Meeting our ‘ancestors’ is a must when you pay a visit to mysterious Borneo. Sharing over 90% of their DNA with humans, the orangutans, or ‘red apes’, are one of the most endangered species of the 13 types of primate found on the island.
Being able to spot one depends on your luck, but among the best places to see them in wild are Kinabatangan, Danum Valley and Tabin in Sabah (Malaysia), as well as various locations in Sarawak and Kalimantan, Indonesia.
As always, luck is non-guaranteed, so a chance to meet them up close and personal is rather slim. What’s more, the orangutan population is dwindling due to the many human threats and other natural causes.
In Sabah, one of the best spots to see orangutans is at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, located approximately 25 kilometres from Sandakan. It has been in operation since 1964 as a sanctuary and rehabilitation project that rescues orphaned baby orangutans from logging sites, plantations, illegal hunting operations and homes where they are illegally kept as pets.
Getting to Sepilok is not complex. There are morning flights that connect to Sandakan or a six-hour overland journey from Kota Kinabalu via public buses. There is accommodation in the form of jungle resorts with restaurants and other guest facilities that cater to tourists who would like to spend more time close to the reserve.
At the centre, on daily basis, visitors can watch video shows before feeding time at 10am or 3pm. After the presentation, a 10-minute rtek on a raised boardwalk leads to a large viewing platform surrounded by giant trees. Visitors are advised to remain in silence and not to approach any orangutan for fear of attack. A ranger at the feeding platform distributes fruit, such as bananas.
On most occasions, orangutans emerge from the jungle, gliding through tree branches and supporting ropes to reach their meals. Some of the most endearing sights are when a mother orangutan appears carrying a baby and vies for food among her peers. Visitors also have the the option of adopting orangutans and playing a part in their rehabilitation process.
Overall, it’s a great pleasure to see the animals’ hilarious behaviour during feeding time. Don’t be surprised to see long-tailed macaques join in the feast.
Back at the centre, both a cafeteria and a mini shop supply food and drinks. There is also gift shop for souvenirs.
While in Sandakan, not to be forgotten are additional tours to nearby Turtle Island and the Kinabatangan floodplain for wildlife sighting. Fancy an ecolodge stay? Sukau Rainforest Lodge on the Kinabatangan river recently completed a room makeover and then won the prestigious World Travel Awards 2010 under the category of Asia’s Leading Green Hotel. You can expect a greener way in wildlife viewing with silent electric motors used during the river cruises in search of indigenous proboscis monkeys, other wildlife like, if you are lucky, the pygmy elephants and – of course – the orangutans!