Wild Encounter: Seeing Orangutans in Borneo

In 2014 I spent 3 amazing weeks exploring Malaysian Borneo. It’s hard to pick a highlight from that trip, I did so many incredible things – climbing Mt Kinabalu, hiking in Bako National park, seeing Proboscis Monkeys, Sun bears and Orangutans, to name just a few. But before I started planning my trip to Borneo, only one of those things was on my list – Orangutans.


During my time in Borneo I feel incredibly lucky to have had not one, but four Orangutan sightings – two in captivity or semi-captivity and two genuine wild encounters. My first experience of Orangutans in the flesh was at Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary, located near Kuching, in Sarawak. We arrived mid-afternoon and just in time to see them being fed. We were warned before we arrived that since the Orangutans are semi-wild, they might not decide to show up today. It was up to them. I’m not sure how much of that spiel was just to build our anticipation, but it worked. When we arrived we were ecstatic to see that not only were there several Orangutans out in the feeding area, but they included the enormous dominant male, Richie. An adult female turned up with her baby grasping tightly on to her as she swang through the trees and ropes put out to enrich them. As she settled into the space and became comfortable, she gave her baby a little more freedom to swing about for a bit, and it seemed clear she was ‘showing him off’ – holding him up and posing in the trees. I was captivated. I’ve always thought Orangutans are beautiful creatures, but to see them close up and (almost) uncaged, behaving naturally and enjoying themselves, was truly something special.

Semenggoh Wildlife Centre was established in 1975, and now offers a home to 26 Orangutans that have been found injured or seized from the illegal pet trade. Rescued Orangutans are put through a rehabilitation scheme, aimed at teaching them to fend for themselves in the wild. Unfortunately, none of the Orangutans at Semenggoh have much hope of ever reaching the real wild – there is so little remaining forest in Sarawak now that there simply isn’t a suitable site to release them. Instead, graduates of the rehabilitation programme are released to roam Semenggoh Nature Reserve, a 7km2 area near Kuching. For this reason they are considered ‘semi-wild’. Food is offered daily by the keepers at the sanctuary, however the semi-wild individuals can opt in or out of this. If they are able to find enough food for themselves in the forest, they can avoid human contact entirely and live a very nearly natural life. If they struggle, the keepers are always there to offer a helping hand full of bananas and melon.


The keepers put out food, and offered special ‘milky’ drinks to the mother and her baby. Richie stomped over and quickly stole the milk from her. I asked a keeper about this because I was concerned about his health – as with all non-human animals (and some humans!), Orangutans cannot digest lactose in adulthood. Essentially, they are lactose intolerant in the same way that humans sometimes are. Drinking milk should therefore elicit the same noxious results that human sufferers experience. So I asked one of the keepers whether the milk would make him sick. She adamantly told me no, although she never provided me with a satisfying explanation of why. Perhaps it is just such a small quantity in relation to his enormous body size that it is of little consequence. If it was making him sick, I imagine he’d stop drinking it of his own accord (animals are generally a lot smarter than humans, in that regard). And, other this minor concern, as far as I could see the animals were healthy, happy and extremely well looked after. They also clearly appreciated the freedom that their semi-wild sanctuary offered.


A couple of weeks later, I hit the wildlife-watchers jackpot and saw some truly wild Orangutans. Two juvenile males, swinging in the trees during a sunset boat ride on the Kinabatangan river, and later an adult female and her adorable baby near the Gomantong Caves. This was a magical experience. It is one thing to see these amazing creatures in captivity, albeit semi-wild captivity, it is quite another to see truly wild individuals, and the mother-and-baby combo was just unbelievable. I could have stayed there and watched for hours, and would have happily done myself serious neck-damage to keep staring at them for just a little longer.

After the amazing experiences of Semenggoh, Kinabatangan and Gomantong, Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre had a lot to live up to, and I must confess, it didn’t. We arrived in the morning, in time for the first feeding of the day, and stuck around until the afternoon to see a second feeding. Some Orangutans came out to eat, but they were a little subdued and somehow the whole experience lacked the ‘wow’ factor I’d had at Semenggoh. Perhaps I was just Orangutaned-out by this point! One bonus of my visit to Sepilok was visiting the newly-opened Sun Bear sanctuary where not only did I get to see these amazingly cute creatures just generally enjoying life (the one rolling around on it’s back was especially cute!), but one of the Sun Bears even decided to pose for me and I got some amazing photos. We also had a rather unexpected show from the Macaques living in the sanctuary. One in particular got right up onto the viewing platform and posed, FHM-style, for at least 10 minutes. When a Sun bear came into sight and distracted the attention of the tourists, the Macaque got quite upset – she climbed up onto the roof and started banging and screeching, showing her teeth and eventually throwing things at the other visitors!

Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, founded in 1964 provides a home for around 70 Orangutans. This includes about 25 orfaned orang-utans being cared for and rehabilitated in nurseries, and a further 60 or so adults roaming free around the reserve. As with Semenggoh, released Orangutans are offered daily feedings of fruit to supplement their diet, however the aim is that they will become independent of this with time, and mostly it is only recently-released Orangutans that make use of this. Otherwise, the adults are essentially wild, roaming freely through the 43km2 of protected forest at Sepilok.


Personally, I preferred my experience at Semenggoh over the one at Sepilok, even though Sepilok is more famous and far more popular than Semenggoh. Perhaps it was just chance – in my trip to Semengoh I saw 12 Orangutans, almost half the total population at the sanctuary, including several infants and the impressive alpha male Richie. By contrast, my afternoon at Sepilok, despite including two feedings, only resulted in me seeing about 6 or so Orangutans. Generally they were less animated and active here, too. But perhaps on another day, my experience would have been different. Likewise, perhaps Sepilok lost out in my mind simply by virtue of coming last – how could it possibly beat my wild sightings or the amazing day at Semenggoh?

Eitherway, I’d definitely recommend visiting at least one of these sanctuaries while you are in Borneo, and if you have to choose, I’d pick Semenggoh. And, if you want that ‘wild’ sighting, Kinabangang seems to be a good bet – take a sunrise or sunset boat trip and keep your fingers crossed! Most importantly of all, these sanctuaries are doing incredible work in helping rehabilitate injured Orangutans and to conserve this amazing species, one of our closest relatives. The plight of the Orangutan is still serious, though – anything that you can do to help will make a huge difference. That’s why myself and a couple of friends used out Kinabalu climb to raise money for an extremely worthy charity – Organutan Foundation UK. Here are a few other organisations that are doing great work to conserve Orangutans in Borneo and Summatra:

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