A visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is located on the edge of the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. The centre is only about 12 miles (20 kilometres) west of Sandakan and is easily accessible. This orangutan conservation facility aims to return orphaned, captive, injured or displaced apes to the wild.
Founded in 1964, the centre has since cared for over 700 orangutans. More than 80% have been successfully prepared for life in the wild and released back into the rainforest.
Orangutans are, unfortunately, an endangered species due to poaching and the destruction of their natural habitat. In the past, the facility also treated sun bears, elephants, Sumatran rhinos and gibbons. In the meantime, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) has moved, but is still located right next to the orangutan sanctuary. This gives you the chance to combine visits to both centres without any additional travel. Parts of the infrastructure are shared by the two rehabilitation facilities.
About 60 – 80 reintroduced animals live freely in the adjacent 16.5 sq. mi. (43 km²) of untouched forest. Roughly 25 other orangutans are housed at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, where they are being trained for life in the wild.
The rehabilitated apes are fed twice a day. There is not always enough fruit in the rainforest at all times of the year, so the animals need additional food. The apes also initially continue to be supported as necessary after being released into the wild. Visitors to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre can observe them from a viewing platform during feedings.
Feeding time: the best chance of seeing wild apes
Most areas of the facility are off-limits to visitors. It’s important to remember that this is not a zoo where the animals are kept in small enclosures – quite the contrary. Therefore, we recommend visiting Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center during feeding times, which are at 10 am and 3 pm. This is when you will have the best chance of seeing the apes in the flesh.
Plan to get there a bit earlier; after arriving at the facility, it takes a little time to get to the viewing platform. At the entrance, you’ll have to leave your backpack, as well as any food and drink you may have brought, in a locker and pay the entrance fee. From there, it is a short walk to the platform.
Since the orangutans might be there a bit before feeding time, we recommend being at the platform 20 – 30 minutes earlier. It is an impressive sight to see the big apes swinging through the treetops and climbing down to the feeding area. At first, you will only hear a rustling sound; then you will see reddish-brown fur shimmering through the dense rainforest. Soon after, you will see them shimmying from tree to tree, at no risk of falling, at a height of 30 – 40 metres. Unfortunately, taking pictures or filming them is difficult because the jungle is very dense, restricting visibility.
The primates enjoy the fruit, play with the ropes, and pose for photos on the ground. Individual animals also regularly come into the visitor areas and wander along the railing that runs along the wooden planks that make up the path. Therefore, be sure to pay attention to the rangers‘ instructions.
Indoor and outdoor nurseries: the rehabilitation facilities at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
After a baby is brought in, it is first kept in quarantine for a set period of time. During this time, the ape undergoes intensive medical examinations. New animals bringing in diseases is something that, of course, should be avoided at all costs.
Afterwards, the lengthy reintroduction program begins; indeed, this can take up to seven years. Secluded from visitors, the new arrivals are first nurtured in the indoor nursery, where they start to develop their instincts. These include climbing, nest-building and searching for food. The keepers support the animals and teach them how to climb, among other skills. The most important thing is, however, that the new arrivals learn typical orangutan behaviour from the older apes.
Once this period is over, the animals are moved to the outdoor nursery”. In 2014, a building was opened where you can observe the little ones in their playground. To ensure the protection of the animals, you will be sitting behind panes of glass, but there are stands with plenty of seats. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to take good pictures here.
The main focus of the outdoor nursery is to teach the orangutans their natural skills and develop the instincts they will need in order to survive in the wild. The keepers work with great dedication and perseverance to motivate the young, playful apes to climb.
However, contact with humans must be kept to a minimum, as the animals will later be released into the wild. And at that stage, it will be dangerous for them if they have a bond with and trust humans.
The last step of the rehabilitation program is for the orangutans to be released. All animals are therefore monitored closely. When the keepers feel that a particular ape is ready, it is released into the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve.
Getting to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Bus number 14 goes directly from Sandakan to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which is the final stop. Departures from Sandakan are at 9 am, 10:30 am, 11:30 am, 1 pm and 2 pm. The buses back leave at 10:30 am, 11:30 am, 12:30 am, 2 pm and 4 pm. Please be sure to double-check the departure times the day before you plan to take the bus. The ride costs MYR 4 per person and takes about 45 minutes.
Alternatively, you can take a cab from Sandakan to Sepilok. This costs about 35-45 MYR, and the driver will drop you off directly at the entrance to the rehabilitation facility.
If you want to travel to Sepilok by bus from Kota Kinabalu, you will have to take the bus to Sandakan. Tell the bus driver that you want to get off at Sepilok; they will drop you off at a roundabout about 1,500 – 2,000 metres away. You will then have to walk the rest of the way or arrange to be picked up by your accommodation provider. The trip takes about 5 hours.
The facility is open every day from 9 to 12 am (9-11 am on Fridays) and again from 2 to 4 pm. The entrance fee is 30 MYR.
Accommodation in Sepilok
Sepilok is a perfect base from which to visit other attractions around Sandakan. The orangutan and sun bear sanctuaries are right on the edge of the village, and a proboscis monkey facility is also not far away. Trips to Kinabatangan often pass through Sepilok as well.
There are a few smaller accommodation facilities in Sepilok, ranging from homestays to bungalows in upscale resorts. Sandakan is another nearby city where you can stay during your visit and use as a base for your trips. The choice of accommodation in Sandakan is much wider and the prices are usually a bit cheaper.
We highly recommend visiting the sanctuary because orangutans are rarely found in the wild. There’s also another reason why a trip to Sepilok is worthwhile: the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. You can perfectly combine visits to both centres in one day. Without a doubt, Sepilok is a place you should visit on your trip to Borneo because of these two facilities.
At the orangutan center, there are two daily feedings. If you didn’t get to see any apes during the first feeding, or if you’d simply like to see the animals again, you can come back in the afternoon; the ticket is valid for the whole day.
A camera costs 10 MYR. Some reports claim that a fee of 1,000 MYR is charged if you want to use long-focus lenses. We can’t confirm whether this is the case, but you should be aware of this potential risk if you do bring such equipment.
Check this out
There are various other Borneo highlights in Sepilok and the surrounding area. Have a look at these: