Sepilok is the last chance saloon for tourists who didn’t luck out on orangutan sightings in the wild. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center has been so successful, it has spawned a couple of welcome copycat centers for sun bears and proboscis monkeys. Let’s not forget the trees and plants either: the Rainforest Discovery Center (RDC) has some terrific jungle canopy walkways, towers, and exhibition centers to give you a gentle but exhilarating introduction to rainforest flora. The patient amateur David Attenborough also has a good chance of seeing cool birdlife. If your luck is really in, then you may even see some of our closest animal cousins.
Surprise Orangutans at the Rainforest Discovery Centre
We stayed two nights in Sepilok, and on the first night we opted to visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre. If you want to see animals, then visit early morning or late afternoon. We headed straight for the canopy walkway in the afternoon. It gets you up to 15m or so. The jungle is surprisingly pleasant here but we saw no beasties apart from a giant tree squirrel.
We dropped off the canopy and headed for the Hornbill Tower. At 27m, it is the highest viewing platform in the park. We were the only people there and the park was absolutely still and silent except for distant bird song. We saw no animals at first, but intriguingly below us there was some movement in the trees. We carried on watching. A couple of times, something strong pulled at the trees. Could it be an orangutan? We patiently watched. And, watched. And, watched.
Finally, we got a glimpse of an auburn shaggy haired orangutan. It was swinging through the bushes gobbling down lots of tasty fruit and leaves. Understandably, it mainly stayed under the canopy to keep out of the punishing sun light. But, hey, what’s that to the side of the orangutan? Another one! Even better, it was a baby! Its tiny spiky haired head occasionally popped out above the trees. Very cute.
After watching for 30 minutes or so, we realized that the mother and baby were in a tree right over the trail back to the park center. We dropped down from the tower and went to look at the beasties from below. Wow! This was even more amazing since there was little foliage between us and the orangutans. They were only 5m above us. They didn’t seem perturbed by our presence so we watched them for another half hour. Once in a while, the baby broke off a branch and tossed it at us. More playful than aggressive. Baby liked showing off its gymnastic skills too. Often, it clung to a branch and swung upside down from its feet. More cuteness!
It was so quiet we could hear the mother crunching on crisp leaves. An orangutan can eat a lot in one sitting. Eventually, we moved on and they swung away through the jungle.
We knew there was a fair chance we would see orangutans in Sepilok. But, we didn’t reckon on a wild sighting not far from the Rehabilitation Center.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
Young orangutans at Sepilok.
After yesterday’s private audience with orangutans, we knew that it would be more like orangutan Disney style at the Sepilok Rehab Center. But, orangutans are cute and very entertaining so it’s hard to be too sniffy. What’s more, this is one place where you know your tourist dollars are doing only good. The Center has a terrific record of rehabilitating abused, abandoned, and injured apes.
There are two main viewing areas. The main area has a feeding platform, where fruit is placed out for orangutans who have finished their rehab but still need a bit of a dietary boost. Sightings are not guaranteed, but apes turned up both times we visited. The feeding times are 10am and 3pm.
The other viewing area is the enclosed space for young apes still in training. Since many of the apes arrive at the Center without their mother, the Center’s staff have to teach them everything a mother would before releasing them into the wild. This is an intense training regimen since orangutan babies stay with their mothers for 7-10 years.
Orangutans in the wild are typically solitary beasts. They rarely gather in groups, although they occasionally meet up at fruit trees. To see the babies gamboling with their buddies is undeniably one of the cutest things you will ever see. It is not typical of wild animals though.
It is wonderful to watch the babes put into practice what they have learnt from their surrogate human parents. Of course, mishaps happen. Orangutans fall off climbing ropes or mistime leaps from the platform to trees.
The behavior of adult apes on the main platform is altogether different. Traditional hierarchy is more in evidence. Certain dominant apes rule the roost. The animals barely acknowledge or communicate with others. When a big animal arrives, smaller apes move away fast.
One male seemed to delight in gymnastic performance. He hung upside down from a rope and spun himself around and around. On two occasions, mothers turned up with babies. The first baby was tiny and clung to mother’s fur with his tiny hands. The second baby was more advanced in years. He looked a scrawny little runt but was already moderately independent. He grabbed his own fruit and ran up a rope to eat it in peace.
As we wandered out, we caught up with an orangutan walking on the walkway railing following a Ranger back to base. Again, super cute!
As we left the walkway, we heard some strange noises from behind a bush. In the adjacent field was four baby Pygmy Elephants, one of which was covered in hair like a little woolly mammoth. Apparently the Center is looking after the elephants while a decision is made on opening a rehab center for the elephants. It’s sad that so many animals are pushed to this but at least there are loving humans and decent benefactors out there willing to give them a chance to live out their lives in the wild. We even saw the logo of Woodland Park Zoo, our local conservation zoo in Seattle. They support the sun bear center.
Later in the day, while supping down cocktails, we overheard a group talking about the possibility of a Malay Tiger sanctuary being created. There are only 300 left in the wild. Recently, six of these beautiful animals were found butchered in separate incidents. It seems that humanity is hell bent on having a world populated by ugly humans only. What a sad f#@king place that would be.
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
A show-off sun bear at the Sepilok sanctuary.
A few years ago, a Malaysian benefactor opened up a Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center in Sepilok next to the orangutan place. Unbelievably, sun bears are often taken in as pets when they are small. Obviously, they get big. And, although they are the world’s smallest bear, I can imagine a fully grown one is a handful! More cruelly, in China and Vietnam, sun bears are kept in captivity to drain bile off their gall bladder for some spurious cure for some dumb shit. A fucking disgrace! Manta rays, sharks, sun bears, rhinos and tigers could all be soon extinct so that a small amount of dumb people can NOT get cured of their erectile dysfunction or whatever.
The center is well set out with a couple of walkways over the compound. Like the orangutan center, the sun bear staff feed the bears a couple of times a day. This brings in the bears to areas where the public can see them. Sun bears are extraordinarily cute!
One of the bears was a pet before being rescued. He was used to getting a lot of human attention. Once he got to the Center, he got less attention and missed it. To get the staff to pay him more attention, he started to scratch himself and rip his skin. He was certainly the biggest show-off of the group. At one point, he climbed up a tree and tore off strips of bark. Every few minutes he swung round as if to check he still had an audience. Sadly, this attention is doing him a disservice. He will be in the Center longer since he cannot wean himself off people!!
Make sure you visit the sun bears when you are in Sepilok. They are not quite as charismatic as the shaggy apes next door but they will appreciate your love, and the dollars, just as much.
Sepilok. The feel good capital of Southeast Asia? Almost definitely. Almost every kilometer you drive in Sabah, you will be reminded of man’s idiocy. The sheer ugliness of palm oil monoculture that is destroying the natural habitats of some of the world’s most amazing animals.
Supporting the orangutan and sun bear centers won’t bring back the forests, but at least it brings awareness to the problem at hand. I am convinced that if tourists stop coming, then Sabah will turn into Palm Oil, Inc, and the forests and animals will disappear. We are probably going to witness the demise of the rhinos and tigers in our lifetime. But, there is still a chance for many other species whose numbers are greater.