We have three main reasons for being here in Sabah. The first two are animals. Orangutans and Sun Bears. The second you can read about here.
We’re here in Sepilok to see the Orangutans and Sun Bears.The first is the Orangutan – that old man of the forest that we saw on the Kinabatangan River. Orang means man, Utan means forest in Bahasia Malay.
After World War II Sandakan became a premier port for the export of timber, some of which was used in building the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Now the exports are primarily palm oil from the plantations that now cover this landscape. Palm oil plantations were planted at the demise of the rainforest. Economics won over ecology.
And it’s this that’s caused the need for the areas biggest attraction – the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre.
Sandakan to Sepilok – Public Bus
It’s just a 40 minute bus journey from Sandakan to Sepilok. The Batu 14 bus goes from the minivan station by the Nak Hotel in Sandakan three times a day 0900, 1100 and 1400. Its returns at 1030, 1230 and 1600 and costs 6RM. The bus takes you right to the entrance way of the centre, where you’ll find this home for the old men of the forest.
When we travelled there was very little online booking available for buses, trains and ferries in Malaysia and South East Asia – the folks at Easybook have now remedied that – check timetables and book tickets online now – its WAY easier!
The Orangutan Centre
The Centre was established in 1964 and works to rehabilitate Orang-Utans that have been orphaned or displaced by logging, clearing of forest for plantations and general human intervention.
There’s an excellent video screening room with comfy seats and freezing air con. There’s also a somewhat dated exhibition display area that describes Orang Utans and also the Sumatran Rhinoceros.
We arrived, the only tourists on the first bus of the day, at 0940. There was time enough to buy a ticket (quickly) and walk (quickly) to the platform in time for the first feeding of the day. Clearly we’re not the only people at the center. Lots of folks take this as part of a wider tour and arrive in large and small buses and cars. And there are folks who also stay at Sepilok.
A ticket here (30 RM for non Malaysians plus 10 RM for a camera) is valid all day. There are two feeding sessions per day, so we held onto our ticket and returned for the MUCH quieter second session at 3pm.
Most tours come in the morning, so there were many more volunteers around, pointing out the “silence” signs. That’s because the Orangutans are unlikely to show up in numbers if there’s a hugely noisy group of humans standing around clicking their noisy cameras at them.
After walking along the boardwalk for 10-15 minutes we arrive at the feeding platform, it’s 15 metres away and accessed through the rain forest. There’s no access from the viewing platform.
At just before 10, two rangers come out carrying buckets and basket. They lay out fruit and we all wait, just a few moments, and the Orangs start to arrive.
A great treat for us human visitors atthe Sepilok center is the outdoor nursery. Its 7 minutes walk further on from the feeding platform. Here you go into a nicely air conditioned building and watch from behind glass as the juveniles play on their playground.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah was founded in 1964, by an Englishwoman to rehabilitate orphan orangutans. The site is 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Between 60 and 80 orangutans live free in the reserve. There are also 25 young orphaned orangutans housed in the nurseries at the reserve.
The Centre cares for young orangutans orphaned as a result of illegal logging and deforestation and those who have been illegally caught and kept as pets. The rehabilitation of Orangutans can take up to seven years. The centre also provides medical care for other animals – including sun bears, gibbons and Sumatran rhinos.
Recently rehabilitated individuals have their diet supplemented by daily feedings of milk and bananas. The additional food supplied by the centre is purposefully designed to be monotonous and boring, to encourage the apes to start to forage for themselves.
Juveniles are taught to climb and to forage and fend for themselves – the skills normally taught by their mother, with whom they usually stay with for up to six years. At Sepilok a buddy system is used to replace a mother’s teaching – younger orangs are paired with older ones.
It’s much more absorbing than the feeding platform as you watch them try to knot and unknot ropes, play fight with each other and make their escape attempts.
The outdoor playground is open until 11am and from 230pm until 4pm. We were trailed by a family of long tailed macaques (who scare the hell out of me in a Planet of the Apes type way) on our way to and from the playground (including mother and very small clinging baby). Enough of them, here’s a set of gratuitous photos of Orangutans. (read on after the photos to find out about the Sun Bears.. )
The Sun Bear Center
Directly opposite the entrance to the Orang Utan rehab center is the Sun Bear Center, so we took a look in there – another 31.80 RM, this center is open from 9-330pm.
Numbers of sun bears, which were once found throughout Asia decreased dramatically because of deforestation, commercial hunting and the pet trade – where bears captured while small, or without a mother are left in tiny cages.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is the only sun bear conservation centre in the world and was founded in 2008 with an aim to rehabilitate bears back to their natural habitat where possible.
The sun bear can grow up to 150 cm long, with a weight of 70kg, they usually have one cub and a life expectancy of 30 years. It is the second rarest bear species, after the giant panda.
The sun bear’s name comes from the pale horseshoe shape on their chests, which is said to resemble the setting or rising sun.
No two markings are the same. Their 20-25cm long tongue helps them extract honey from bee hives. They’re the only bear in SE Asia. They are omnivores and primarily eat invertebrates, fruit and honey.
The centre is a much smaller operation than the Orang Utan centre. There’s a small TV and video screening area in the entrance area, which shows videos of the founder, and various programs related to bears. We watched several while waiting for the crowd too dissipate and for us to cool down before heading up the walkway to see the bears.
There are no specific feeding times that you can watch here (unlike the Orangutans), but there’s an observation platform where you can see into two of the forest enclosures. Bears that may be released back into the wild are held in different enclosures to minimize their human content. The bears that we saw here are unlikely to be released again because of trauma they have lived with prior to their housing at the center.
Perhaps the saddest part of the day was watching one of the bears, in a huge open enclosure pacing two meters one way, then back to where he started. Over and over and over again. He had been caged for such a long time, in such a small space that he couldn’t break out of the pattern. The worn path in the dust was heart breaking.
This bear, shown above will not be released, it’s too traumatized by the time in the cage and couldn’t fend for itself.
Another bear – kept in a cage for 18 years will not move from the small enclosure it’s now kept in, not even venturing out for food, staff have to place food right by the entrance for it.
Some folks stay here at Sepilok and it’s a peaceful little place, but we were heading back to Sandakan for the night, so we caught the last minivan back at 16:00.
Tomorrow we’ll have our final day in Sandakan, the second and much darker reason for our visit – the Sandakan to Ranau death marches of World War II.
Don’t forget to book your buses, ferries and trains – and confirm your travel. Easybook have the largest network in South East Asia!
- Where we stayed in Sandakan – The Harbourside BackPackers
- What to Eat in Penang
- Our Guide Book in Malaysia is Lonely Planet Malaysia