I was extremely lucky to be able to see in person the original people of the forest. I’m even luckier to be able to share my story and photos with everyone and hopefully one day you too would be able to see in person these very curious gentle apes.
Last month, I was in a small white taxi zooming along a very narrow bumpy road. Each bump we went over had me violently bounced upwards to then be choked back into my seat by my seat-belt. About an hour later we were at the entrance of the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary – and it was pouring rain…
Heavy rain greeted us at the entrance
We had arrived at 2pm for the 3pm feeding time and by 2.30 it was still raining. Munching on a piece cake in the café where other visitors were also taking refuge, I looked on into the jungle feverishly hoping the rain to stop. Luckily no please-oh-please-stop-raining-dance was required, and like true tropical rainfalls suddenly the sky cleared to blue and the sun came out to play.
The rain stops, the clouds clear, and the blue sky emerges
We make our way towards the viewing platform and wait. With the sun shining through the canopy, I start to feel like I’m steaming in my $1 emergency plastic poncho that we bought from the gift shop. But I ignore the discomfort for fear that I would miss my first sight of an orangutan.
Like clockwork, at 3pm the ropes leading to the feeding platform start to shake and then I see from a distance a sight of orange! The sound of camera clicks fill the air as the orangutan casually swings down towards the feeding platform. A man climbs up the ladder with a basket full of fruit and other macaques start to climb up to the platform to join the freebie fruit party.
It was really interesting watching the difference between the macaques and the orangutans when eating. The macaques being the freeloaders waited on the edge of the platform and took every open opportunity to swipe fruit from the basket. The orangutans known for their gentle nature and I would also say very chilled out vibe, would take their time climbing up the ladder steps or swinging down the rope towards the basket and even pick out what type of fruit they preferred. One young orangutan stayed dangling close by happily sucking on their piece of fruit upside-down, then moving its feet over the rope to the basket to choose another piece of natural sugary goodness.
Excuse my reach… ah, that’s a good piece… mmm…
The best part of the visit was when a young orangutan decided that instead of being looked at that it was going to check out these weird humans that kept on oogling from the viewing platform. Climbing across a tree and over to us, it also probably loved all the attention it was getting, giving us a few poses to again go ooh-aah over.
Checking out the crowd
While our red cousins do look cute and cuddly (we share 97% of identical DNA) don’t get too close as I’ve heard they’re also mischievous and will try to take your camera or bag. I don’t think you want to be fighting with an ape far stronger and more dextrous than you. The sanctuary has lockers and requires you to lock away your bag and valuables, thus avoiding a potential showdown.
Gracing us with some excellent poses
Fun trivia for the word orangutan is that it’s actually derived from the Malay language – ‘orang’ meaning person and ‘hutan’ meaning forest. Somewhere along the line the ‘h’ was dropped, and we now know them as orangutans!
Another location, another pose
Sadly orangutans, endemic only to the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, are endangered and their population declining. The main issue besides logging and the illegal pet trade is the clearing of forest to establish palm oil plantations. Most of the land on the way to the sanctuary were palm oil plantations which you could also clearly see from the air flying into Sandakan. 90% of the world’s palm oil is sourced from Malaysia and Indonesia – and lots of products that we use contain palm oil. I’m not going to get into more detail with this… it’s a whole sticky debate in itself and there’s lots of research you can do online if you’re interested in further reading.
Overall I’m very glad sanctuaries like the one in Sepilok exist for orangutans to be rehabilitated back into the wild – and I’m hoping there’s still going to be wild rainforest for them to go back to with all the deforestation happening. We can all do a little bit to help by being more mindful of products that use palm oil and where it’s sourced from.
For more information on visiting Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary such as entry fees and how to get there, you can visit the Sabah Tourism Website. If you can’t visit in person yet, but you would like to support the sanctuary, I found that there is a UK based charity directly involved and you can read more about them here.