Orangutans are one of the most endangered species in Malaysia. Found only in Borneo and Sumatra, the orangutans’ survival is constantly threatened by loss of habitat—due to logging, burning, or agriculture—and illegal hunting. The Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center is a conservation facility that cares for orphaned young orangutans and teaches them the skills they will need not only to survive, but to thrive, in the wild. It isn’t easy being an orangutan.
First of all, their home territory is the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra—where rainforest has been disappearing at an alarming rate over the past 50 years, hacked down for timber or cleared for palm oil plantations. Solitary, territorial creatures, orangutans don’t thrive when they are crammed into increasingly small patches of habitat. These large vegetarians (males can be 1.5m/5 ft. tall and weigh 90kg/200 lb., though females are half that) need massive amounts of fruit to eat—but in the less fertile higher elevations they’re being forced into, there are fewer fruit trees than in the lowlands. Ten years ago, there were perhaps 27,000 orangutans in these forests. Today, there may be less than 10,000, and fewer every day.
Exclusively tree dwellers—the world’s largest arboreal mammals, who even find their drinking waters in the treetops— orangutans don’t have a tail to swing from tree to tree like their neighbors, the proboscis monkeys. They use their arms instead to move around the rainforest canopy, which is probably why their arm span is up to 2.4m (8 ft.) wide. Baby orangutans are undeniably cute, but that’s a problem too, since poachers supplying the illegal pet market kill adults to steal their babies. Even their intelligence works against them—mothers need at least 6 years to pass on their complicated survival techniques to their young. When they lose their mothers as babies, they are deeply, deeply at risk.
That’s where the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary comes in. Founded in 1964, this 43-sq.-km (17-sq.-mile) facility abutting the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve takes in orphaned young orangutans (many of them confiscated from poachers), feeds and nurses them—and teaches them all the skills their mothers would have taught. Today about 25 youngsters live at the sanctuary; another 60 to 80 have already been released into the reserve. Contact with humans is minimized to keep them from getting too dependent on humans, but from a walkway visitors can watch them being fed daily at 10am and 2:30pm. After that, you can hike through the reserve where you may spot more, swinging through the trees as nature intended. (Hint: Look for nests up in the canopy—an orangutan makes a fresh nest in a new spot every night.) A half-day walk on the Mangrove Forest Trail will take you past water holes through transitional forest, lowland rainforest, and on into the mangrove forest. In the forest, look for mouse deer, wild boars, gibbons, macaques, and fleshy-nosed proboscis monkeys; the mangrove swamp is home to dugongs and dolphins.
The sanctuary also houses a couple of endangered Sumatran rhinos, and occasionally other animals such as Malaysian sun bears, gibbons, or elephants. Sandakan is on the northwestern coast of Borneo, which is part of Malaysia; with dazzling beaches, preserved rainforest, and offshore coral reefs, it’s a popular destination for those who love outdoor sports—and orangutans.