OMG, Orangutans!

If you’ve never been to Nashville, you might think I’m trying to pull a fast one on you when I tell you that in the center of Centennial Park (Nashville’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park) sits a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Constructed in 1897 as part of celebrations marking the 100-year anniversary of Tennessee’s official entry into the United States (one of Nashville’s monikers is “Athens of the South”), it was built to exactly mimic the original. From the decorative friezes depicting scenes from ancient battles and myths, to the glittering and gaudy...

If you’ve never been to Nashville, you might think I’m trying to pull a fast one on you when I tell you that in the center of Centennial Park (Nashville’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park) sits a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Constructed in 1897 as part of celebrations marking the 100-year anniversary of Tennessee’s official entry into the United States (one of Nashville’s monikers is “Athens of the South”), it was built to exactly mimic the original. From the decorative friezes depicting scenes from ancient battles and myths, to the glittering and gaudy 42-foot tall Athena Parthenos statue that stands inside the building’s sacred cella, every last detail of Nashville’s Parthenon has been lovingly restored. Accordingly, when you stand in its shadow and gaze up the smooth length of its columns, you see it not as you would the Parthenon in Greece today, but as the original once appeared over 2000 years ago. Just a five-minute walk from my doorstep, I spent a lot of time marveling at its majesty, and sometimes wondered whether I would ever really need to make the trip across the ocean to see the original.

But of course, no matter how beautiful and masterful the version of the Parthenon that sits in my erstwhile home, there is an undeniable allure to seeing things in the places where they began, the places they belong.

Parthenon in Centennial Park, Nashville, TN
See! It really does exist!

You won’t find the Parthenon (or even a replica) in Borneo, but it was in search of that same special magic that we headed deep into its jungles. With fingers crossed and bated breath, we trampled brush underfoot and glided down churning rivers, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the world’s rarest wildlife in its natural habitat, knowing that our previous encounters at zoos simply wouldn’t compare.

In particular, we were really hoping to see some orangutans while in Borneo, as it is one of only two places left in the world where you can still find wild ones. Alas, the likelihood of spotting wild orangutans in Malaysia is increasingly slim; if you read our last post about cruising the Kinabatangan river, you’ll know our quest was unsuccessful (at least on the orangutan front… when you get to see pygmy elephants twice, you can’t get too disappointed).

This being Borneo, of course there were plenty of alternate locations where we could potentially stumble upon these titian-haired apes, such as Danum Valley or the Maliau Basin. Both places sounded incredible, but having quite spectacularly—and with no regrets—blown our budget diving at Sipadan, we knew the high cost involved in visiting either location just wouldn’t be possible for us, especially since neither place offered any greater chance of orangutans than Sukau had.

Happily, the little town of Sepilok offered us another, more budget-friendly, opportunity to gaze upon these great apes. Focused on conservation, the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre sits on thousands of acres of rainforest and is a haven for orphaned orangutans that have lost their home to deforestation, lost mothers to hunting, or have been kept illegally as pets. The ultimate aim of the sanctuary is to raise the orangutans to be self-sufficient so that they can be released back into Borneo’s ever-dwindling jungle and thrive. Orangutans work with trained handlers and vets to learn the skills they need to survive in the big, bad, scary world, and it is due to these people’s hard work that some of the animals have been successfully returned to the place where they belong.

Wild orangutans playing at Sepilok, Sabah Province, Borneo

But not all of the stories end quite so triumphantly. There are a fair number of apes—often females and younger orangutans—who become dependent on the center and are reluctant to stray far from their adopted home. They become attached to the workers and the shelter of the center, and linger just in the fringes of the thick, leafy jungle that surrounds the grounds. When the rainy season descends on Borneo and the limbs of the trees grow heavy with fruit, visits from these forest dwellers become less frequent, but as nature’s bounty becomes more scarce, like a freshman returned from college to raid the parental fridge, the orangutans return to the center for daily fruit buffets.

Wild orangutans feeding in Sepilok, Borneo

Two feedings are offered per day and we arrived just in time for the morning one. Paying 40MYR each (~$13US), we walked down a long boardwalk that curved out before us like a wooden serpent, leading us into the untamed jungle. Within seconds, the trees lining the path grew so thick and dense, they dampened all noise save for the tread of our feet on the boards and the occasional flutter of leaves or cracking of a branch as unseen creatures rustled about in the forest’s hidden depths.

Nature walk at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

Our sense of solitude was not to last, however, as after about 10 minutes of power walking, we rounded a bend only to find a wall of fellow tourists eagerly awaiting the arrival of the orangutans on the viewing platform. The center is second only to Mount Kinabalu in popularity with visitors to the province, so the teeming mass wasn’t exactly a surprise, though it did detract a bit from the serenity of the situation and certainly dashed any (admittedly fanciful) illusions of this being a sacred and pure wildlife experience. Tony & I darted about, dodging elbows and trying to find a nook from which we could observe the feeding stations unobstructed by the peaks of Crocodile Dundee-style safari hats or the protuberant lengths of telephoto lenses. We managed to stake out a tiny, undisturbed corner close to the railing, where we crossed our fingers and waited.

Crowds at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

With the placement of the first basket of fruit on the feeding platform, a hush fell over the crowd, the prospect of wild animals rendering everyone mute in anticipation. Almost immediately, a fierce rustling of branches echoed from the forest, and moments later, on spindly arms, the first orangutan swung into view.

We watched in rapt fascination as the creature bobbed like a pendulum towards the fruit. Upon reaching the platform, she maneuvered herself directly above the fruit basket and began to greedily snatch up fruit with one hand while the other clung steadfast to the length of rope. We may have a tendency to anthropomorphize and read extraordinary kindness and gentleness in the eyes of these creatures, glancing at the fierce grip of this ape’s hands, it was easy to see how effortlessly it could crush the life from anything it wrapped its fingers around.

Wild orangutans playing at Sepilok Rehabilitation Center, Borneo

Within minutes, there were five orangutans none-too-stealthily sneaking fruit from the platform. At no point were we human observers ever at risk of being outnumbered (there were about 10 people there for every orangutan), but it was still a real thrill to watch these creatures graze and gambol about, sometimes just a meter or two from us and unfettered by bars or glass. Because the majority of the simian scavengers that visit the center at feeding time are juvenile or adolescent apes, they seemed equally invested in glutting themselves as they were with socializing and romping about on the ropes and platforms set up in the area. There was a real joyfulness to their movements, and amidst the oohs and ahs of the crowd, there were plenty of smiles aping (pardon the pun) the ones on display.

However, once the fruit supplies were exhausted, in unison they all beat a steady retreat back into the brush, to rest and recuperate so that in a few hours they could do it all over again.

There are several hiking trails around the center for those hoping for a more organic orangutan encounter or the opportunity to escape the crowds, but the prime attraction at the center is undoubtedly the scheduled feeding times when sightings are all but guaranteed. Following the feedings, the center also shows a short documentary giving more in-depth background on the threats faced by orangutans in Borneo and the challenges involved in running the center. Although the outlook for these animals (and most of Borneo’s wildlife) is murky should deforestation and urbanization continue at the pace of recent years, the triumphs and small gains made by the center made me think the future is not without hope.

Orangutan sitting & thinking

I can’t say that our encounter with wild orangutans was as electrifying or as transcendental as say, this experience in Sumatra, but it was a step up from a zoo. And though it may not be the slice of unbridled Borneo intrepid travelers dream about, it was a nice complement to our time on the Kinabatangan (which was very much the stuff of wilderness fantasies) and we felt good supporting an organization that is clearly invested in doing such important work. If the conditions for viewing orangutans in Borneo are less than ideal, this just highlights the need for change and conservation before these amazing creatures live on only in memory or in zoos. Hopefully if more people experience the wonder and joy of witnessing orangutans living free, the place where these animals began won’t also be the place where they end.

We visited the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre as part of our package tour that we booked at Rose Guesthouse in Sandakan. Transportation to and from the sanctuary was included as part of the 400MYR 2-day river cruise we booked, although we had to pay the admission fee (30MYR + 10MYR camera fee, per person) separately when we arrived.

It is possible to base yourself in Sepilok, but the Centre is really the only attraction in the area so most people visit as a short day-trip as part of a tour package from Sandakan and bundle it with other attractions. If you are staunchly anti-tour, it might be possible to take a public bus or minivan from Sandakan.

Expect a crush of tourists around feeding times (10am and 3pm), and you should probably plan to arrive at least 20 minutes beforehand to secure a decent spot. You cannot bring anything other than a camera with you (no bags or purses) to the viewing platform, so if you do take the bus, ask about lockers or somewhere secure to leave your belongings.

Now it’s your turn: Have you ever seen orangutans in the wild? What’s the best wildlife encounter you have ever had?

Popular in: Borneo

Popular in: Malaysia

21 comments Leave a comment

  1. I’m so terribly jealous! I’d love to see Orangutans in the wild too where they should be and where they belong to. Even if the ones you saw weren’t exactly in the wild and had some connections with humans somehow, it’s nice to see that somebody cares and is doing something to protect these amazing animals.

    Dec. 22 2013 @ 6:43 am
    1. Franca author

      If you and Dale ever make it to Borneo (and somehow I think you will!), I do think you would enjoy a visit here (although you’d probably love the nature walks in Sumatra, Indonesia even better as those are 100% wild ‘rangas!). It’s a bit how the elephants at ENP in Chiang Mai aren’t really wild, but it’s still an awesome experience to visit with them anyway. In a perfect world, these creatures would be completely free, but things being as they are, I’m glad there are facilities like this that are helping to protect them.

      Dec. 24 2013 @ 4:40 am
  2. Maureen and Paul Kuehn

    You are doing too well in your descriptions, I can be lazy and learn. I still think you have a unique concept going . . . Paul

    Dec. 22 2013 @ 11:35 am
    1. Maureen and Paul Kuehn author

      Thanks, Paul. I’m glad that we can entertain AND inform you! Happy to do the legwork out here… 😉

      Dec. 24 2013 @ 4:44 am
  3. We missed this when we were in Malaysia and I’ve regretted it ever since. I’ve wanted to see the orangutans for years and I’m definitely going to make it there at some point, although I totally get what you’re saying about the touristy aspect of places like this and the need for something better – I found it was the same with the elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka.

    Dec. 22 2013 @ 2:06 pm
    1. Julia author

      Well, given that you love Malaysia, this is a great excuse to come back and explore it a little bit more (as if you needed another reason!).

      We haven’t made it to Sri Lanka (yet! I’ve got a good feeling about 2014), but Asia in general seems to be slow on the uptake when it comes to bona fide conservation projects. This one is actually really good, all things considered; I think if they limited the number of visitors during feeding times that would probably help make things feel a bit less “manufactured”.

      Dec. 24 2013 @ 4:48 am
  4. Those guys are fantastic!! I would love to see orangutans, even if i am elbowing for shoulder space with the other tourists 🙂 And like you mentioned, it’s great you were able to support a great organization in the process! The picture of the one smiling is great. Our best wildlife experience was definitely in Costa Rica, on the Osa Peninsula. The Macaws and monkeys seemed to come to us in the wild, without us even looking for them 🙂

    Dec. 23 2013 @ 11:34 am
    1. Casey @ A Cruising Couple author

      Yeah, even if having a ton of fellow tourists around detracted a bit from the magic of the experience, it’s not like I could really blame other people for being there. I mean, wild orangutans are pretty incredible!

      It sounds like you’ve been having all kinds of amazing animal encounters in CR (baby jaguars, anyone?!?). It may be pricey, but it sounds like it’s worth it!

      Dec. 24 2013 @ 4:52 am
  5. eeeeeeeeeee they are so cute!!

    Dec. 23 2013 @ 12:00 pm
    1. Hogga author

      They are! And also so playful yet shy… pretty incredible creatures, I’d say!

      Dec. 24 2013 @ 5:01 am
  6. I am so jealous! Being a huge science and wildlife nerd, reading this was, at times, almost too much for me to handle. Seeing Orangutans in Borneo or Sumatra ranks right at the top of my bucket list, and is something I have dreamed about doing for years. Very happy that you guys had such an amazing experience and got some great photos to boot! Orangutans have to be one of the most photogenic subjects out there – so full of personality and energy. Awesome jealousy-inducing post as always guys!

