each other in December). We saw the famous Orangutan, went on a Canopy walk in the middle of the jungle, explored Gomantung Cave and cruised along the Kinabatangan River, seeing lots of wildlife and making memories that will last forever. It was one of the best holidays I have experienced for wildlife.
After nearly a full day travelling to get to somewhere actually quite close (unfriendly flight schedules) we arrived at Sandakan airport and met for a transfer to Sepilok Jungle Resort which was enclosed within a tropical virgin rainforest and just 5 minute walk from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
It was an escape to a paradise of nature, the Borneo Rainforest in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia. Its beautiful landscaped gardens and wide expanse of lush jungle does transport you back in time…mainly to the 1960s when you see the facilities in the bathroom of the ‘deluxe’ rooms…but this is the jungle and not a city. The rooms were basic and a bit tired and worn (e.g. ripped bed head) and the food was ok from a limited selection and a buffet breakfast.
Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sepilok (admission RM30 – ours was included)
After breakfast our guide, Elod, picked us up in the people carrier. We had packed wraps and jumpers prepared for a long air conditioned journey into the jungle. 5 minutes later we arrived down the road at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. We could have walked and indeed opted to do that on the way back.
Deep in the heart of Borneo’s mystical and magical rainforest lives the largest tree going animal on the planet. The people of Borneo gave them the name Orang-utan simply meaning ‘Man of the Forest’. They are the world’s second largest ape with remarkable intelligence sharing 96.4% of a human’s DNA. With and arm span of up to 8 feet across and hips that seem to defy flexibility as we know it, the orangutan can cross the rainforest easily. Adult male orangutans have four times the strength of a human. Dominate males are distinguished by enormous cheek flanges and are usually seen at the top of trees searching for a mate who are few and far between and one of nature’s slowest breeding animals with females often only producing two or three offspring in her lifetime.
Babies without their mother are unable to survive and face death. Sabah Wildlife Dept teamed up with the UK charity Orangutan Appeal UK to save hundreds of orphans with the hope of giving them a second chance in the wild. (Orangutan Appeal UK strives to protect remaining wild populations of orangutans by providing support and funding for projects across Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo; and by raising awareness of the plight of this great ape across the globe.)
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in the Malaysian Sabah District of North Borneo was founded in 1964, to rehabilitate orphan orangutans. The site is 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Today around 60 to 80 orangutans are living free in the reserve and around 25 young orphaned orangutans are housed in the nurseries, in addition to those free in the reserve. n July 2016 the IUCN reclassified the status of the Bornean Orangutan to Critically Endangered. This means they are close to becoming extinct in the wild.
Over the years the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre has helped hundreds of orphans and displaced orangutans back into the wild. The rehabilitation process was created as a halfway house between nature and man to enable to ensure their survival. Rescued babies are first placed in quarantine to avoid the spread of disease and to closely monitor health. Some of the babies may have had a very short time with their mothers so the centre provides the necessary diet to enable their growth and survival. The orangutans are given the best possible care throughout their rehabilitation and undergo a weekly health check as baby orangutans are particularly susceptible to bacterial infections, giving them diarrhoea and dehydration.
After quarantine the baby orangutans are transferred to the indoor nursery which is safety enclosed at night but during the day they are taken out to large exercise areas. Here they mix with other orangutans and learn skills they need to survive independently the forest (which would have been taught by their mothers for up to 8 years in the wild). The most important are climbing and foraging and learning what they can and cannot eat. It is a steep learning curve and the centre encourages a buddy system with an older orangutan to learn vital skills.
The next stage of rehabilitation is being released into the outdoor nursery. The rangers maintain a strict ‘hands off’ approach and let the orangutans explore the nearby forest and fight their own battles when challenged by other orangutans. Rangers keep the orangutans off the ground as in the wild this is where disease and predators lurk. As they become more independent and confident food is moved to other platforms gradually encouraging them to live deeper into the reserve.
As we arrived at the outdoor nursery a young orangutan was climbing down from its nest just outside the centre in the treetop canopy. It was so special to see.
Eventually food and emotional support is reduced so they have to rely on their climbing skills and natural instinct. They leave their playmates in the outdoor nursery and begin sleeping in the forest, building nests each evening. It may be many weeks before they make their way to the main feeding platform at the edge of the reserve where the orphans foraging skills will be put to the test. Orangutans are solitary in the wild and usually only come together for mating or when a large tree is in fruit. They are primarily vegetarian with a diet of over 200 types of food including fruit, leaves and bark. Some orphans return to the platform for food for the rest of their lives whereas others never need to come back. Rehabilitated mothers who now have babies are also able to come to the platform for additional food to supplement her diet with essential vitamin and minerals. Orangutans also learn to deal with other animals in the forest who try to raid their food.
There are currently 1000 orangutans living in the rainforest around Sabah. They used to be able to cross the whole of Borneo in the jungle but today it is only the Government protected rainforests that survive – the rest being obliterated by palm oil plantations (Borneo produces 90% of the world’s palm oil). Fully rehabilitated orangutans are released into the wild in these protected areas. The orangutan is suffering from humans taking over most of their land.
It was an amazing experience and whilst orangutan spotting in the afternoon one climbed down from the forest canopy and walked along the boardwalk we were on. We were so lucky.
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (‘BSBCC’)(admission RM30 – ours was included)
The BSBCC is in the same area as the Orngutan rehabilitation Centre – it’s a short walk away. Sun Bears (aka Honey Bears) are the smallest bears in the world. Their favourite food are honey, fruits and termites and they are expert climbers and make nests in trees. Each individual has its own chest mark that gives them their name. There were a few sun bears around when we arrived, foraging for food and we spotted some walking along huge fallen trees back into the jungle.
Sun bears survival is threatened by habitat loss, illegal hunting and through killing and capture for the illegal pet trade. In Sabah, sun bears are Totally Protected Species under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997. They are classified as ‘vulnerable’ in the wild as the global population is estimated to have declined by at least 30% over the last 30 years. The BSBCC was established in 2008 to give captive bears a better future through rehabilitation, education and research. Once sun bears have adapted in their forest enclosures they are released back into the wild. They currently house 40 rescued sun bears in the forest enclosures and quarantine houses.
Rainforest Discovery Centre
After lunch we went to the Rainforest Discovery Centre which is used by the locals as a park and picnic area. It was raining – a lot. It is located within the famous Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. The Exhibition Centre and the Plant Discovery Centre have a lot of information about the nature in the area. We walked on a suspension bridge and Canopy Walk standing on 28m above the forest floor, which was amazing.
It was the end of a beautiful day seeing wonderful animals in their natural habitats. A truly unforgettable experience.
More to follow in part 2 of Beautiful Borneo.