A Day at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
BORNEO, INDONESIA- The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is located on the outskirts of the town of Sandakan, a taxi drive far enough that it’s a stretch to associate it with Sandakan but close enough that a public bus runs back to the town every day. It’s nestled on a tree-lined road off the main drag which immediately puts you at peace and has you thinking that, well, this road would make a great place for a wildlife sanctuary.
There isn’t a place you can go on the island of Borneo where the jungle doesn’t seem to be creeping in on man’s territory, yet Sepilok straddles that line in the opposite fashion; it’s man that seems to be encroaching on the jungle. It’s an encroachment that makes you feel at ease though, a subtle reckoning of humanity’s attempt to reconcile with the jungle for the damage that’s been caused elsewhere on the island. With only 20% of the rainforest left, the wildlife that calls the rainforest home is gravely endangered, not the least of which is the primate purported to be our closest living relative: the orangutan.
At 11,000 acres, it’s difficult to class the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center as man-made. It blends seamlessly into the surrounding tropical landscape, and there are no enclosures of any kind forcing the orangutans to stay within the grounds. The one exception to this however, is the nursery, where the baby orangutans are nursed back to health by the staff. Orangutans rely on their mothers for sustenance for the first seven years of their lives, the longest such duration of any animal on earth (save for humans), and when a young orangutan is separated from it’s mother it stands virtually no chance of survival on it’s own. When a baby orangutan is discovered, the experts at Sepilok are called and take the child under their care, teaching it to find food in the wild, climb trees, and be able to fend for them in the wild.
There is a 10:30 feeding session, which at first seems contradictory to the mission: don’t they support orangutans sustaining themselves without any assistance from the Rehabilitation Center? It turns out however, that it’s primarily mothers with young children who attend the feeding sessions: the banana handouts supplement the diets of the young ones and ensure they have enough nutritional supplements to survive. The orangutan population is so critically endangered that they need to take whatever steps they can to ensure that they’re fed and can live on into another generation.
A man in tall, rubber Wellington boots climbs the stairs the a small wooden platform, to which a series of ropes stretch outwards in all directions into the depths of the jungle. Soon, these ropes begin to move and a steady stream of orangutans slowly climb their way towards the feeding platform. Numbering about a half dozen at any given time, they’re mostly mothers with small children and adolescents, one of whom resembles a Neolithic caveman: scrawny with a sinewy frame and matted hair covering its entire body. The orangutans eat in harmony with the long-tailed macaques that have come to pilfer whatever food they can get their hands on, and the crowd oohs and aahs, straining to get a photograph of this endangered novelty.
It always amazes me how people will strangle each other to get the “perfect shot” on a small, handheld digital camera, which, once obtained, makes the experience they are photographing worthwhile. Once a picture is taken that can prove what they’ve done and where they’ve been, they seem to have had their fill and are quite willing to move along. Rare are the spectators for an event such as the orangutan feeding that put the camera aside and simply watch what is happening in front of them. Once the hordes have their souvenir photos, they move along to the next phase of the guided tour, but those that remain behind are left with an experience that wouldn’t have been possible with 100 people pushing and shoving to get a photograph of what happened.
An adolescent orangutan begins to climb a rope high in the trees, moving in the direction of the viewing platform, and about a half-dozen of us are left to crane our necks skyward and watch with baited breath as it approaches ever closer. The orangutan is about 50 horizontal feet away when it begins to descend a tree, coming closer towards us. The small group is standing behind a wooden barrier that separates the viewing enclosure from the jungle, in which the eating platform is set about 100 feet back. It’s this wooden barrier that the orangutan starts walking across, right towards us…right towards us…until it is walking right past us, not 4 feet away from where I stand. An adolescent orangutan, up close and personal. I stared in wonder as I held my phone in front of me and held down the button, taking 15 pictures in succession.
It never ceased to amaze me how human-like orangutans look up close. Their opposable thumbs are massive, and it’s obvious why they’re such skilled climbers. Sure, they have a bit of a chimp waddle, but the way they comport themselves is eerily human-like. When you look into an orangutan’s eyes, you can tell there is something going on in their brain; they lack the absentminded, limbic reflexes that we associate with most members of the animal kingdom. Orangutans are decidedly related to us, however much of a stretch the actual relation may be. This makes it all the more heart-breaking that we’re destroying their habitats and pushing them closer and closer to extinction.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is not perfect—no organization associated with animal care can be—but it’s as close to perfect as an organization like this can get. They teach baby orangutans how to fend for themselves, raising them like children until they have acquired the skills to be released into the wild. Mothers with young are cared for if they need anything, and all except the smallest of apes are free to roam the 11,000 acre reserve at any time should they choose to do so. It’s not an enclosed space, and the animals aren’t forced or caged outside of the youngest ones, who would die on their own in the wild.
There is a long hiking path about 5 miles long that you can trek to bird-watch and keep an eye out for orangutans. I’d recommend dressing for a fairly tedious bush-hike if you’re going to the sanctuary—during our visit we failed to do so and missed out on a great opportunity to go deeper into the Borneo wilderness. Of course, you have to be careful for such critters as green vipers and wild boars, but you can also see orangutans. We were fortunate to have another such encounter about a half-mile down the path, when a 4-year-old female (later identified by a ranger) climbed down from a tree and played with us for 6-8 minutes. Not wanting to disturb her in her wild home, we stayed absolutely still, but she came over and hammed it up for her audience all the same.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is a organization that’s working hard to counteract the lackadaisical attitudes many Malaysians have towards the preservation of their environment. The Center is not exactly a zoo—so in general, arguments against the exhibitionism of the animals are moot—but it does give the visitors a chance to experience, up close and personal, the wonder of the great apes that are eerily similar to us while at the same time allowing them to freely straddle their wild jungle habitat, but take advantage of a little caloric boost from humans before they are able to truly live on their own. Spreading awareness of the plight of orangutans is simply the first step in a massive conservation effort that requires widespread governmental and social cooperation to ensure their long-term survival.
Check out the documentary Among the Great Apes with Michelle Yeoh to learn more about the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center!
PRO TIP: When visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, don't forget boots and long sleeves--you won't want to miss out on the hike!