    On a side note, if you’re interested we are hosting a round of Travel photo roulette and would love it if you wanted to submit one of your amazing photos! Safe travels.

    Dec. 28 2013 @ 1:09 pm
    1. Travis author

      If you love wildlife then you really need to get to Asia before all the good stuff disappears! 😉 There’s an incredible array of animals in Borneo that you just can’t find anywhere else, and though it’s getting harder and harder to have those encounters, it is still possible and so rewarding when it happens. I’m really glad we got to see the orangutans doing their thing in the wild—they really are so expressive and emotive, it’s honestly like watching long-limbed hairy people!

      And we’ll def check out your Travel Photo Roulette post!

      Dec. 28 2013 @ 8:20 pm
  7. We were desperately disappointed about not seeing any wild orangutans while we were in Borneo. Sepilok was our last hope of seeing some and I’m glad we went, but the crowds really detracted from the experience for me. However, we were happy our visit supported such a great project; it’s so sad to see what’s happened/happening to wildlife in Borneo (and all over the world). How bizarre that there’s a Parthenon in Nashville too – who’d have thought?!

    Dec. 30 2013 @ 8:19 am
    1. Amy author

      Agreed that it was a bummer we didn’t get to see any truly wild orangutans while we were in Borneo, but I suppose I felt content with this experience because we did have such great luck in all other respects when we did the Kinabatangan AND because the sanctuary in Sepilok is doing such good work. It would have been a far more serene experience with fewer visitors, but then again, I suppose we were part of the problem… it’s not like I can blame anyone else for wanting to catch sight of these wonderful creatures (especially since it seems so difficult to do so!).

      Dec. 30 2013 @ 10:41 am
  8. They are just so beautiful, it’s such a bizarre experience looking into an animal’s eyes and feeling like they really see you. Seeing orang-utans still stands as one of the top wildlife experiences of my life, unforgettable.

    Jan. 6 2014 @ 8:30 am
    1. Maddie author

      Yes, I remember when we saw the orangutan exhibit at the Singapore zoo and I actually had a hard time looking at it because their faces were so expressive and it seemed wrong they were in captivity. It must have been so brilliant to encounter them hiking in the jungle as you did!

      Jan. 6 2014 @ 7:52 pm
  9. We made it to Sepilok too last week and it was AMAZING! We arrived there independently for the afternoon feeding with a few visitors around and were lucky to spot 5 orang utans and a baby! So lovely they are! We were really speechless when they appear on the platform.
    What we are very grateful for is our experience during the morning trekking near Kinabatangan river, where we met a wild male orang utan in the rain forest. Am not sure who was more scared but it has been one of the best things that happened to us on this trip to Borneo 🙂
    ps: guys, you will not believe but we stayed accidentally at the same Rose guest house. We booked one night ahead in a hotel close by and found the Rose the next day while looking for a cheaper place. We entered, booked a room and on the way back to the town we realized why the name was so familiar to us: we read about it on your blog!

    May. 11 2014 @ 11:04 pm
    1. Ivana author

      I’m so glad you were able to independently visit Sepilok and that you had such great luck seeing the orangutans! I’m super jealous to hear that you were also able to see one in the wild—it was one of the few creatures we did NOT see while cruising the Kinabatangan.

      Also glad to hear that Rose guest house came through for you! Not the fanciest place, but the rooms are clean, quiet and good value, so you can’t really complain, can you?

      May. 12 2014 @ 2:17 am
      1. Stephenie Harrison

        Yep, the Rose was a great help for us in many ways: budget, transport, info 🙂
        Once you hit the road again, Steph, I wish you had some great encounters, too! And I am sure you will!

        May. 30 2014 @ 9:34 pm
  10. Stephenie! Fellow Torontonian! Your blog is fabulous. I have no idea why I haven’t stumbled across it before. Nice photos and excellent writing – what a refreshing change from a lot of the crap that pollutes the internet these days. Oh, and thanks for the tips on Malaysia!

    May. 4 2015 @ 7:19 am
    1. Helen author

      Aw, Helen, you are too kind! So glad you are enjoying our posts & finding them helpful and I hope you have a WONDERFUL time in Malaysia!

      May. 5 2015 @ 9:00 am

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